An Invitation to Laughter: A Lebanese Anthropologist in the Arab World


For the late Fuad I. Khuri, a distinguished career as an anthropologist began not because of typical concerns like accessibility, money, or status, but because the very idea of an occupation that baffled his countrymen made them—and him—laugh. “When I tell them that ‘anthropology’ is my profession . . . they think I am either speaking a strange language or referring to a new medicine.” This profound appreciation for humor, especially in the contradictions inherent in the study of cultures, is a distinctive theme ...

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For the late Fuad I. Khuri, a distinguished career as an anthropologist began not because of typical concerns like accessibility, money, or status, but because the very idea of an occupation that baffled his countrymen made them—and him—laugh. “When I tell them that ‘anthropology’ is my profession . . . they think I am either speaking a strange language or referring to a new medicine.” This profound appreciation for humor, especially in the contradictions inherent in the study of cultures, is a distinctive theme of An Invitation to Laughter, Khuri’s astute memoir of life as an anthropologist in the Middle East.

A Christian Lebanese, Khuri offers up in this unusual autobiography both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective on life in Lebanon, elsewhere in the Middle East, and in West Africa. Khuri entertains and informs with clever insights into such issues as the mentality of Arabs toward women, eating habits of the Arab world, the impact of Islam on West Africa, and the extravagant lifestyles of wealthy Arabs, and even offers a vision for a type of democracy that could succeed in the Middle East. In his life and work, as these astonishing essays make evident, Khuri demonstrated how the discipline of anthropology continues to make a difference in bridging dangerous divides.

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Editorial Reviews

Lawrence Rosen

"Fuad Khuri was one of the most thoughtful and insightful anthropologists working on the Middle East. His published work always exhibited two very special qualities: he chose bold issues and he had an extraordinary eye for the small yet revealing detail. No one should be surprised that An Invitation to Laughter captures and extends those traits so well."

Dale Eickelman

“Fuad Khuri’s An Invitation to Laughter is a riveting account of life as a Christian Lebanese anthropologist in the Middle East. In consistently engaging and lively prose, Khuri depicts his experiences along the sectarian divide in Lebanon, elsewhere in the Middle East, and in West Africa with humor, compassion, and insight. This unique and timely book is destined to be a must-read for scholars of the Middle East, students of the social sciences, or anyone seeking an understanding of how anthropology continues to make a difference by bridging dangerous divides.”
Suomen Anthropology - Susanne Dahlgren

"A book that every student of the Middle East and anthropology at large should read: a witty, well-written account of a life full of anthroplogical adventure."
St. Petersburg Times

"Winning. . . . The title refers to Khuri's disarming use of humor to recount his frustrating yet rewarding experiences working in West Africa, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. The reader is also treated to charming observations of life in Oregon, where he pursued graduate studies, and England, where he settled in 1985."
American University of Beirut Bulletin

"A professional autobiography, yet it is also a superb prologue to the structure of interaction in the Arab world, as well as a salient introduction to anthropological research."
Suomen Anthropology
A book that every student of the Middle East and anthropology at large should read: a witty, well-written account of a life full of anthroplogical adventure.

— Susanne Dahlgren

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226434780
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2007
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Fuad I. Khuri (1935–2003) was professor of anthropology at the American University of Beirut from 1964 to 1987. Khuri held a series of visiting professorships at the London School of Economics, University of Manchester, University of Chicago, and University of Oregon. Among his many books are From Village to Suburb, Tribe and State in Bahrain, Imams and Emirs and, most recently, Being a Druze. Sonia Jalbout Khuri has taught mathematics education in Lebanon and the United Kingdom. She also worked as a research assistant and editor with her late husband, Fuad I. Khuri.

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Read an Excerpt

An Invitation to Laughter
A Lebanese Anthropologist in the Arab World

The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2007

The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-43478-0

Chapter One Exploring origins

The choice of anthropology

This is the story of my career in anthropology, which began in 1956, when I was a sophomore student at the American University of Beirut. Because of my lack of interest in any particular subject, I was enrolled in what was called a "group major," in my case comprising history, sociology, and education. I took education for two reasons: first, because it was one of the specialties required for the scholarship I was after, and second, because a teaching diploma would guarantee me a job upon graduation. One is not required to have a teaching diploma to teach in private schools in Lebanon, but it contributes to making one a better teacher-and also increases one's salary as a teacher by about 8 percent.

