Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
7 - 13 January 1999
Issue No.411
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Ramadan riddles

By Tarek Atia

It was the night before Ramadan, and the family was gathered around the fanous. It was a large, twinkling, plastic fanous that played a merry tune. All around it, piles of glittering gifts were heaped, wrapped in shiny paper and tied with large, crisp bows. The misahharati had come just before dawn and, although he had not slipped down the chimney, he had left the gifts beneath the brightly glowing lantern. At least, that was what the children were supposed to believe. In fact, the parents had spent the past month at the mall, taking advantage of the big Ramadan sales. It was the most festive time of the year, and everywhere the Ramadan jingle Wahawi Ya Wahawi was being played...

Is there something wrong with this picture? A cartoon recently published on the back page of a magazine portrays Santa Claus as the misahharati, who wakes the faithful for their pre-dawn meal during Ramadan. But how did the Western notion of Christmas as a time for giving gifts become so closely associated with the Egyptian month of fasting and prayer? Perhaps the cartoonist thought the mix was appropriate, since this year, both Western and Eastern Christmas fall within the month of Ramadan. Perhaps he thought it summed up religious/national unity. In fact, it seemed symptomatic of the Christmasisation of Ramadan.

In the US, and elsewhere in the West, Christmas -- the celebration of Christ's birth -- has been steadily commercialised over the years. Eventually, what was once a solemn religious occasion seems to have become a mere pretext for frenzied consumption, encouraged by the media. The litany starts the day after Christmas: "Only 364 shopping days left..."

Volumes have surely already been written deploring this phenomenon, especially by devout Christians who regard the seemingly irreversible trend with dismay. Every year, the papers inevitably publish at least a few comments by columnists who tsk-tsk at values gone awry and wonder whatever happened to the "true" spirit of giving.

Christmas, once spent at church or among family and community, is now, for the majority of the Western world, nothing more than an excuse to spend, spend, spend. No sooner have the dishes been scraped clean of Thanksgiving turkey than the shops begin their Christmas sales, with supermarket Santa Clauses for the kiddies, Christmas trees in all shapes and sizes, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, eggnog, grinches and elves.

In recent years, it seems, Ramadan in Egypt has begun to resemble Christmas. The fact that this year the two have actually coincided has more than a little to do with the phenomenon, of course. But the creeping commercialisation of Ramadan is also embodied in new gadgets, pastimes and fads. Some of the clearest examples of Christmasisation include:

THE FANOUS: Every year, the selection grows wider: more varieties, new choices, plastic whatsits, colours galore... Now fawanis can offer renditions of everything from the call to prayer to Kamannana or the Macarena. These novelties are imported from China or Taiwan, with distributors banking on big sales, while constantly forecasting what might work best next year. Whose idea was it to put a picture of Bugs Bunny on a plastic lantern that sings a Spanish dance song, and claim that this has anything to do with Ramadan? One can only wonder.

TELEVISION: The percentage of religious programmes decreases every year. More closely associated with Ramadan are the Fawazir (Ramadan Riddles), now a byword for the holy month and an integral part of "the spirit of Ramadan". The Riddles, incidentally, are a daily half-hour dose of song and dance sponsored by a ceramics manufacturer and liberally interspersed with ads.

Over the past few years, Al-Kamira Al-Khafiya (Egypt's own Candid Camera) has also become inexplicably, inextricably linked with Ramadan. The show's host, Ibrahim Nasr, considers himself "the Papa Noel of Ramadan", providing gifts of laughter to the country every night. Also part of Ramadan are the game shows, commercials and expensive costume dramas that keep people glued to the screen from sunset to dawn -- hardly in tune with the religious, ascetic message Ramadan is supposed to convey.

THE TENTS: More big money. They're everywhere, and cater to every class. They have to include shisha and live entertainment -- preferably singing and dancing, now essential components of the "Ramadan mood".

Societies change gradually, and the fact is that more and more people have come to consider raucous television programmes, an evening spent sipping sahlab in a tent, or a plastic fanous belting out a synthesised dance hit integral parts of Ramadan, among the things that make Ramadan enjoyable. Whether or not such activities actually go against the grain of the spirit of Ramadan seems to matter little, if at all.