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The Price of Love: Valentine’s Day in Egypt and Its Enemies

[Storefront in Cairo on Valentine's Day 2010. Image by Karen Green via Wikimedia Commons] [Storefront in Cairo on Valentine's Day 2010. Image by Karen Green via Wikimedia Commons]

[This Valentine’s Day, Jadaliyya is proud to republish Aymon Kreil's article "The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and Its Enemies" from the Fall 2016 issue of the Arab Studies Journal. This month the Arab Studies Journal is offering discounted subscriptions through 28 February: 15% off 1-year individual subscriptions and 20% off 2-year individual subscriptions. Head over to TadweenPublishing.com and subscribe today!]

Bi-fatha, ba, bahibbak
Bi-kasra, bi, bi-shidda
Ru-damma, ruhi ruhi gambak

I lo-, lo-I love you
Wi- wi- with strength
My, my soul my soul is beside you[i]


In the 1963 film The Soft Hands (Al-Aydayy al-Na‘ima), by director Mahmud Dhu al-Fiqar, a ruined aristocrat played by Ahmad Mazhar learns how to live in the new Egypt after the 1952 revolution. He falls in love with a woman, played by the famous actress and singer Sabah, who teaches him to forget his class prejudices and makes him work. He also has to learn written Arabic. Like many members of his class at the time, his mastery of French and English was superior to that of his native tongue. Sabah answers his demand of marriage in a cryptic letter, whose meaning she later explains in a song. She wrote down the first two phonemes in the three phases “I love you,” “with strength,” and “my soul” in order to convey that she shares his feelings. The film promotes love ideals that reflect the socialist projects of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency. According to this vision, love and the common struggle to work should build the core of marriage. In this film, companionate marriage appears as a key feature of Nasserite modernity.[ii]

Today, what I call “love modernism,” the linking of love marriage with imaginations of progress,[iii] is still a living ideal in Egypt. Egalitarian ideals, however, are no longer part of state ideology. Two wars and four decades of economic reform dislocated the remains of Nasserite socialism. Consequently, economic constraints often jeopardize marriage plans. Most people have to live in extremely precarious conditions. Since marriage is a costly endeavor, long delays in courtship and engagement are common. While income disparities widened, the broad availability of imported goods as well as raised expectations of consumer goods, such as furniture, added to the financial pressure on couples hoping to get married.[iv] The political turmoil following the 2011 uprising further deepened the economic hardships facing the majority of Egyptians.

In this article, I discuss the place in Egypt of Valentine’s Day, a holiday whose broad success in the country dates back to the 1990s, as a way of exploring love and marriage in times of dire social inequality. Valentine’s Day was one of the first event-marketing holidays to arise in the United States and Britain during the nineteenth century.[v] The celebration of romantic love on 14 February has since become a worldwide phenomenon. Millie Creighton describes its successful promotion in Japan in the 1950s through a brand of chocolates.[vi] The spread of Valentine’s Day seems to have taken a steadier path during the last twenty years. In accordance with a general scholarly focus on transnational circulations since the 1990s, recent works have studied its reception in Ghana and China.[vii] This scholarship balances the study of transnational imaginations with an engagement of specific meanings that such an event takes on in different contexts.[viii]

This research also shows the need to historicize the dichotomies emerging around existing conceptions of love. Lynn Thomas and Jennifer Cole argue that in Africa conflicts between generations often took the form of opposite conceptions of love. In many cases, elders condemned the idea that love is a sound basis for marriage, while the young had love affairs with no aim other than the fulfilling of passion. With the onset of colonial rule, however, according to Thomas and Cole, these intergenerational tensions became part of broader dynamics. Some people, for instance, started to associate romantic love and companionate marriage with Western modernity.[ix]

In Egypt, historians observed parallel moves. There is a rich corpus of love poetry in Arabic.[x] Starting in the nineteenth century, however, debates about reform of the family came to be at the core of the nationalist project.[xi] Since then, for many Egyptian intellectuals, the establishment of companionate marriage and the nuclear family in a wide social strata became important markers of progress. Education played a key role in reform endeavors. Around the 1920s, the new urban educated middle class appeared as the main carrier of the national project.[xii] Cities were also the laboratory of new consumption styles that shaped the imaginations of love and of modernity. The cinema and popular music industries were powerful conveyors of these imaginations. The Soft Hand, the film evoked above, is just one example from the Nasserite period of this cultural production about love. There is a rich genealogy of discourses on love in Egypt.

