Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 April 2009
Issue No. 944
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Green and savoury

Sham Al-Nessim is about salt fish and the green parks, but this year it was about money too, as Nashwa Abdel-Tawab discovered

photos: Sherif Sonbol Click to view caption
Egyptians took advantage of Sham Al-Nessim's sunshine and took to whatever open spaces they could find
photos: Sherif Sonbol

Hours pass by, days come and go, but sometimes the holidays chosen by our ancestors survive over time, and so do the rituals.

Sham Al-Nessim --literally "smelling the breeze" -- is one of those days. Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, have been celebrating just as our ancestors did 4,500 years ago.

This is the only day when almost every Egyptian does not have to ask the nagging question, "What are we going to eat today?" By tradition, it is a set menu. The breeze is full of the haunting and unmistakable smell of desiccated fish, eggs and onions.

"No one cares about the morality behind the feast or the stories surrounding its origins," says Ali Suleiman, a socio-psychologist. "They only go for the easiest part of the story -- food and family gatherings outdoors in cheap places. It is the typical Egyptian way."

In the early morning of Sham Al-Nessim, millions of Egyptians crowd into open green spaces, even if it means sitting on grassy patches next to a road. Families on a less limited income start preparing food at dawn, then pack up their blankets and go out to enjoy the spring breeze. The wealthy do it their own way. "But everyone enjoys the fun," Suleiman says. "It's an outlet for the frustrated Egyptian who wants to forget about problems." Suleiman points out that there is no questioning of the origins of the feast, nor of its unhealthy eating rituals.

Many Muslims use the holiday as an excuse for a celebration, a reason to break the routine of the week. "We all know it isn't a Muslim feast, but that doesn't mean I can't take my children out to celebrate and watch other people celebrating and having fun," says Magdi Rashid, an accountant.

Favourite venues for the Sham Al-Nessim picnic are the Cairo Zoo, the Qanater Gardens north of Cairo, and gardens and clubs nationwide. Some head for the beaches of Alexandria and Ain Al-Sokhna. Hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada also boasted full occupancy this year.

For Egyptians, Sham Al-Nessim marks the advent of Spring. It falls on the first Monday after Coptic Easter, and it was linked to agricultural activity in ancient Egypt. It included fertility rites and ancient harvest festivals that were later, and unwittingly, attached to Christianity and the celebration of Easter. The date is not a fixed one: it is calculated according to the Coptic calendar -- and here "Coptic" means the Egyptian calendar, which had its origins in the annual Nile flood and the agricultural seasons.

It seems that Sham Al-Nessim is a holiday as old as Egypt. According to the Egyptian Information Service, the name is actually derived from the ancient Egyptian harvest season, Shamo, the "the renewal of life". According to Plutarch's Annals, the ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce and onions to their deities on this day.

This is only one of many stories concerning the holiday. Centuries ago people who believed in healing powers and other bits of folklore chose these types of food as part of pagan ritual, yet nowadays, out of the ritual of tradition, Egyptians still choose to celebrate -- and even die for it.

At the centre of the festival is fesikh, grey mullet; caught, piled high in containers, and left out until it is distended. When it is sufficiently putrefied, salt is added and the fish are left to pickle for a few months. Et viola, the fish that Egyptians are willing literally to die for is processed. It is no wonder that dozens are poisoned and several meet their fate every year during Sham Al-Nessim, usually as a result of botulism contracted from the foul-smelling feast.

The price of fesikh ranged this year from LE40 to LE60 a kilo. "The fesikh is prepared in a traditional process that is considered almost an art form. The process of preparing the fish is passed from one generation to another to ensure its quality," says Mounir Abdel-Salam, a fasakhani (salt fish) specialist in Giza for 43 years.

However, while there are many fesikh experts, there are others who see it as an opportunity to make a fast buck at the expense of people's lives. This year the authorities impounded approximately 42 tonnes and 150 kilogrammes of rotten salted fish and rotten smoked fish in six governorates.

Local papers ran articles on how to identify clean fesikh -- by checking the flesh around the backbone and making sure the smell is not too pungent --- and how much to eat. Nationwide, centres for the treatment of poisoning announced a 48-hour emergency. Medicines to treat botulism were distributed nationwide, but unfortunately four out of the 26 upstanding Egyptian citizens with severe fesikh poisoning last year died. The highest number was in 1991, when 90 cases were reported and 18 died. Last year Egypt spent LE2 million on medication for poisoning.

Egyptians can't stop eating the fish in spite of the dangers. Laila Malek, a 50-year-old housewife, looks forward to the special day to go out with her family, munch as much fesikh as possible and see her children and grandchildren playing and having a good time.

"I like fesikh a lot, and this kind of food makes it more special more than any other festival. It has the qualities of the best holiday, it is Spring, the weather is good and it is also a national holiday, so we can congregate together and go out and eat among nature and have fun," she says.

Malek is not concerned with the unhealthiness of fesikh. "What around us is healthy? At least we are eating something that we enjoy," she laughs.

But it is not all about fish: there are the coloured eggs, the lupine beans, and lettuce to name but the basics. New to the celebrations this year were the plastic Chinese eggs. The colouring and eating of natural eggs has been replaced by buying and colouring artificial ones.

Although most go with the flow, some people choose to create their own rituals.

"I don't celebrate the day but I enjoy the family union," says Hala Ali, 46. "People say it marks the beginning of Spring, but we know Spring comes a month earlier [21 March] and some say it was associated first with the Exodus, then with the resurrection of Christ three days after his crucifixion, although they say it's a Pharaonic festival," Ali says. The muddled information about the day has led her to reject the idea of a festival that has several roots but has become so commercialised. Years ago, Ali stopped celebrating the day and eating salt fish because it was unhealthy. Yet she does not deny that she likes to see the family together, since everyone is free on the national holiday to sit around the table and eat together. "I eat fresh fried fish, tuna or even macaroni and meat," she says. "But no fesikh."

Some have tried to limit the expenses of the day by altering the rituals. One such is 68-year-old driver Ahmed El-Sherif who stopped celebrating the day because of the cost. "I have four children. So I decided to minimise our food budget," he said. Instead of four kilos of fesikh and three kilos of ringa (salted herring fish), he buys two kilos of fesikh and one of ringa, plus other side dishes and drinks, koshari (rice, macaroni and lentils) and fuul. "Do you know how much it costs me for one unhealthy meal? LE200, and my salary is LE800. I don't think it's worth it nowadays," El-Sherif says.

This specific national holiday is believed to be of the most expensive. People have to pay to get around. They go out or travel, buy expensive food and eggs, play games and have fun, and get together with their families. According to the latest local statistics, Egyptians spend 45 per cent of their income on food and the rest on education, clothing, travelling and housing.

Yet El-Sherif remembers that when he was young, things were different. "We enjoyed the dawn breeze, smelled the onions and ate coloured eggs, went on picnics and ate the salty meal in a big family gathering, and all these things barely made a dent in the family income."

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