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Islamic Culture (16 Feb 2017 NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Price of Love: Valentine’s Day in Egypt and Its Enemies – Part One

By Aymon Kreil

Feb 14 2017

Bi-fatha, ba, bahibbak

Bi-kasra, bi, bi-shidda

Ru-damma, ruhi ruhi gambak

I lo-, lo-I love you

Wi- wi- with strength

My, my soul my soul is beside you[i]


In the 1963 film The Soft Hands (Al-Aydayy al-Na‘ima), by director Mahmud Dhu al-Fiqar, a ruined aristocrat played by Ahmad Mazhar learns how to live in the new Egypt after the 1952 revolution. He falls in love with a woman, played by the famous actress and singer Sabah, who teaches him to forget his class prejudices and makes him work. He also has to learn written Arabic. Like many members of his class at the time, his mastery of French and English was superior to that of his native tongue. Sabah answers his demand of marriage in a cryptic letter, whose meaning she later explains in a song. She wrote down the first two phonemes in the three phases “I love you,” “with strength,” and “my soul” in order to convey that she shares his feelings. The film promotes love ideals that reflect the socialist projects of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency. According to this vision, love and the common struggle to work should build the core of marriage. In this film, companionate marriage appears as a key feature of Nasserite modernity. [ii]

Today, what I call “love modernism,” the linking of love marriage with imaginations of progress,[iii] is still a living ideal in Egypt. Egalitarian ideals, however, are no longer part of state ideology. Two wars and four decades of economic reform dislocated the remains of Nasserite socialism. Consequently, economic constraints often jeopardize marriage plans. Most people have to live in extremely precarious conditions. Since marriage is a costly endeavour, long delays in courtship and engagement are common. While income disparities widened, the broad availability of imported goods as well as raised expectations of consumer goods, such as furniture, added to the financial pressure on couples hoping to get married.[iv] The political turmoil following the 2011 uprising further deepened the economic hardships facing the majority of Egyptians.

In this article, I discuss the place in Egypt of Valentine’s Day, a holiday whose broad success in the country dates back to the 1990s, as a way of exploring love and marriage in times of dire social inequality. Valentine’s Day was one of the first event-marketing holidays to arise in the United States and Britain during the nineteenth century.[v] The celebration of romantic love on 14 February has since become a worldwide phenomenon. Millie Creighton describes its successful promotion in Japan in the 1950s through a brand of chocolates.[vi] The spread of Valentine’s Day seems to have taken a steadier path during the last twenty years. In accordance with a general scholarly focus on transnational circulations since the 1990s, recent works have studied its reception in Ghana and China. [vii] This scholarship balances the study of transnational imaginations with an engagement of specific meanings that such an event takes on in different contexts.[viii]

This research also shows the need to historicize the dichotomies emerging around existing conceptions of love. Lynn Thomas and Jennifer Cole argue that in Africa conflicts between generations often took the form of opposite conceptions of love. In many cases, elders condemned the idea that love is a sound basis for marriage, while the young had love affairs with no aim other than the fulfilling of passion. With the onset of colonial rule, however, according to Thomas and Cole, these intergenerational tensions became part of broader dynamics. Some people, for instance, started to associate romantic love and companionate marriage with Western modernity. [ix]

In Egypt, historians observed parallel moves. There is a rich corpus of love poetry in Arabic.[x] Starting in the nineteenth century, however, debates about reform of the family came to be at the core of the nationalist project.[xi] Since then, for many Egyptian intellectuals, the establishment of companionate marriage and the nuclear family in a wide social strata became important markers of progress. Education played a key role in reform endeavours. Around the 1920s, the new urban educated middle class appeared as the main carrier of the national project.[xii] Cities were also the laboratory of new consumption styles that shaped the imaginations of love and of modernity. The cinema and popular music industries were powerful conveyors of these imaginations. The Soft Hand, the film evoked above, is just one example from the Nasserite period of this cultural production about love. There is a rich genealogy of discourses on love in Egypt.

The success of Valentine’s Day reveals structural elements that shape imaginings of love. Valentine’s Day shows the impact of the progressive growth of the trade between Egypt and China starting in the 1990s.[xiii] Some commodities became affordable to larger segments of Egyptians, compared, for instance, to the earlier period that Lila Abu-Lughod examined in her study on television dramas. Abu-Lughod shows that Egyptian soap operas appeared as distant dreams to most people because of the prohibitive cost of the luxury commodities linked to this universe.[xiv] Nowadays, even though most such commodities remain out of reach, gifts for lovers are available everywhere in Cairo for a few Egyptian pounds. Hence, China became an actor in the circulation and reshaping of transnational imaginations of love and modernity. [xv]

Many people who purchase gifts for Valentine’s Day engage in love chat on the Internet with boys and girls from different countries. There are also many opportunities to engage in flirtation at schools and universities, workplaces, and coffee shops, as well as in neighbourhoods. These practices afford spaces for couples to practice and imagine love. As I will show, however, at the moment of marriage, with its heavy financial burdens and economic uncertainties, the involvement of lovers’ families becomes unavoidable. With this involvement comes the danger that what people consider realistic choices will crush romantic aspirations.

