Birthdays, pink balloons, red hearts, "freedom": the Western world works hard to construct the world in its image, writes Azmi Bishara
People of my generation still remember when the children of the not-so-well-to-do and the lower than middle classes began celebrating their birthdays. Until then, birthday celebrations were the preserve of the affluent, or of Westernised intellectuals or of civil servants, and the festivities had a certain charm as do many things that have a degree of authenticity. My generation also recalls the generation of which many did not know their precise date of their birth, either because a birth certificate had never been issued or got lost, or because they never had any need to know. But, the world has changed and now everyone celebrates the happy occasion of their birth; or, more precisely, the anniversary of their birth as an individual. The optimistic take on this is that the rise of birthday celebrations coincides with the rise of individualism and the celebration of the unique importance of each and every person. And why not? The notion sounds all very reasonable and heartening. But then, a very old friend of mine, so ancient that he has not yet digested the individualism of birthday culture (one would think that his aversion is itself a form of individualism), told me recently that his children, who forced him to celebrate his birthday, were "celebrating on my ruins". He was jesting, of course, over his advancing years, but one could not miss the acerbic allusion to Palestine.
My generation also recalls when the Anniversary of the Prophet and the Islamic New Year became public holidays, as though they were Christmas and Western New Year (some fundamentalists are shocked when they realise how culturally intertwined the world is -- their world included). And we remember when our local commemoration of Christ's birth was transformed into the Americanised "Christmas", and when that began to overshadow Easter, which in Eastern orthodoxy, the original Christianity, is a more important religious occasion.
The artificial pre-decorated Christmas tree may have come to us from China, via the US and Europe, the same route Chinese takeaways followed. However, the real arrival of Christmas came through the development of civilisation and changes in consumer habits, which set the mood and created the little details that some think had always been there. No, it is not the state that is the primary exploiter of religion, but the market economy. Politics only comes second.
In all events, the customs are here now. They have emerged and coalesced, and I see little problem with that. There's no longer any practical need to ponder the changes in the concept of New Years, to study the evolution of people's partying habits across the class spectrum, unless you're an anthropologist, or to dwell excessively on the globalisation of Christmas to the extent that it is celebrated by some non- Christian middle classes keen to keep up with the prevalent consumption fashions like going to MacDonald's. Which is not to say consumers have not felt the return of Greater China through prices that may have dampened some of the festive joy. That shirt that we would once have to save up for months to buy as a gift for father is now hanging on display in our neighbourhood grocer's, as though it were another disposable item like plastic bags. Indeed, China has made some consumer habits year-long phenomena, leaving little left for the feasts. Meats and sweets are now eaten year-round, and clothes are purchased with or without occasion -- developments in modes of consumerism that may well bring another revision of the concept of holiday.
Still, while globalised New Years and Christmas are now facts of life here, I will not be deprived of the right to talk about Valentine's Day. The celebration of that merry occasion is still a tender shoot that has not yet taken root here, so the question of its domestication has not been settled once and for all. But the process is taking place before our eyes, what with shades of pink looming at us from all directions as though we had fallen into a vat of gooey gag- making cough syrup. We have no need to recall here how Valentine's entered our scattered, fragmented, marginalised and confused lives, because it is entering at this moment. Nor can we help but notice and experience the full thrust of its entrance, what with all that pink and artifice and pretence and "Happy Valentine's Day" hearts blazoned all around us, as though the world had suddenly been transformed into an enormous rose-coloured mall, or as though Barbie became Queen-for-the-Day in our country and started annihilating her adversaries with the ubiquitous odours of vanilla, chocolate, cellophane wrapped flower arrangements and other pre-packaged and pre-paid-for consumer delights.
It is not enough that some people blow themselves up -- detonating their individuality -- and that others are literally starving in a morally bankrupt Arab world in which it seems clear that cultural diversity is overshadowed by the divide between the culture of the rich and the culture of the poor. It is not enough that any semi-cultured rich man can start up a new satellite programme to keep youth in the thrall of a new religion -- the clip culture or the culture clip, all revolving around legs and breasts claiming to be art and music, around the pornographic exploitation of women's bodies as a substitute for refining minds, tastes and the aesthetic sense, around permitting baser instincts to stand for all the components of civilisation. As though all that were not enough, Valentine's Day has come to plunge us into a magnificent sludge of heart-shaped balloons, pink soap bubbles and Hallmark card-infested kitsch. It's all just adolescent stuff, you say? But adolescent until what age?
Although this may be of little pertinence here, I believe that "knowledge is light", as we say, and that a little knowledge of the history of Valentine's Day might serve to take some of the glare out of all that pink and to cut the cloy of all those sweets.
