This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
An American walks into a shawarma shop in Nablus. The man behind the counter, renowned locally for his humorless demeanor and foul mood swings, makes an uncharacteristic attempt at a joke. Sharpening a knife and with a grin on his face, he asks the American: “How’s ISIS?”
This was the first joke I heard about ISIS in Nablus. Was the shawarma maker feigning solidarity with the Islamic State? Was he threatening to make the American into the shawarma he was so expertly shredding? It was late August 2014, when the beheading of American journalist James Foley brought the violence devastating Syria and Iraq into a particularly existential plane for Westerners. Beheadings followed on a weekly basis: Ali al-Sayyed, Steven Sotloff, David Haines. In the Palestinian city of Nablus, much closer to the geography of the Syrian conflict than the Western world—a little less than 200 km from Damascus, to be precise—the beheadings had a similar existential effect.
However, in addition to being a source for horror and confusion, the Islamic State, ISIS, or Da’ish in its Arabic acronym, also became a topic of dark humor. Youtube clips of ISIS spoofs circulated gregariously on smartphones in the city’s cafés. Beards of all integrities invited a kind of scripted teasing: “Have you joined ISIS?” Sarcastic exclamations of Tahiya Da’ish! (“Long live ISIS!”) became a call adaptable to the most absurd situations. By the end of the year, ISIS had become a part of the Palestinian lifeworld as much through humor as it had through horror.
Nablus is a conservative city by Palestinian standards. In nearby Ramallah, Nablusis are stereotyped as religious fanatics, and, more crassly, as child molesters, homosexuals, etc.—homologies not atypical of atheist slander towards the devout. At the same time, Nablus is a city struggling with its own devoutness. Alcohol is banned, although some are able to conjure shady drinking parties under the cover of night. Covering is not officially required of women, but most women nonetheless cave to social pressures in the workplace and on the street. It is also a city with an underlying morbidity. The city’s casbah, a slate-gray maze of Turkish baths and Umayyad mosques, is still decorated with shahid “martyr” posters from the second intifada of 2000–2005. Many of Nablus’s heritage sites were either destroyed or permanently altered by Israeli military incursions during this period.
When they’re not joking, Nablusis cynically dismiss ISIS as “not Muslims.” Nablusis love to highlight that ISIS is “nothing more the creation of the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia,” an acute political observation that somehow fails to speak to the Islamic State’s actual existence. How can a movement modeled on the ethos of being perfectly Muslim not be Muslim at all? Surely, ISIS is at least a little bit Muslim. This cynical dismissal may be what Slavoj Žižek has called an “enlightened false consciousness.” One knows the falsehood very well, Žižek writes, but does not renounce it because of “a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality.” Here, this hidden interest is the belief that the world would be a better, more peaceful place under the guidance of Islam; a belief that shares an inverted reality with the brutality of the Islamic State. Cynicism is the ideological universality that distances Nablus’s ego from this inconvenient disjunction. “The cynical subject,” Žižek writes, “is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality.” Dismissal by the cynical subject, Žižek continues, such as the dismissal of ISIS as not Muslims, “none the less still insists upon the mask.”
Nablus is a city that is increasingly inwardly religious, while also increasingly outwardly dependent on foreign aid and investment, NGO partnership projects, and escapism from the now 48-year Israeli occupation. ISIS is at once an extreme projection of Nablus’s religious ideal and also its nightmare. That jokes arise from this tension is understandable, if morose. The anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown wrote famously on “joking relationships”; a term he coined for the ritualized banter that emerges in kinship relations of both social disjunction and conjunction in many of the world’s societies, as in between a man and his mother-in-law, or a nephew and his uncle. Through joking, Radcliffe-Brown showed in a classic 1940 paper, relations are able to convey social disjunction, given that there is enough social conjunction of friendliness and mutual aid to keep the whole structural situation stable despite perpetual expressions of hostility and disrespect.
Joking about ISIS is perhaps a humorous affect of Nablus’s disjunction and conjunction with itself, its own religiosity, its kinship with the greater Muslim world, and its being-in-the-world in a future after the Israel/Palestine conflict is resolved; as it one day will be, like all conflicts. It is so easy to imagine its cafés, often stunning Ottoman-era structures sometimes with vine covered roofs, teeming with cosmopolitan patrons laughing about anything but a crazy Islamist group. It is equally easy to imagine them abandoned.
I was recently sitting with a Nablusi friend in precisely such a café, reminiscing about a long-ago trip to southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, an area that is now a major transit point for refugees fleeing one of the most tragic conflicts of our time. “I missed my chance to visit Aleppo,” I lamented. Indeed, even if the violence were to stop tomorrow, it is unlikely that Syria will be the same for years to come. “You can still go,” my friend joked. “You can join ISIS.”