Making it unpalatable
The provision of free food to the poor by professional female entertainers during Ramadan is bedevilled by controversy. Gamal Nkrumah
sounds out the debate
Tables of mercy, the traditional preparation by the rich and famous of Iftar banquets for the poor during the holy month of Ramadan has become something of a venerated tradition in Egypt and many Muslim countries. According to Al-Azhar's Fatwa Committee, LE2 billion is spent on mercy tables -- LE1 billion, and the other half on the rest of the country (other governorates). Officially, some 3.5 million poor people benefit from the service -- five per cent of the population. This is one way to fill empty stomachs, but it has also come to generate an often acrimonious controversy.
Churlish as it may seem to criticise those bent on doing good, many are bitterly opposed to the poor receiving financial assistance in any form, including food charity, from professional female entertainers. Some religious leaders and preachers have issued fatwas (religious edicts) declaring that it is haram (religiously forbidden) for the poor to eat from mercy tables provided by belly- dancers and other "debauched entertainers" and "seductresses" during Ramadan.
The debate has sparked much interest in the media as well as the public.
"Spend from the goodness of what you have earned," one of Egypt's most dynamic female preachers, Souad Saleh said, quoting the Quranic injunction. "Spending, in the sense of providing for the poor, generally should be of honestly- earned, halal, money. Money earned by dubious means, including entertainment, is not halal. It is haram even if it is well- intentioned." She continues, "the poor should not be eating from these mercy tables -- unless they are starving and have absolutely no other option."
Um Mahmoud, who sits regularly at the table of mercy of seasoned entertainer Fifi Abdu, says she has absolutely no qualms about being fed by the belly-dancer's largesse. "I am a widow and I come with my children to eat Iftar at Fifi Abdu's mercy tables in Gameat Al-Dowal Boulevard, Mohandessin. God bless her -- she cares for the poor."
For actresses and other professional female entertainers, Ramadan becomes an altruistic call to action. "I believe in the principle of feeding the hungry and the needy," dance diva Dina told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"I myself do not set up the tables of mercy in Ramadan, but I contribute financially to the already established mercy tables," she explained. "The debate is sexist. Why don't they object to professional male entertainers' charity," she wondered. "I refuse to get bogged down in sterile religious debates."
Egyptian pop entertainer Ruby has provided mercy tables serving Iftar meals, in the alleyway of Al-Sheikh Ibrahim, off Al-Geish Street, in downtown Cairo. Her aunts and relatives help her with the cooking and distribution of food to the poor. She believes this is the least that can be done to alleviate the poor's suffering. "Ramadan is the month of almsgiving, of mercy and compassion," Ruby explains. "I want to give -- it gives great personal pleasure and satisfaction to feed the poor".
Critics argue that the entertainers are trying to "atone for their sins". Actress Sabreen refuses to be drawn into arguments about who is sinful and who isn't. "I am not judgemental, and do not appreciate people who judge others. Piety is a very private, special relationship between an individual and God. Who am I to criticise others?"
Sabreen says that her "mercy tables" are in Helwan, the sprawling industrial suburb south of Cairo. "I do not discriminate between Christians and Muslims. Christians are most welcome to my mercy tables. The religion of the poor and needy is immaterial to me," she said.
"Many people, children, go to bed hungry not having eaten a proper meal. I can't stomach that, especially not in Ramadan."
Pop singer Sherine is proud of her poor roots. She was raised in the shantytown of Basateen, on the outskirts of affluent Maadi, where she now resides. She has engaged the enterprise of her father Sayed Mohamed Abdel-Wahab to manage her mercy tables in Basateen. Sherine says she owes it to the people of the poor neighbourhood in which she was raised.
Belly-dancer Lucy, likewise, has two mercy table undertakings -- one next to the nightclub owned by her husband Sultan El-Kashef in Haram (Pyramids) Street and the other in Mohamed Ali Street, where her artistic roots lie: it was in its vicinity that she learned how to professionally dance.
There seems to be a consensus among professional female entertainers that they do good because it gives them pure pleasure. They are acutely aware that the country has entered into a socially conservative phase unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. Religiosity is all the rage, and professional female entertainers have come under special scrutiny.
Art for art's sake is quite frankly frowned upon in many quarters. There are many middle class Egyptians who simply do not approve. Two decades ago, permitting the poor to accept the charity of what is widely seen as "ill-begotten wealth" was hardly a topic of heated debate. Today, it is.
Some entertainers claim that successful female artists and entertainers are envied because of the wealth their performances confer on them, which is regarded as haram. Their very profession is seen as an affront to religion and contemporary societal conventions. Not only should they be stigmatised, but their charity eschewed by the poor since it is "sinful".
The moral of the story seems to be that philantrophists ought to be upright, respectable members of society. Those suspected of practising the world's oldest profession, simply do not qualify.
Additional reporting by Enjy El-Naggar