Professor Charles Adams, who wrote on Egypt, was offering an introduction to anthropology in the Department of Sociology. Out of curiosity, I signed up for the course. Adams was a peculiar, withdrawn man, who mostly kept to himself. A few minutes before class, he would gather cigarette butts, dry leaves, pinecones, waste paper of various sizes and colors. He would arrange all this in some artistic design, photograph it, and then proceed to the classroom. I approached him once as he was doing this: "Sir, I have a question."

"Wait!" he said, and continued to arrange the garbage he had collected.

"On the cephalic index, sir!"


He continued to shuffle and reshuffle the debris, stepping back now and then to look at the design from different angles and adjusting the shapes until he found the arrangement he liked best; often he was not satisfied with any of them. It looked as if he was enjoying the process more than the product. After a while, he looked at me and said, "It is nice turning garbage into art."

"Yes, sir!" I replied.

In the evening, the broom of the refuse collector would sweep away whatever remained of Adams's designs.

In class, Adams rarely laughed, but there was a special resonance to his voice that made me listen attentively to his lectures. Apart from the voice of the lecturer and a few scientific terms I remember almost nothing of the course. Yet that course convinced me that anthropology would be my field for further study.

For Adams's class, I had to prepare a paper on cephalic variations in the Middle East. In those days, anthropologists were still using biometric measurements to assess racial differentiation; the genetic definition of race did not arise until the 1960s. Using the data compiled by William Shanklin and Cornelius Ariens Kappers, two anatomists who taught at the American University of Beirut in the 1930s and 1940s, I learned that the cephalic index among Middle Eastern groups varied between 72 and 82, values under 75 being classed as dolichocephalic (long headed), those over 80 as brachycephalic (roundheaded), and those in between as mesocephalic. (The cephalic index is the ratio of the maximum width of the head to its maximum length, multiplied by 100.)

Skull measurements were made using a caliper set behind the ears for width, and from the root of the nose (the septum) to the base of the skull for length. My assignment was to try to match Shanklin and Kappers's tables with some fieldwork of my own. I initially measured my classmates' skulls and later those of students living in College Hall dormitory and the faculty advisor, who insisted that I find his "origin" as well. After calculating a person's cephalic index, I would compare it with Shanklin and Kappers's data, which represented various Middle Eastern ethnicities, including twenty-three Phoenician skulls excavated at Byblos, Tyre, and Beirut. As a ratio, the cephalic index was not expected to vary with sex, age, or death. It was also supposed to remain constant within a given ethnicity provided that rearing practices (such as how a baby's head is positioned in bed) remained unaltered. Shanklin and Kappers's data included samples from Turkomans, Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs, and desert Arabs as well as from various Lebanese religious communities: Maronites, Druze, Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. I thought that by matching a cephalic index with Shanklin and Kappers's ethnic scale, I would be able to approximate the "origin" of the person concerned. On this basis, I began, mixing measurements with laughter, to calculate the origin of my fellow students: "You are of Kurdish origin, but you are Armenian," I would tell them. "You're Arab and you Germanic." Soon, I became known in the dorm as an expert on origins. As a short cut, I stopped applying the caliper and instead used a flexible stretch of my fingers to make the measurements. The class assignment was done, but my reputation lived on. Anthropology was thus my way to fame in College Hall.

For my master's thesis, I chose to do fieldwork on social stratification and school achievement in Cedarstown (a pseudonym for a small village in north Lebanon), a study combining sociology with education. The experience of conducting field research was more valuable than the actual results. If nothing else, it taught me how to deal with people of different moods and temperaments. Here I was asking confidential questions, probing into private matters, conferring with dignitaries, checking and rechecking documentary files and people's knowledge of one another. It was a rewarding experience that suited my character. To make an impression, I even grew a small beard.

My field research led to a thesis that completed the requirements for the MA degree, but more importantly, it gave me a firsthand understanding of types of people. I learned that the three hundred people I had interviewed could be summarized in terms of a few sociocultural types, which recurred again and again in every village. The village community is a theater in which particular kinds of comedies and tragedies are continuously enacted. The thesis I wrote proved the obvious: socioeconomic standing was positively correlated with school achievement. What the thesis did not show was the play, the plot, the unwritten novel, the variety of characters, each trying to assert his or her individuality at the expense of others. The types were few, but the individuals embodying the types were numerous.

