The bard believed that a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but labeling mid-February fun as a Valentine’s event is controversial in the Middle East.
What began as a quiet Western tradition, indulged by the leisure class, got a post-industrial kick-in-the-pants thanks to annual promotion from a growing news industry. Simply scrawl some treacly verse on colored paper or splurge on an affordable mass-produced card, and a low-cost Lovefest for the masses was born. This holiday with dubious origins (did you know there are over a dozen Saint Valentines?) has been a runaway commercial train ever since.
Alongside its junk food, America exports its increasingly secular holidays and the world is showing a (misguided) appetite for both. Europe has glommed onto the commercialization of religious festival, but the Middle East’s been slow to jump onboard.
Blame the Christian base of these holidays, and a cultural bias for inward-looking celebration focused more on family feasting than on public display. Until this region is attacked by Cupid’s multi-billion dollar marketing, take a peek at how Valentine’s Day goes down around here:
Israel Loves Me: You’re free to celebrate on 14 Feb, or hold out ‘til summer for Tu B’Av, the real Jewish Valentine’s Day. It’s mentioned in the Talmud as one of the happiest days of the year and is a popular day for marriages. Cards and flowers are swapped, music festivals pop up, and it’s not particularly religious.
Pakistan Loves Me Not: The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party has called for banning the holiday, claiming it encourages unmarried men and women to live together in sin. Despite that party’s poopers, the celebration’s gaining popularity among young Pakistanis, but not all. This week in Peshawar, according to news blog Dawn, the student wing of JI demonstrated, chanting slogans against Valentine’s Day, saying it “spread immodesty in the world”.
Egypt Loves Me: With its tourism on life support, Egypt is pandering to heat-seeking lovebirds with all manner of unbeatable getaway packages: according to Hotels.com, Egypt’s one of ten nations where 5-star treatment costs the least in the world. In addition to St. Val’s, since the 1950’s Egyptians have been celebrating their own “hearts day” on November 4th, but the holiday is still widely viewed as taboo. Cairo University professor Bassema Hosni told Al Arabiya, “Some people misunderstand it and believe it promotes forbidden relations, forgetting that love is not limited to single men and women.”
Iran Loves Me Not: Clerics slam the day as decidedly un-Islamic. The Iranian printing union banned distribution of all Valentine’s promotional material and declared it illegal to give gifts. The Association of Cultural and Natural Phenomena (I wish my business card said that!) is lobbying to make Sepandārmazgān a national holiday (17 February). Ancient historian Bruni described Sepandārmazgān as a day where women rested while men brought them gifts. He records a day when “the good, chaste, and beneficient wife who loves her husband” enjoyed a special feast, while her man made her “liberal presents”. Smells like ancient roses and chocolates to me.
Lebanon Loves Me: Bustling Beirut mirrors many cultures and has restaurants and clubs offering St. Val’s specials to locals and ex-pats alike. The holiday is not so popular outside major cities, but that’s likely true for most of the world.
Saudi Arabia Loves Me Not: The Mutawwa’în (religious police) has banned sale of all Valentine’s Day items, even directing shop workers to remove all things red. Flower sales are prohibited, creating a black market of red roses. Florists reportedly deliver bouquets in the middle of the night to avoid suspicion.
Valentine’s Day is forbidden because it celebrates a Christian saint and, as religious scholar Sheikh Khaled Al-Dossari’s explained to the Saudi Gazette, “encourages immoral relations”. The holiday’s trappings represent the culture “of a people who are involved in the humiliation and killing of our fellow brothers and sisters,” Mariam Anwer, a Saudi schoolteacher, told the same paper.
Jordan Loves Me: Billboards boasting Valentine’s specials have popped up all over Amman. It’s hard to grab a Valentine’s booking at the most trendy venues, but that’s generally true year-round. The marketing’s bolder this year, but in actuality, the day is a sleeper with locals. My teenage daughter is going to a school dance on February15th. Scheduled to specifically avoid February 14th, it’s billed as a Homecoming Dance because Valentine’s Day is fair game for criticism.
Syria Needs Everyone’s Love: Last year, a Valentine’s Day protest was held, part of a series of demonstrations outside foreign embassies, to show solidarity with Syria freedom fighters. While the day isn’t formally banned, Syrians have more on their minds than rose-hued tokens of schmaltzy affection.
Religious authorities across several faiths say those who participate in Valentine’s Day are weak and distanced from the sublime objectives of their faith. That’s giving the day too much credence. Sure it’s contrived. A bit of harmless fun and an excuse to drop money in the name of love. If anything, this unscientific sampling of MidEast reactions shows that people everywhere know money can’t buy love, but it sure improves your bargaining position.
Image of Arab lovers from Shutterstock