The success of Valentine’s Day reveals structural elements that shape imaginings of love. Valentine’s Day shows the impact of the progressive growth of the trade between Egypt and China starting in the 1990s.[xiii] Some commodities became affordable to larger segments of Egyptians, compared, for instance, to the earlier period that Lila Abu-Lughod examined in her study on television dramas. Abu-Lughod shows that Egyptian soap operas appeared as distant dreams to most people because of the prohibitive cost of the luxury commodities linked to this universe.[xiv] Nowadays, even though most such commodities remain out of reach, gifts for lovers are available everywhere in Cairo for a few Egyptian pounds. Hence, China became an actor in the circulation and reshaping of transnational imaginations of love and modernity.[xv]

Many people who purchase gifts for Valentine’s Day engage in love chat on the Internet with boys and girls from different countries. There are also many opportunities to engage in flirtation at schools and universities, workplaces, and coffee shops, as well as in neighborhoods. These practices afford spaces for couples to practice and imagine love. As I will show, however, at the moment of marriage, with its heavy financial burdens and economic uncertainties, the involvement of lovers’ families becomes unavoidable. With this involvement comes the danger that what people consider realistic choices will crush romantic aspirations.

This study follows Eva Illouz’s analysis of romantic love as a phenomenon deeply linked to the emergence of a consumer culture emphasizing leisure and enjoyment, shaping imaginations of encounters at places like restaurants, movie theaters, or deserted beaches. For Illouz, a sense of privilege is hidden in romantic dreams, since these dreams are, for most people, difficult to realize. This romantic imagination parallels the urge to communicate feelings as a way to explore the self and attain happiness.[xvi] Illouz’s study is relevant to cases outside of Europe and Northern America. It underscores the importance of economic factors in the success of romantic discourse on love, compared to cultural and religious factors.

The financial burdens of marriage are the major hindrance to the success of romantic dreams, probably more than repressive interpretations of Islam, Christianity, or Egyptian tradition. Even if it should be obvious, it sometimes seems necessary to underscore that, like elsewhere in the world, people living in countries with Muslim majorities do not act exclusively according to religion. Most romantic situations are blurry, in this regard. People act according to principles that are neither antagonistic to Islam nor necessarily expressive of piety.[xvii] In Egypt, as in many other places, love is a major reference for the formulation of intimate expectations. It fuels attempts to describe individuals’ “inner truths.” For this reason, it is particularly useful to understand how individuals try to reconcile sometimes contradictory demands. Valentine’s Day provokes tensions between romantic ideals, conjugal strategies, interpretations of religion, and commercial imperatives.

In order to discuss these issues, I describe Valentine’s Day in Egypt, its history, and how people celebrate it. Valentine’s Day focuses on imaginaries surrounding heterosexual bonds. “True love” designates either pre-conjugal passion or, on the contrary, the silent relationship that develops over time after marriage. These contrary conceptions of love serve as a first axis of analysis. I then focus on the expressive love that Valentine’s Day promotes through its merchandising and in the context of the frequent assessment in Egypt that the event is a celebration of sweet talk. During my fieldwork, my interlocutors emphasized the expressive aspect of the event: it is a day where you have to show your feelings to the beloved. What is “true love,” then, in this context? Is it to be found before of after marriage? In conclusion, I explore the conditions of possibility of romantic love in Egypt, and how it is related to class and availability of capital.

My material was collected mainly during a two-year period of fieldwork in Cairo from 2008 to 2010.[xviii] Since then, Egypt has gone through a major political upheaval, starting with the 25 January 2011 uprising. The revolutionary moment has triggered a deep questioning of authority patterns for a significant proportion of the country’s youth. This questioning of authority could encourage defiance of institutional attempts to regulate love and marriage.[xix] But the impact of these events on larger segments of the population is still difficult to assess and needs further inquiry.

