Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2003
Issue No. 636
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Fish over reason

Fatemah Farag celebrates spring the traditional way

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Egyptians enjoy the spring air on the banks of the Nile in Cairo after feasting on traditional fishy fair
The weather this Sham Al-Nessim -- literally the "smell the breeze" festival, which took place on Monday -- was gorgeous. Yet it seemed somewhat incongruous that everywhere you went to smell the fresh air of spring, your nose was aggressively attacked by the unmistakable smells of desiccated fish, eggs and onions.

But then we are sticklers for tradition and this one goes way back -- to the times of our ancestors, the ancient Egyptians. Some experts claim that at the time the festival was known as Shoum. Osiris, the god who taught Egyptians to plough the land, grow food and hunt and fish, was murdered by his jealous brother Seth, who went on to hide his remains. Osiris's wife Isis found her husband's remains and resurrected him from the dead. As a symbol of life, Isis then gave birth to Osiris's son Horus. The story, and the festival, symbolise the triumph of good over evil. It is typical that we forget the moral of the story and go for the food.

Sham Al-Nessim, in its present form, was established shortly after Christianity came to Egypt in 312AD. Thus, it falls on the first Monday following the Orthodox Easter. But Sham Al-Nessim is a festival that goes beyond history and religion -- and straight for the fish.

Fiseekh is at the centre of things: Grey Mullet is caught, piled high in containers, and left out until distended. When sufficient evidence of its putrification is available, salt is added and the fish are left to pickle for a few more months. And voilà, the fish that Egyptians are willing to literally die for is made. It is no wonder that tens meet their death every year during Sham Al-Nessim -- usually as a result of botulism contracted from the smelly culprits. This year, the authorities impounded approximately 38 tonnes of spoiled fish and arrested nine Cairo shop-keepers for selling bad fish. Local papers ran articles on how to identify clean fiseekh -- check the flesh around the backbone and make sure the smell is not too pungent -- and how much to eat. Nationwide, centres for the treatment of poisoning announced a 48- hour emergency. Vaccines to treat botulism were also distributed nationwide and at reduced cost. Unfortunately, 12 upstanding Egyptian citizens died of fiseekh poisoning anyway.

But it is not all about fish: there are the coloured eggs, lupin beans, and lettuce to name but the basics. The Ministry of Supply even set up 732 outlets to sell subsidised commodities to help the populace with its celebrations this year.

Sham Al-Nessim is celebrated by practically everybody. This year an estimated 700,000 went to the Cairo Zoo, over 20,000 cars headed to Alexandria's beaches, 400,000 people visited the gardens of Ismailia, over one million headed to the Qanater Gardens north of Cairo, and hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada boasted over 80 per cent occupancy.

The exodus of Egyptians onto the streets is a sight to both admire and fear. In preparation, the Ministry of Interior prepared a special security plan that was implemented nationwide and included increasing the numbers of policemen everywhere, unannounced inspections at various pockets of high population density and specific instructions to target pick- pockets and men harassing women. The Ministry of Local Development set up a 24-hour hotline to receive complaints from citizens in case of a deficiency in one service or another, while the Ministry of Health put together mobile clinics that did the rounds of the major cities. The governor of Cairo, Abdel-Rehim Shehata, not only declared a state of emergency but also ordered the distribution of 10,000 garbage bags to visitors of public gardens. His counterpart in Alexandria, Abdel- Salam Mahjoub, deployed 17 jet skis and six frogmen in the Mediterranean to prevent drownings, which happen every year. The casualties this year were contained: three drowned off of the coast of Ras Al- Bar on the northeast coast, where an estimated 120,000 people were celebrating the day on the same beach.

Then there is the traditional burning of effigies in Port Said. Every year, one day before the revelry begins, the inhabitants of this port city make a political statement by burning the effigy of the nastiest personality of the year. It is a modern ritual, dating back to 1917. The sacrificial dummy is called "The Allenby" in reference to the late field marshal Edmund Henry Allenby, commander of the British forces stationed in Egypt during World War I. In 2001 the personality of choice was Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Last year, the government declared a ban on the ritual claiming that the burning of the effigy was a fire hazard, following the installation of a natural gas network a couple of years ago. Al-Ahram Weekly was unable to substantiate whether or not the effigy was burnt this year, but we were able to ascertain that the dummy of choice was US President W Bush.

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