Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and Its Enemies

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and Its Enemies

Article excerpt

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 you1

In the 1963 film The Soft Hands (Al-Aydayy al-Naima), 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 phrases "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.2

Today, what I call "love modernism," the linking of love marriage with imaginations of progress,3 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 endeavor, 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.4 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 end of 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.5 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.6 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.7 This scholarship balances the study of transnational imaginations with an engagement of specific meanings that such an event takes on in different contexts.8

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.9

In Egypt, historians observed parallel moves. There is a rich corpus of love poetry in Arabic.10 Starting in the nineteenth century, however, debates about reform of the family came to be at the core of the nationalist project.11 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. …

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