Building up to Coptic Christmas on 7 January, Nader Habib
celebrates New Year's Eve
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A shoemaker working on New Year's Eve; boats on the Nile; decorations inside a Cairo hotel; lit-up Christmas tree; Santa toys; five-star hotels celebrating the festive season
On being given this assignment I couldn't help remembering the star comedian Mohamed Heneidi as the struggling TV journalist in Gaana Al-Bayan Al-Tali (Breaking news). Among Heneidi's earliest assignments in the film was to report on how the average Egyptian spends that special evening; the quest for authenticity turns out to be disastrous, however: a family man in a sewerage pond; the café-goer, single and unemployed, who responds to the statement "Happy New Year" with: "You crazy, boy?" When the owner of the channel Heneidi works for reviews the tape, he is enraged, and the hapless young career man is forced to bribe his real-life protagonists before re-shooting so that they will pretend to be happy. The irony, of course, is that elsewhere in the city, at the same time, others will be holding the most extravagant parties...
As it turns out, different neighbourhoods celebrate differently. New Year's Eve in Zamalek, Maadi or Heliopolis -- affluent, cosmopolitan communities which tend to show copious signs of Christmas as of 25 December, with Santa Claus, the ubiquitous tree taking over shop windows, along with gift boxes and wrapping -- will be different from New Year's Eve in Old Cairo, for example, where people still buy trees, but untrimmed and, without the benefit of cellophane, at far lower prices. According to Said Mohamed, a plant and ornamental tree seller in Moqattam, people also buy flowers like holly and mistletoe, he says, with which to decorate their trees. But there are practical considerations besides cost. For journalist Donia Wagdy, "a Christmas tree is a beautiful thing but I live on the fifth floor and the building has no elevator; it would cost me at least LE50 to get someone to carry a proper tree all the way up to the flat." Instead, she uses a lightweight artificial tree, which Wagdy redecorates every year.
Outside the framework of consumerism, however, families enjoy spending that special evening together -- in the ancestral family home, where one exists -- or the next closest thing. There the children gather and amuse themselves with decorating the tree, whether they use objects they made themselves or bought ready-made. They dress up as Disney characters -- face painting is particularly popular -- or play with balloons. The women cook; seafood is a favourite for dinner on New Year's Eve, since -- as fish-seller Um Romani explains -- the fast will be ongoing, making fish the only possible meat. By the next day, up to three, sometimes four generations will have interacted. Gifts are exchanged throughout the evening, but the ritual only really begins once everyone is there, when older family members begin to wax nostalgic as they express their exasperation with inflation: "What has the world come to!" Sipping wine, they discuss the widest range of topics. Switching off the light minutes before midnight, they kiss. Often it is TV that announces the arrival of the new year, and the family will have followed at least one glamorously high-profile party being broadcast live. Chemist Hani Wahba, however, prefers to spend the evening in church, singing along as part of the choir. Despite his love for his family, he feels it is only natural to begin the new year with God. Still, Wahba too has fish for dinner -- lots of it.
For artist Wagdi Habashi, who hails from Alexandria, New Year's Eve is associated with habits apparently taken from Greeks and Italians -- besides fireworks and miniature explosions, bottles and objects are thrown at passers by, even those peering out of their windows or sitting on balconies. For those who can afford it, a high-profile hotel party costing LE800- 1,500, however, is the preferred mode of going crazy. Tourists spend New Year's in Luxor and Aswan. Those who cannot do otherwise, including... erm... journalists, spend New Year's Eve working, of course. Fathi, a railway steward, says he is happy to help passengers reach their loved ones even as he is separated from his own. "Working in this field gives me hope to improve conditions in this country, because I always travel from one city to another and I recognise from the train window how things change over time." I swear, I didn't bribe Fathi to look so happy while he said that.