Many men aspired to be the 'abadai of the town, the self-appointed upholder of ethics, the man of courage who lost no opportunity to come to the aid of victims, however defined. Every village had its philosophers, poets, politicians, tricksters, lovers, gentlemen, drunkards, gossips, loose women, dummies, and jokers. These were the makers of local news, the tabloid press, the emotive and less serious culture in Cedarstown in the early 1960s. There was the "politician," who named his son Khrushchev-Bulganin, in reference to the duet then ruling the Soviet Union. There was the "lover," a Jehovah's Witness who deserted a wife and three children to preach the word of God, but upon meeting a pretty Muslim girl converted to Islam and married her. There was the village priest who preferred to have his cheeks kissed by the pretty and his hand by the rich, thus enjoying vicariously the privileges of sex and power. Knowing these characters, or knowing about them, demonstrated to community members that I understood their private subculture, what gave the town its unique character. It made people laugh, and that gave me a great advantage in my daily interactions.

The "philosopher" in Cedarstown was a very poor unmarried man in his mid-forties, who lived alone in an old haunted house subsisting on charity and tips. His clothes were dirty and rotten, his shoes worn beyond repair, but he kept a poodle. What a contradiction: only the rich kept poodles; the poor kept no dogs, or at best watchdogs. He was nicknamed "philosopher" not because of his wisdom-he hardly knew how to sign his name-but because of his intermittent flashes of genius, which erupted unpredictably, and always at the wrong time. Here is an example:

One of the village dignitaries died. The funeral was to take place the next afternoon. Many bishops and priests were formally invited by the family of the deceased to take part in the service. The more bishops, priests, and others attending the funeral, people believe, the higher the status of the deceased. Following the funeral, attendees customarily return to the house of the bereaved to offer their condolences, the literati among them reflecting upon ultimate questions: life and death, man's destiny, eternity, and salvation. The grief-stricken family and its guests listen silently, politely, nodding in agreement or clapping in disillusionment. The speakers' intention is to console, not to stir an argument.

In this particular instance, the orators explained that death is inevitable, a necessary consequence of birth, that the dead are survived by their genes, that for every individual living there are millions dead. A bishop spoke about salvation and eternity in Christianity, stressing the idea that the act of salvation includes the body as well as the soul. Suddenly, facing the bishop, the philosopher blurted out, "Your eminence! I beg your pardon. Life is but a fart in this world. It suddenly comes and swiftly goes, leaving no trace; nothing hangs on except the smell."

Nobody laughed, in deference to the bereaved, but the incident was later recounted to laughing audiences. Salvation and eternity belong to the sacred or the high culture; laughter, like sex, is physical, and therefore belongs to the low culture.

During my fieldwork in Cedarstown, I was often asked whom I knew in town. Citing the names of local dignitaries rang bells, but mentioning the names of the politician, the lover, and the philosopher, and what they were noted for, generated laughter and attested to my deep knowledge of local society. This was the kind of coded information shared only by members of the community. Bestowing nicknames of this sort was not done with good intentions; it was meant to be deprecatory, to be critical of nonconforming behaviors. The man who named his first-born son Khrushchev-Bulganin was ridiculed by being called "politician"; according to custom, the child should have been named for his grandfather. Similarly, the "lover" was being criticized for abandoning his family and religion and the "philosopher" for expounding his wisdom only at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

After graduating from AUB, I followed the recommendation of Professor Orr, who had taught anthropology at the University of Oregon before joining the Department of Sociology at AUB. He recommended that I study anthropology, and his advice to me, quoting Horace Greeley, was "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country." I liked his advice, for I was fascinated with the adventure and romance of American films; I had a deep liking for westerns and had seen Gone with the Wind several times. Thus I chose to study anthropology, and went to the University of Oregon.

I had previously known many Americans as missionaries, friends, colleagues, teachers, and professors. Many of them I met between 1958 and 1960, when I was teaching history and civics and acting as head supervisor of a dorm at the International College while a graduate student at AUB. I liked their outgoing character. I took their high-pitched manner of speech to be an expression of individual freedom rather than an intrusion into others' privacy. In America, Americans tend to be less tolerant of non-American ways than they are abroad. Americans abroad did not advocate a "melting pot" policy, nor did they assume the burden of mission civilisatrice, trying to convert others to their own style of life. In any case, as I prepared to go to the United States in 1960, I thought that I was somehow already conditioned to American ways.

I arranged to travel to America by boat. It was not easy saying goodbye to kith and kin at the port. I nearly missed the boat because a group of friends insisted that we play a last game of poker before my departure. As the ship sailed westward from Beirut, it was agony watching majestic Mount Lebanon gradually sink into the sea. I burned out my distress with a packet of cigarettes.