Valentine’s Day, Egyptian Style

As in the rest of the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Egypt on 14 February. Egyptians call it “the holiday of love (‘id al-hubb)” or an Arabized version of the original name: al-falantayn. On this day, many couples meet at the spots in the city that most people consider romantic. Lovers stroll along the Nile’s shores and in public gardens. Red is the main color associated with the celebration, and women are often clad accordingly. I saw young girls, for instance, wearing headscarves emblazoned in bright letters with the English word “LOVE.” Many Valentine’s Day items display English words. On 14 February, people also send phone calls and messages to their beloved. And in the evening, restaurants and concert venues hold special events.

The large-scale celebration of Valentine’s Day is recent It is difficult to date its beginnings precisely. The broad salience of the event regionally is evident in a fatwa that Sheikh Muhammad bin ‘Uthaymin issued in Saudi Arabia in February 2000 in the name of the Permanent Committee for Scientific Research and Fatwa (al-Lajna al-Da’ima li-l-Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyya wa al-Ifta’), a religious body in the kingdom. The fatwa condemns the celebration. The sheikh’s main argument is that the holiday is a bad innovation (bid‘a sayyi’a) that promotes passion and desire, and occupies the mind with shallow thoughts. In Egypt, testimonies of consumers and shop owners describe the start of the 2000s as the beginning of Valentine’s Day.

An earlier attempt to establish a “holiday of love” took place in 1978. A journalist at the government newspaper Akhbar al-Yawm, Mustafa Amin,[xx] proposed fixing 4 November as a day to celebrate love.[xxi] As a result, Egyptians distinguish between the “international holiday of love” (‘id al-hubb al-dawli) and the “Egyptian holiday of love” (‘id al-hubb al-misri). Amin’s emphasis was on love for God, nation, family, neighbors, and even passing strangers. Romance was not an essential part of it. Nowadays, people celebrate the Egyptian holiday of love in the same way as Valentine’s Day. One shop owner wrote on his vitrine “Happy Valentine’s Day 4.11.2010.” But the November version has less success than its February counterpart. “This holiday is no good (al-‘id da ta‘ban)!” as one vendor put it.

Valentine’s Day carries with it notions of intimacy, passion, and tenderness, bound to stereotypical places and situations. For instance, a couple having a walk on the shores of the Nile, sitting on a bridge, going to a restaurant or movie theater, and men offering flowers or perfumes are all practices that people portray as “romantic.” Even if gifts and messages are also exchanged between family members and friends, romance has a central place in the media depiction of the celebration. US movies, the Internet, and satellite television channels help spread such conceptions of love. The production of affordable Chinese products also has a hand in promoting these notions. These commodities have spread the celebration to all the neighborhoods of Cairo, rich and poor alike.

Offering special gifts is a central ritual. Flower shops earn a sizable component of their yearly income on 14 February, according to a survey of newspapers on Valentine’s Day between 2008 and 2015. Stuffed animals, particularly red teddy bears, are a favored present. Stuffed hearts displaying phrases in English and Arabic are also popular. These gifts are often wrapped in complicated gift boxes, sprayed with glitter and perfume, or simple decorated paper bags. Store fronts and kiosks are crammed with these items on that day in February. Most of these products are imported from China and distributed by wholesalers in the Muski neighborhood, on the edge of Cairo’s old Fatimid city. People celebrate Valentine’s Day in most of the major cities of northern Egypt. Shops in smaller rural centers have also started to carry special items.[xxii]

Thus, the celebration is significant for the yearly sales revenue of many shop owners, including those who are hostile to it. Valentine’s Day is now an established marketed holiday, alongside Ramadan, and in some wealthier areas Halloween and the Western Christmas of 25 December.[xxiii] At the Muski market, for instance, some Salafi sellers display Valentine’s Day gifts, sometimes alongside religious items. Even if most Salafi sheikhs condemn the celebration, financial considerations often outweigh convictions.[xxiv] Derogatory comments on the celebration are often audible in this context, but they do not interfere with the imperative of sales.