Valentine's day, it appears, has pagan origins, as is the case with many of the rites, rituals and symbols of the cultures of the monotheistic religions. The ancient Romans, it is said, marked 14 and 15 February with fertility rites known as the Lupercalia; ostensibly named after Lupercus, the wolf-god who guarded shepherds and their flocks. Is there some connection between wolves and livestock, and love and romance beyond the romantic vision of pastoral life? Perhaps. In all events, Lupercus, according to ancient Roman myth, was the wolf that had suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary twin founders of Rome, and in honour of that lupine foster- mother, ancient Romans would sacrifice a goat and then don the goat's skin. The men became "old goats", one might say, for they would then chase after women with small sticks, lashing those whom they hoped would be blessed with fertility and children. Another mythological flight of fancy has it that during the Lupercalia women would reach into a box and randomly pick out the name of their "lover" for the duration of the festivities. Not only did those early Romans have a sense of humour, they invented the "dating game". Some have even traced the word "matchbox" to this pagan game.
It is difficult to imagine that the mediaeval Christian church would consecrate a day for "love and romance", let alone lend itself to such ribald revelries. However, as is the case with many popular customs that persisted as popular culture passed from one religion to another and that were sometimes absorbed into the official religion after having been reinterpreted and accorded different occasions, that ancient feast day was incorporated into Western Christian civilisation via a legend of rebirth. Most holy places in the world have been worshipped by different religions as they superceded one another and ascribed new significances to those places. Indeed, innumerable holy men and women and saints have changed their names and religions while lying in the same grave, while people continue their pilgrimages to their tombs to conduct age- old rites of worship or supplication.
In like manner, there emerged three different Valentine myths, or more accurately three different renderings of legends of either real or entirely imaginary individuals. The first figure, said to have lived in the time of Emperor Claudius, had the audacity to conduct marriage ceremonies in spite of a prohibition that was intended to keep youth from using marriage to evade the draft. The priest was sent to prison and sentenced to death. According to the legend, Roman youth began to send the emperor "greeting cards" (on pink perfumed paper, one need only add) on which they wrote such sayings as "Love is better than war." Perhaps they were the first hippies in the imagination of the inventor of this tale. The cards proved futile, however, for the priest was executed -- on 14 February, no less. Two centuries later, declared that day a saint's day, thus replacing the Lupercalia.
Stories about the second Valentine vary. One version has it that this one was imprisoned for coming to the aid of persecuted Christians. While in prison he fell in love with the daughter of the jail keeper, to whom he sent love letters, of course. Eventually he was executed and buried in Via Flaminia. The third Valentine was a little more realistic: a bishop in Terni also was martyred.
It seems, therefore, that the feast commemorated self-sacrifice and martyrdom and that it only reverted to its original character at the time of the European Renaissance that, in many philosophical and religious matters, harked back to the Classical age. As for the custom of declaration of love cards, it more plausibly dates to Charles, Duke of Orleans who, around about 1415, is said to have sent love tokens to his wife from his cell in the Tower of London. With the mechanisation of the printing press in 1840 the custom spread.
Valentine's Day has become such an institution in the West that any film buff knows that it was on 14 February that Al Capone succeeded in gaining control over the Chicago underworld in the infamous Valentine's Day massacre of the rival gang of Bugs Moran. But it is only in our recent memory that the US launched "Al-Hurra" satellite network, unleashing the American Lupercalia and the Valentine Age into the Arab world with the blinding force of the entire spectrum of glaring reds and pinks.
"Hurra" means "free". In the US, a media is considered "free" if it has no connection to the state. Let us ignore connections to big business and turn to the role this new satellite station has to play in the Arab world in the Arab Valentine age. Al-Hurra is not only owned by the state, but by the US State Department specifically. Pure and flagrant propaganda. A state-owned television station called "Al-Hurra" -- "The Free"? Only in the Arab world, and only in Arabic, and only in the context of the way America treats the Arabs, could such a term be stretched so far.
Imagine for a moment the correspondents for a state-owned channel belonging to some imperial power and operating in one of its tributary nations. Imagine a young journalist, short on knowledge but long on ambition, limited in his reading but unlimited in his verbiage, working for this imperial channel. Certainly, no official in the subordinate nation would dare refuse a request, he would think. Although Arab officials might not respect their own journalists they must respect him, not because he's respectable -- God forbid, for otherwise he would never get ahead -- but because he represents an official imperial television station, and all must bow before it. It's the only time I know of that "free" has been used in this sense.