Cairo celebrates Valentine’s Day, amid turmoil and condemnation

Traversing the Nile, with a Valentine's gift. (Stephen Kalin)
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CAIRO—On the morning of Feb. 14, I got in a taxi near the apartment in downtown Cairo where I've lived for the last three years, a block from Tahrir Square. The taxi driver, making small talk, commented on the weather: "It's cold out today, huh?"

This time of year it's about 60 or 70 degrees, and hot in the sun; I agreed.

"You know it's Valentine's Day today?" he asked. "The cold weather is good, it means you can hold your lover close!"

As we crossed a bridge over the River Nile, we passed a man in his 30s driving a motorbike with a woman riding side saddle and clutching a pink gift bag that read in English, "I love you till the end of my life."

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When President Anwar Sadat’s “open door” economic program exposed Egypt to new commercial imports in the late 1970s, Valentine’s Day snuck in too. Unlike Halloween, which still has a limited following in Egypt, the “Holiday of Love,” as it is called in Arabic, caught on. The holiday has spread widely across the Middle East since then.

The business opportunity represented by the holiday may have been obvious, but Valentine’s Day also resonates with a romantic current deeply rooted in Arab culture. Classical Arabic poetry dating back more than 13 centuries conveys stories of romantic love and exalts the natural beauty of women, ranging in tone from the corny to the erotic. No topic is more popular among contemporary Egyptian music stars like Abdel Helim Hafez and Amr Diab than the love of a man for a woman. Sexual harassment has become a societal blight, and paradoxically (or not), chivalry is not dead in Egypt.

That afternoon, I met 25-year-old law student Mohamed El Ganaidy standing outside the Faculty of Law building on the main campus of Cairo University in Giza, with two friends. He was wearing a bright red sweater and red tennis shoes.

“Today, we put all the bad things to the side and think only of good things,” he told me. “I’m having fun, but I have lots of doubts and questions inside because of what’s going on [in the country].”

“The entire day is for the couple from beginning to end,” El Genaidy said. He proudly calls himself a poet, and said that he would send love poems to his girlfriend via text message. A classmate who was with him was wearing a red headscarf, the most common signal among the female students that you're participating in the observance of the Holiday of Love.

Giza is four stops on the metro from Tahrir Square, but throughout the city on Feb. 14, the streets are festooned with the teddy bears, heart-shaped pillows and red rose bouquets that, here as in the United States, signal the holiday.

Beggars who usually sit in the street and sell packs of tissues were walking the streets selling single red roses. In the evening, large groups of young Egyptians head out onto the Nile in pontoon boats fitted with neon lights and blaring love songs. It’s traditional to exchange gifts of teddy bears, flowers, candy, and perfume, and to say "Happy Valentine" in English.

Over the years various Islamist groups have sought to halt the celebration of a holiday they view as a Western aberration, a corporal temptation, and an affront to loving god. And the nation's unambiguous steps toward religious conservatism in the soul-searching that followed the initial euphoria of the Arab Spring have seemed to renew those largely fruitless efforts.

A conservative Egyptian preacher named Hazem Shuman, who also objects to the mingling of young men and women and women singing or dancing, condemned Valentine’s Day in a 2009 video posted on YouTube.

In the video, he described “the Valentine virus … which is about to attack the hearts of the nation’s youth and to destroy our relations with God."

"We must confront this Valentine virus,” he said. “The more you celebrate Valentine’s Day, the more the Jews and Christians are happy and the more Prophet Mohamed is sad. The more you do this, the more the Jews and Christians gloat at us while tears flow from the Prophet’s eyes.”

The celebration is a bit of a thumb in the eye of the revolution's habit of turning ordinary weekdays into monumental observances of the recent political past. Jan. 25 was the first day of the revolution; Jan. 28 was the first Friday of Rage; Feb. 2 was the Battle of the Camels; Feb. 11 was Mubarak's resignation. As the second anniversaries of these plot points of the revolution have come round, the observances can wear on Cairenes. Valentine's Day is by comparison, for them, a return to the annual cycles of normal life.

“It is a sacred day for some couples,” said Salma Ibrahim, 21, a natural science student at Cairo University wearing a red headscarf.

Some people go to the university as they would any other day, she said, and nobody in their family knows they are celebrating Valentine’s Day. If their parents knew, they might not let them go.

“Some families don’t approve, and others don’t care,” she said. “It depends on their mentality.”