Criticism of Valentine’s Day draws on overlapping religious, nationalist, anti-consumerist, and moral arguments. Many Islamic scholars in the Middle East have issued fatwas condemning Valentine’s Day along the model of bin ‘Uthaymin’s fatwa, mentioned above. These scholars argue that there are only two feasts in Islam, ‘id al-fitr at the end of Ramadan and ‘id al-adha commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham. Opponents of Valentine’s Day condemn it for inciting debauchery among youth, often portraying it as a Christian celebration despite historical evidence to the contrary. The nationalist register insists on the imported nature of Valentine’s Day. “Why should I celebrate an American holiday?” a student once asked me. In a similar register, some opponents of the celebration expressed admiration for Upper Egypt, where, in the eyes of many Cairenes, such an event could not happen. Southern Egypt appears to many Egyptians as a stronghold of tradition.[xxv] The anti-consumerist argument insists on the celebrations useless expenses. One coffee shop owner based in the Muski market, condemning the holiday, said Egyptians spend ten million pounds on communication that day. “They love useless ostentatious spending,” commented a man selling teddy bears on the street when I asked why Egyptians like to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Some religious scholars are less stern in their condemnation. They argue that if the intentions are pure, there is no harm in celebrating Valentine’s Day. They tend to condemn unmarried couples celebrating the holiday, but not the holiday itself. ‘Abd al-Mu‘ti al-Bayumi, former dean of the Faculty for Islamic Theology at al-Azhar University, warns of the dangers of alienating people from religion by forbidding events that help them enjoy their relationships, especially if there is no explicit condemnation in the Qur’an or hadith. Religious and political groups have tried to redefine the meaning of the holiday of love. In the mid-2000s, for instance, Muslim Brotherhood students tried to organize a holiday of love of God (‘id al-hubb fi Allah) and later a Muhammad Day[xxvi] on 14 February. In a different but parallel vein, on 14 February 2009 the newspaper al-Misri al-Yawm ran the headline, “We love Egypt . . . and want her to change,” illustrated with a heart-shaped Egyptian flag.

Sweet Talk Institutionalized

The women and men celebrating Valentine’s Day tend to blur its origins, insisting on the universality and beauty of love. None of my interviewees evoked religion as linked to the holiday, either positively or negatively. “If a holiday is beautiful, it doesn’t matter to me if it is of Indian, Chinese, or Western origin,” stated a woman wearing a headscarf in her forties from a rich southern Cairo family. Proponents of Valentine’s Day often understate the place of romance to legitimize the holiday. Although most of the press and literature evoking Valentine’s Day in Egypt focuses on lovers, many of my respondents stated that Valentine’s Day has an ancient history in Egypt. It is only the kind of gift that now differs, they argued. Today, teddy bears have replaced flowers, perfumes, and poems of generations past. Some invoked the ritual calendars on Pharaonic temples to claim Egyptians’ eternal love for celebrations. These claims contradicted the testimonies of older respondents, who dated the emergence of the holiday in Egypt to around the early 2000s, as mentioned above. Once, for instance, I saw parents contradict their astonished son, a hairdresser from a poor area, who had just asserted how ancient Valentine’s Day was in Egypt. The name of the celebration itself, the “international holiday of love” rather than the “Western holiday of love,” could be a way to counter nationalist arguments that the celebration does not belong to Egypt, as it makes it a common product of all countries.

All of my respondents, whether supporting or condemning Valentine’s Day, emphasized the event’s expressive aspects. It is a day during which you have to show your feelings to the beloved. Likewise, on Valentine’s Day, women’s and youth magazines dedicate special issues to definitions of love and romantic stories of celebrities and commoners alike. These depictions invariably underline the importance of expressing love on 14 February. Advertisers and journalists make great efforts to convince married people that the holiday concerns them, although most people see it as a celebration for lovers who have yet to marry. Advertisers and journalists portray Valentine’s Day as the opportunity to revive a love that daily worries consume. Hence, Valentine’s Day appears as a mode of institutionalizing sweet talk on a yearly basis.