Our first stop was Naples. In Italy, I discovered the range of meanings a person can convey through gestures. Astonishingly, very few Italians could communicate in English or French. No wonder that they punctuated their speech with intensive hand movements and facial expressions. Yet through gestures I was able to inquire about restaurants, toilets, hotels, and prices, and even to bargain for lower prices. After spending a couple of weeks in Naples, which I greatly enjoyed, I took another boat, the Leonardo da Vinci, to New York. What a magnificent ship she was!

At the port in New York, I had my first "cultural shock"-an argument with the customs officer. On the advice of Professor George Weightman, who was a coadvisor to my thesis, I had packed almost all my belongings in a trunk and shipped them to the States. The trunk contained, among other things, my secondhand typewriter (which I had used to teach myself typing by keying in all the bold words in The Oxford English Pocket Dictionary), a manual phonograph whose handle squeaked and scratched every time I wound up the spring, double-sized embroidered sheets that my mother had made, and a bag of a locally made cheese called shanklish.

Shanklish was the pride of north Lebanon, the region I come from. The parcel was a gift that my brother-in-law had sent with me for his brother-in-law, who was specializing in general surgery at Cleveland Hospital. When I opened my trunk at the port in New York, the smell of shanklish, which had been contained for over a month, filled the air. The customs officer nervously asked, "What the hell is this?"

"What do you mean, hell? This is shanklish, a delicacy," I said.

"Shanklish? Do you speak English?" he inquired.

"Of course I do."

"What is shanklish then?"

I was relieved when he asked the question. I explained that shanklish is made from milk, which is first turned to yoghurt. We put the yoghurt in a large jar and churn it until the butter comes to the surface. We skim the butter, and what remains of the yoghurt is heated until it curdles into 'arish. This is strained, then made into balls, sun-dried, and stored in jars until it ferments and matures. Finally it is washed and dipped in dried thyme and the shanklish is ready to eat.

The officer brought out a long needle, pierced a ball of shanklish, tasted it, and remarked with obvious bewilderment: "Gee, it is cheese!"

"No, it is not cheese. It is shanklish," I insisted.

He smiled and I smiled too, but I was still not convinced that shanklish was cheese. In my hometown of Baino, we differentiate between the two, calling cheese jibneh and shanklish shanklish.

Having settled the identity of shanklish, the customs officer began to look through the rest of my luggage. When he saw the obsolete typewriter, the manual phonograph, and the embroidered sheets, he thought that I was an antique trader and hinted that he might charge me duties for importing them. It did not take long to convince him that I was just a student from Lebanon coming to study anthropology at the University of Oregon-I showed him my official papers.

I immediately sent the trunk on to Eugene, Oregon, and retreated to the YMCA hostel in New York to plan the rest of my trip. Feeling lonely, I occupied myself in writing letters to friends and family at home; I wrote that first night no fewer than twenty letters. The next morning, I went to the front desk, holding the letters in my hand, and addressed the receptionist: "The post office, please. I need some stamps!"

"Behind that door," he replied.

I went behind the door and looked around but did not find the post office. I returned to ask again: "I need stamps for these letters. Where is the post office, please?"


Excerpted from An Invitation to Laughter by FUAD I. KHURI
Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Richard Antoun
Prologue: The man himself, by Sonia Jalbout Khuri
Note on Arabic words

Introduction            Why “laughter”?
Chapter 1               Exploring origins: The choice of anthropology
Chapter 2               Studying anthropology in Oregon: “How wonderful!”
Chapter 3               Being Lebanese: A nationality or a profession?
Chapter 4               Religious syncretism: “I offer sacrifices to my ancestors on Friday because I am a Muslim”
Chapter 5               Lebanese traders in West Africa: Always ending the day in losses
Chapter 6               Change as faith: The restless Americans
Chapter 7               Teaching in Beirut: “Sir, keep this information to yourself”
Chapter 8               Establishing an Arab association for the social sciences: The tyranny of consensus
Chapter 9               The exotic in the suburbs of Beirut: “It is written”
Chapter 10             Alumni and ‘ulama in Bahrain: “We all seek knowledge”
Chapter 11             Open secrets: Discussable but not publishable
Chapter 12             Table manners in Yemen: Eat! Do not talk!
Chapter 13             The official policy toward emigration in Lebanon: “We eat bread, not potatoes”
Chapter 14             The Arab rich: “An ugly horse that wins the race is praised for its good looks”
Chapter 15             Who wants to be a za‘im? The agony of fame
Chapter 16             Living in Great Britain: “The best in the world”
Appendix 1            List of Research Projects
Appendix 2            List of Publications

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