Navigating young romance has been a challenge in Egypt for generations. The same economic program that let in American products and ideas also impelled many young unemployed Egyptians to seek work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. When they returned to Egypt in the 1980s to join the middle class, many had adopted more conservative moral standards, and they brought them home with them.

Sexual relations outside of marriage are not illegal, but they are shameful in a culture that places a premium on honor.

Parents permit their children varying degrees of freedom in mixed-gender socializing, but most err on the side of caution. Before entering into marital engagement, many young Egyptians thus have had few opportunities to spend significant time with members of the opposite sex. Others choose to hide romantic relationships from their families, even if the sexual component is limited or nonexistent.

And so the rebelliousness of Valentine's Day is associated with the young. Criticism of the government, the Muslim Brotherhood and the newly elected president was as fierce as ever on Thursday, especially among vendors angry about politicians’ failure to take a cue from Valentine’s Day and fix their relationships for the sake of Egypt.

But here, couples aren't the only ones celebrating Valentine’s Day. It's not seen as a consolation prize for singles to spend the day with family or a group of friends, but simply a widening of the definition of love that is worthy of celebration.

Ola Maged, an 18-year-old in her first year in the commerce department at the University, told that she celebrated Valentine's Day in high school, though not to the extent that her friends at the University do.

She used to be in a relationship but is now single.

“If you have a boyfriend,” she said, “it will be a perfect day.”

This year she'll spend it with her family.

“It makes us closer to each other,” she said. “If people are having problems with each other, they try to fix them on this day.”

That element of the holiday may be a key to its sentimental attraction. Two weeks ago, deadly clashes gripped Cairo and several other cities around the country. Egypt’s army chief then cautioned that the country was on the brink of collapse, but the violence continued in spurts and little has been done to resolve its underlying causes.

Many types of crime are on the rise, particularly theft and sexual harassment against women on the once hallowed ground of Tahrir. While opposition leaders received death threats this month, police went on strike and the public prosecutor tried to shut down YouTube for hosting a video that insulted the Prophet Mohamed.

With each passing day, the currency depreciates, food prices increase, and energy reserves dwindle. Earlier this week, rating agency Moody’s downgraded the government’s bond rating, putting hopes of securing an IMF loan and economic recovery further out of reach.

“We’ve lost a lot,” said Abu Yousef, 40, a veteran employee at a florist in Zamalek, an upscale neighborhood situated on an island in the Nile. The shop was doing considerably less business on Valentine’s Day compared to last year, he told me, because the economy is weak. The prices of basic necessities are rising, and many people don’t have the spare income to spend on flowers.

Abu Yousef thinks of it as a holiday that brings the sheen of international glamor to Cairo. He said the city is “the Mother of Taste,” in a play on Cairo’s nickname “Mother of the World.” Why wouldn't this international holiday be celebrated by tasteful Cairenes, he wondered?

But he acknowledged the revolution has taken a toll on Egyptians’ psyches. Those who have had relatives martyred don’t feel like celebrating, he said. “There’s no room for love.”

Another florist in the same neighborhood, Moura Zikri, 28, attributed the decline in celebrating Valentine’s Day this year more to social factors than economic ones. “People have become more conservative,” she said, “because of those who speak in the name of religion and say what’s halal and haram”—permitted and forbidden.

She said 90 percent of her customers are Muslims who have little interest in the fire-breathing rhetoric of clerics like Hazem Shuman.

“Normal people don’t care what they say,” she said.

But: “In some neighborhoods, they’re scared to wear red or celebrate in public,” she said, because someone is more likely now to reprimand them and challenge their faithfulness. Zikri brought up the case of Ahmed Hussein Eid, a 20-year old student who was stabbed to death in the port city of Suez last summer while sitting on a park bench with his fiancée. The assailants claimed to be protecting public morals and were later sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Other vigilante attacks in the past year, not all of which were punished, have added to the fear that Zikri mentioned.

For a certain kind of Cairene, especially the young, this makes the day more, not less, important.

“The youth these days oppose whoever says no to them,” Zikri said. “So they are more passionate about Valentine’s Day now that the Islamists are saying no.”

The maitre’d of a fashionable restaurant on the banks of the Nile reported that, contrary to his expectations, the evening’s reservations were fully booked two days earlier.

“People are looking for something, anything to be happy about,” he said.

Photos by Stephen Kalin.

Stephen Kalin is a writer from New York based in Cairo. He has written for The Egypt Independent, a local English-language newspaper; Foreign Policy, Al Monitor, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, and PolicyMic. Follow him on Twitter @6thFloor_Cairo.