An article by journalist Dina Munib in the Arabic-language women’s magazine Flash, specialized in covering social events, titled “The Holiday of Love Is for All Ages,” indicates the importance of compelling self-expression:

Days follow each other, years of daily life, and routine is permanent. Each of us has work duties, and they usually create a kind of routine that eventually dominates our lives. With a slight change in our life, however, we are able to break and overcome it. Happy occasions (munasabat) are an important means of getting rid of this daily routine, and among the most important is the “holiday of love.” Some consider it a normal day and describe it as “superficial”—they are even ashamed of celebrating it. But isn’t it true that we often need love, that without love, we can’t live? Who among us doesn’t love?

There are different kinds of love. The holiday of love is not only for passionate lovers (‘ushaq), but can be meaningful for all ages, even those married for a long time. They need these occasions to revive sweet and beautiful feelings and move away from the daily routine with all its boredom, which erases everything, even feelings and a dreamy romanticism. Such an occasion revives love and hearts, increases happiness between husband and wife and makes life pleasurable, full of taste and color. Thanks to it, married people and lovers are joyful together. Without this occasion, hearts don’t live and life never changes. It is a beautiful occasion for everyone!

The most beautiful thing is love!
And even more beautiful than love is to celebrate it![xxvii]

This excerpt present love declarations as a way to revive marriage. This expressive dimension travels up and down the class ladder. One Valentine’s Day, I assisted at a wedding party in a poor middle-class Cairo street. The couple chose the date on purpose. One of the invitees sent a kiss to her husband in front of all the people gathered. In response to someone’s surprised comment about this gesture, she answered energetically: “What’s the matter? Isn’t it Valentine’s Day? Why would I be dressed in red otherwise?” Here, too, the celebration is a happy occasion (munasaba) to foster love among married couples through explicit signs of affection, such as letters, gifts, sweet words, or a dress code.

Many challenge the exhortation to vocalize feelings at regular intervals, however. Some respondents, mostly older ones, saw these contemporary expressions of love as superficial chitchat. For them, true love only begins through harmonious cohabitation resulting from marriage. It is not surprising that these opinions were most common among older, married informants. They often considered everything preceding marriage as sexual “appetite” (shahwa) or ephemeral “appeal” (i‘jab). Evoking Valentine’s Day, a researcher in his forties explained to me that: “Today, it’s [sounds of kisses] all the time, and [the young man] doesn’t love her, not at all!” In previous times, the man added, people loved each other but never uttered the phrase, “I love you.” These debates about the right way to express love lead to questioning Valentine’s Day’s salience by exploring how love is linked to marriage, class, and progress.

True Love and Impossible Love

Samuli Schielke points to the influences of Western stances, as well as Indian and Turkish films, as inspirations for Egyptians’ conception of “virginal love” (hubb ‘udhri), a love impossible to consummate. The very fact that it is an unreachable ideal defines true love. Its impossibility becomes a crucial part of the evidence of its strength. This ideal, in return, makes realistic adjustment difficult when it comes to stabilizing coupled life on a daily basis.[xxviii] Schielke’s approach hints at the complex genealogy of conceptions of love and is particularly relevant to describing the stances of unmarried lovers, both men and women. Many people take an opposite stance, however, and explicitly oppose true love to impossible relationships, with marriage seen as the necessary condition of love. In both cases, the marriage is a stepping stone.

Hence, there is on one side an ideal of true love built against marriage, an impossible but inescapable passion (‘ishq). Marriage, most of the time, puts an abrupt end to it. Sometimes parents do not consider partners as well suited for each other because of finances or social conventions. Sometimes feelings die out under the pressure of family responsibilities. True love goes along with a constant verbalizing of feelings.

On the opposite side, some see true love as the silent bond produced by daily interaction, mutual knowledge, and tenderness. In this conception, feelings prior to marriage are just transient expressions of lust, the ephemeral “appetite” and “appeal” mentioned above. Consequently, true love (‘ishra) is equated with the only possible love. Contrary to the passionate model that emphasizes the constant reasserting of love through verbalizing affects, this version of true love can only flourish in a complicit silence full of implicit understanding.