This study follows Eva Illouz’s analysis of romantic love as a phenomenon deeply linked to the emergence of a consumer culture emphasizing leisure and enjoyment, shaping imaginations of encounters at places like restaurants, movie theatres, or deserted beaches. For Illouz, a sense of privilege is hidden in romantic dreams, since these dreams are, for most people, difficult to realize. This romantic imagination parallels the urge to communicate feelings as a way to explore the self and attain happiness. [xvi] Illouz’s study is relevant to cases outside of Europe and Northern America. It underscores the importance of economic factors in the success of romantic discourse on love, compared to cultural and religious factors.

The financial burdens of marriage are the major hindrance to the success of romantic dreams, probably more than repressive interpretations of Islam, Christianity, or Egyptian tradition. Even if it should be obvious, it sometimes seems necessary to underscore that, like elsewhere in the world; people living in countries with Muslim majorities do not act exclusively according to religion. Most romantic situations are blurry, in this regard. People act according to principles that are neither antagonistic to Islam nor necessarily expressive of piety.[xvii] In Egypt, as in many other places, love is a major reference for the formulation of intimate expectations. It fuels attempts to describe individuals’ “inner truths.” For this reason, it is particularly useful to understand how individuals try to reconcile sometimes contradictory demands. Valentine’s Day provokes tensions between romantic ideals, conjugal strategies, interpretations of religion, and commercial imperatives.

In order to discuss these issues, I describe Valentine’s Day in Egypt, its history, and how people celebrate it. Valentine’s Day focuses on imaginaries surrounding heterosexual bonds. “True love” designates either pre-conjugal passion or, on the contrary, the silent relationship that develops over time after marriage. These contrary conceptions of love serve as a first axis of analysis. I then focus on the expressive love that Valentine’s Day promotes through its merchandising and in the context of the frequent assessment in Egypt that the event is a celebration of sweet talk. During my fieldwork, my interlocutors emphasized the expressive aspect of the event: it is a day where you have to show your feelings to the beloved. What is “true love,” then, in this context? Is it to be found before of after marriage? In conclusion, I explore the conditions of possibility of romantic love in Egypt, and how it is related to class and availability of capital.

My material was collected mainly during a two-year period of fieldwork in Cairo from 2008 to 2010.[xviii] Since then, Egypt has gone through a major political upheaval, starting with the 25 January 2011 uprising. The revolutionary moment has triggered a deep questioning of authority patterns for a significant proportion of the country’s youth. This questioning of authority could encourage defiance of institutional attempts to regulate love and marriage.[xix] But the impact of these events on larger segments of the population is still difficult to assess and needs further inquiry.

Valentine’s Day, Egyptian Style

As in the rest of the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Egypt on 14 February. Egyptians call it “the holiday of love (‘id al-Hubb)” or an Arabised version of the original name: Al-Falantayn. On this day, many couples meet at the spots in the city that most people consider romantic. Lovers stroll along the Nile’s shores and in public gardens. Red is the main colour associated with the celebration, and women are often clad accordingly. I saw young girls, for instance, wearing headscarves emblazoned in bright letters with the English word “LOVE.” Many Valentine’s Day items display English words. On 14 February, people also send phone calls and messages to their beloved. And in the evening, restaurants and concert venues hold special events.

he large-scale celebration of Valentine’s Day is recent It is difficult to date its beginnings precisely. The broad salience of the event regionally is evident in a fatwa that Sheikh Muhammad bin ‘Uthaymin issued in Saudi Arabia in February 2000 in the name of the Permanent Committee for Scientific Research and Fatwa (Al-Lajna Al-Da’ima Li-L-Buhuth Al-‘Ilmiyya Wa Al-Ifta’), a religious body in the kingdom. The fatwa condemns the celebration. The sheikh’s main argument is that the holiday is a bad innovation (Bid‘A Sayyi’a) that promotes passion and desire, and occupies the mind with shallow thoughts. In Egypt, testimonies of consumers and shop owners describe the start of the 2000s as the beginning of Valentine’s Day.