Of course, this opposition does not reflect behavior, which cannot fit such a simplistic dichotomy. The dichotomy reflects another common opposition in Egypt: “love marriage” (zawaj hubb) as opposed to “traditional marriage” (zawaj taqlidi). In the first kind of union, lovers marry regardless of their parents’ opinion. In the second union, the partners are not in a relationship before marriage, and parents play a decisive role in their choice.[xxix] It is easy to grasp the alternative modes of partner choice between passionate love, on the one hand, and silent love, on the other. In the first, no outside person should intervene in the partners’ mutual choice, as their bond originates in a feeling that resists all worldly pressures. This love benefits from the spaces of transgression offered by urban anonymity and the Internet. In the second model, parents can heavily influence the partners’ choice, as true love grows only after the wedding. Accordingly, some consider feelings predating marriage as dangerous for true love.

This opposition between different kinds of love and marriage are ideal types along a continuum. Most unions take place somewhere in between a marriage against the parents’ will and one in disregard of the future partners’ preferences.[xxx] In Egypt, the arranged-cum-love marriage is common. Partners already involved in a romantic relationship often receive approval for their marriage from their parents. In other cases, after a formal first encounter at the house of the future bride’s parents, mutual feelings of attachment develop during the engagement. The intermediary periods between engagement (khutuba), the signing of the marriage contract at the mosque (katb al-kitab), and the public wedding are often long, due to financial reasons. People generally consider the time following engagement as the most appropriate period for expressing romantic feelings. At the same time, this period is at a particularly dangerous moment. Couples need monitoring, as they could be tempted to have sex together, which would be unacceptable before the public wedding.

For most Egyptians, a stable marriage requires the spouses’ relative equality in status. Status can include the social origins of the family, as well as the family’s access to money, valued job positions, housing, furniture, and commodities.[xxxi] The need for status makes marriage a costly endeavor, as most parents fear a mismatch and set high conditions for possible partners of their children. Expensive weddings are another financial hurdle before marriage. Long negotiations often ensue, where parents discuss each family’s share in the costs. To marry without their help is almost an impossible task. Diane Singerman and Barbara Ibrahim consider marriage as the major moment of intergenerational transfer of wealth, especially for women.[xxxii] Respectability and physical appearance also play important roles when one is choosing a partner.[xxxiii] One of the results of Valentine’s Day’s salience is that romantic style becomes part of a class habitus and consequently a bargaining chip in determining status.

Love and Status

The opposition between “love marriage” and “traditional marriage” sheds lights on some of the issues at stake in the determination of status. There is a deep ambivalence about “tradition.” Some see it as a source of “backwardness” (takhalluf) and others as a source of “authenticity” (asala). Likewise, some consider change as “progress” (taqaddum) while other perceive change as endangering “habits and customs” (al-‘adat wa-l-taqalid). The mainstream reformist agenda combines national and religious “authenticity” with “progress” through a complex process of selection.[xxxiv]

The public discourse in Egypt portrays the middle class as able to reform the country without betraying its authenticity. This class, it appears, is free of the corruption and Westernization of the rich as well as unburdened by the ignorance of the poor. Educational capital and commitment to the reformist project appear as key features of middle-class belonging.[xxxv] Most of those who work in charities claim to belong to the middle class, for instance. They often depict their mission as educating the poor, reaffirming the value they assign to educational capital.[xxxvi]

Love modernism is also a feature of the middle class. The linking of romanticism and education was a recurrent feature of discussions with most of my respondents, regardless of their background. In this regard, love modernism appears as the opposite of sexual harassment, an issue that has shaken debates in Egypt since 2006, if not earlier.[xxxvii] Indeed, the dominant discourse in the country attributes sexual harassment to the substandard education of denizens of poor neighborhoods, even if the practice is far from confined to these social strata. This categorizing along class lines does not reflect individual demeanors but marks imaginary positions on the country’s social scale. The mastering of romantic codes is one example, and love behaviors appear as an important feature of distinction in Egyptian visions of the class order.[xxxviii]

The middle class (al-tabaqa al-wusta) is itself an imprecise category. It does not describe a well-defined socioeconomic stratum, but rather constitutes what Luc Boltanski calls a “weak aggregate.”[xxxix] According to Boltanski, the cohesion of weak aggregates rests on representation, both in the theatrical and political sense of the word. Being middle-class involves a stereotypical way of living. At the same time, different sectors of the political field compete to represent the middle class, as its position in the “middle” (wasat) allows claims of social centrality[xl] and makes the “middle class” the core bearer of Egyptian modernism.

Love modernism means expressing one’s feelings and obtaining emotional fulfillment within the institution of marriage. In a religious framework, many sheikhs emphasize the need to talk sweetly with one’s wife and the importance of the couple as a place of intimacy. As mentioned before, some support Valentine’s Day in the name of love. In a nationalist framework, romanticism helps to emphasize Egyptian superiority vis-à-vis Arab Gulf countries, which people often describe as backward and repressive, as well as Western countries, which they describe as having lost sight of all restraint in values and practices. Hence, migrants coming back from these regions are often accused of bringing in “un-Egyptian” family behaviors into the country.[xli]

In this regard, romanticism and its correlate, the mastering of proper ways to express feelings with gentleness, are tools of distinction. This process is reminiscent of Pierre Bourdieu’s more general analysis of ways of talking as social classifiers of the people using them. In Bourdieu’s view, this hierarchy is shared even among speakers unable to express themselves in a refined style. Hence, social codes push them to acknowledge their deficiency.[xlii]

Through the spread of formal education since the 1950s, an increasing number of Egyptians have become able to identify themselves as part of the “middle class.” As educational facilities at high schools and universities are a major place for romance, love expectations linked to the middle class are more viable. This configuration carries specific models of masculinity related to love modernism. The gentleness of the educated contrasts with the rougher style of manhood attributed to lower-class areas, with a direct impact on love projects.[xliii] Romanticism thus becomes an issue of status and a part of the bargain around marriage evoked above.

With its celebration of romantic love, Valentine’s Day is a possible aspirational track for class mobility. The fact that so many inscriptions on Valentine’s Day commodities are in English, for instance, indicates a strong correlation between the celebration of the holiday and access to “cosmopolitan capital,” which Anouk de Koning describes as “those forms of cultural capital that are marked by familiarity with and mastering of globally dominant cultural codes.”[xliv] Currently, English is an important part of this cosmopolitan capital. The correlation even appears in slogans opposing the celebration. One Facebook image that makes the rounds on 14 February features a hand gesturing refusal with the caption: “Sorry Valentine’s Day, I am Muslim.” Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood student group, discussed above, that proposed a counter-holiday called it “Muhammad Day” in English. As an international event, Valentine’s Day thus becomes a valued sign of modernity and urban belonging.

An interlocutor claimed to enjoy the holiday without fear because he lives in a city. He despised the inhabitants of Upper Egypt, who according to him would not allow for such an event. Hs position opposed other interlocutors who valorized maintaining the tradition that they attributed to the inhabitants of the country’s south. Thus, the appeal of cosmopolitanism is not the only track of aspiration for the middle class. Some defend love modernism while loudly resisting models they see as Western, such as Valentine’s Day. Criticism of the celebration also largely originates from people claiming to belong to the middle class. Furthermore, in a country where so many families get by on very limited resources, romantic aspirations often run up against other major requirements in a good partner, especially decent work and sufficient capital.

No Money, No Honey: The Economic Limits of Romanticism

Valentine’s Day appears as an incentive to talk, in accordance with an image of the modern subject as an individual authentic to himself. The constant expression of feelings is the best means of attaining authenticity. Love gets its own kind of agency, reflecting individuals’ inner truths. Such possible signs of a growing individualization face structural constraints, however, especially given the family’s importance in validating a person’s choice of partner.

The high price of marriage, as already mentioned, makes it almost impossible for couples to marry without parents’ financial help. These conditions mean that many young people come to cling to realism and abandon ideas of romantic involvement that survives against the will of their families. This kind of realism gives a hint at the strength of kinship institutions in a country with a very weak system of social insurance, and where the family remains the core of solidarity networks.