An earlier attempt to establish a “holiday of love” took place in 1978. A journalist at the government newspaper Akhbar al-Yawm, Mustafa Amin, [xx] proposed fixing 4 November as a day to celebrate love.[xxi] As a result, Egyptians distinguish between the “international holiday of love” (‘Id Al-Hubb Al-Dawli) and the “Egyptian holiday of love” (‘Id Al-Hubb Al-Misri). Amin’s emphasis was on love for God, nation, family, neighbours, and even passing strangers. Romance was not an essential part of it. Nowadays, people celebrate the Egyptian holiday of love in the same way as Valentine’s Day. One shop owner wrote on his vitrine “Happy Valentine’s Day 4.11.2010.” But the November version has less success than its February counterpart. “This holiday is no good (Al-‘Id Da Ta‘Ban)!” as one vendor put it.

Valentine’s Day carries with it notions of intimacy, passion, and tenderness, bound to stereotypical places and situations. For instance, a couple having a walk on the shores of the Nile, sitting on a bridge, going to a restaurant or movie theatre, and men offering flowers or perfumes are all practices that people portray as “romantic.” Even if gifts and messages are also exchanged between family members and friends, romance has a central place in the media depiction of the celebration. US movies, the Internet, and satellite television channels help spread such conceptions of love. The production of affordable Chinese products also has a hand in promoting these notions. These commodities have spread the celebration to all the neighbourhoods of Cairo, rich and poor alike.

Offering special gifts is a central ritual. Flower shops earn a sizable component of their yearly income on 14 February, according to a survey of newspapers on Valentine’s Day between 2008 and 2015. Stuffed animals, particularly red teddy bears, are a favoured present. Stuffed hearts displaying phrases in English and Arabic are also popular. These gifts are often wrapped in complicated gift boxes, sprayed with glitter and perfume, or simple decorated paper bags. Store fronts and kiosks are crammed with these items on that day in February. Most of these products are imported from China and distributed by wholesalers in the Muski neighbourhood, on the edge of Cairo’s old Fatimid city. People celebrate Valentine’s Day in most of the major cities of northern Egypt. Shops in smaller rural centres have also started to carry special items. [xxii]

Thus, the celebration is significant for the yearly sales revenue of many shop owners, including those who are hostile to it. Valentine’s Day is now an established marketed holiday, alongside Ramadan, and in some wealthier areas Halloween and the Western Christmas of 25 December.[xxiii] At the Muski market, for instance, some Salafi sellers display Valentine’s Day gifts, sometimes alongside religious items. Even if most Salafi sheikhs condemn the celebration, financial considerations often outweigh convictions.[xxiv] Derogatory comments on the celebration are often audible in this context, but they do not interfere with the imperative of sales.

Criticism of Valentine’s Day draws on overlapping religious, nationalist, anti-consumerist, and moral arguments. Many Islamic scholars in the Middle East have issued Fatwas condemning Valentine’s Day along the model of bin ‘Uthaymin’s fatwa, mentioned above. These scholars argue that there are only two feasts in Islam, ‘id al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan and ‘id al-Adha commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Opponents of Valentine’s Day condemn it for inciting debauchery among youth, often portraying it as a Christian celebration despite historical evidence to the contrary. The nationalist register insists on the imported nature of Valentine’s Day. “Why should I celebrate an American holiday?” a student once asked me. In a similar register, some opponents of the celebration expressed admiration for Upper Egypt, where, in the eyes of many Cairenes, such an event could not happen. Southern Egypt appears to many Egyptians as a stronghold of tradition. [xxv] The anti-consumerist argument insists on the celebrations useless expenses. One coffee shop owner based in the Muski market, condemning the holiday, said Egyptians spend ten million pounds on communication that day. “They love useless ostentatious spending,” commented a man selling teddy bears on the street when I asked why Egyptians like to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Some religious scholars are less stern in their condemnation. They argue that if the intentions are pure, there is no harm in celebrating Valentine’s Day. They tend to condemn unmarried couples celebrating the holiday, but not the holiday itself. ‘Abd al-Mu‘ti al-Bayumi, former dean of the Faculty for Islamic Theology at al-Azhar University, warns of the dangers of alienating people from religion by forbidding events that help them enjoy their relationships, especially if there is no explicit condemnation in the Qur’an or Hadith. Religious and political groups have tried to redefine the meaning of the holiday of love. In the mid-2000s, for instance, Muslim Brotherhood students tried to organize a holiday of love of God (‘id al-Hubb fi Allah) and later a Muhammad Day [xxvi] on 14 February. In a different but parallel vein, on 14 February 2009 the newspaper al-Misri al-Yawm ran the headline, “We love Egypt . . . and want her to change,” illustrated with a heart-shaped Egyptian flag.

Source: jadaliyya.com/pages/index/26053/the-price-of-love_valentine’s-day-in-egypt-and-its

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islamic-culture/aymon-kreil/the-price-of-love--valentine’s-day-in-egypt-and-its-enemies-–-part-one/d/110095


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