These structural constraints partly explain why people attribute the celebration of Valentine’s Day to a youthful indulgence in romanticism. Models of romantic love have a long history in Egypt. Hence, the intergenerational tensions around status considerations in the choice of conjugal partner reflect a constant redistribution of age roles rather than a linear change in conceptions of marriage.

Can it be said that there is a gap between ideals and pragmatic norms here? The issue is more complicated and better explained by the importance of common-sense definitions of what collective practices are in the very process of shaping majority values. This self-relational character of common practice is especially relevant when people relate it to identity. The very fact that silent love after marriage appears as a majority practice can serve to legitimize it as a norm.

Thus, following Illouz, romanticism bears hidden privileges. Affordable commodities have done a lot for the success of Valentine’s Day today. The event has become an ‘id, a celebration eliciting expectations from partners, as an accountant in his forties coming from a popular area put it once. The same man added that he himself does not celebrate it because he is already married. Even if married people sometimes celebrate it, Valentine’s Day still does not seem to have shaken the ways in which people get married. Hence, it appears clear that economic constraints as much as cultural conceptions are central to understanding how people in Egypt refer to love—and romantic love, in particular.

Luc Boltanski, in a recent work, describes what he calls “the reality of reality” as the capacity of given settings to impose themselves as obvious to agents. These agents, in turn, impose restrictions on themselves, adjusting their expectations to the limits they consider realistic.[xlv] By this very logic, financial constraints on marriage appear to tame romantic aspirations, which nevertheless remain part of the love imaginations of many Egyptians. Young people, still hoping to attain ideals of romantic love, clash with older people who have felt it necessary at some point to adjust to the constraints of what they perceive as reality. But the power of desire should not be underestimated, shaping aspirations, opening side routes for individual experience, and sometimes corroding the most established evidence.[xlvi] By connecting love to transnational imaginations, Valentine’s Day and its yearly institutionalization of sweet talk offers new paths to the experience and disciplining of intimate aspirations around romantic consumption.


[Republished with permission: Aymon Kreil, "The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and Its Enemies,"
Arab Studies Journal XXIV, no. 2 (Fall 2016), 128-147. © All rights reserved.]

 


[i] My translation.

[ii] On family politics during this period, see Omnia S. El Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 213-18; Laura Bier, Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[iii] For other examples of the linking of love and modernity, see Holly Wardlow and Jennifer S. Hirsch, Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship and Companionate Marriage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

[iv] For macro-statistics on marriage in Egypt, see Philippe Fargues, Générations arabes: L’alchimie du nombre (Paris: Fayard, 2000); Diane Singerman, “The Economic Imperatives of Marriage: Emerging Practices and Identities Among Youth in the Middle East,” in The Middle East Youth Initiative Working Papers (Washington, DC: Middle East Youth Initiative, 2007); “Marriage and Divorce in Egypt: Financial Costs and Political Struggles,” in Les Métamorphoses Du Mariage Au Moyen-Orient, ed. Barbara Drieskens (Damascus: Presses de l’IFPO, 2008).

[v] Leigh Schmidt, “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870,” Winterthur Portfolio, 28, no. 4 (1993), 209-45.

[vi] Millie Creighton, “Sweet Love’ and Women’s Place: Valentine’s Day, Japan Style,” Journal of Popular Culture, 27, no. 3 (1993), 1-20.

[vii] Astrid Bochow, “Valentine’s Day in Ghana: Youth, Sex, and Fear Between Generations,” in Generations in Africa: Connections and Conflicts, ed. Erdmute Alber, Sjaak van der Geest and Susan Whyte (Hamburg: Lit, 2008), 418-29; Roberta Zavoretti, “Be My Valentine: Bouquets, Marriage, and Middle-Class Hegemony in Urban China,” Working Papers 150 (Halle/Saale: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, 2013).

[viii] Mark B. Padilla et al., Love and Globalization: Transformations of Intimacy in the Contemporary World (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008).

[ix] Jennifer Cole and Lynn M. Thomas, Love in Africa (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 15-16.

[x] Andras Hamori, “Love Poetry (Ghazal),” in ‘Abbasid Belles-Lettres, eds. Julia Ashtiany, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Michael Sells, “Love,” in The Literature of Al-Andalus, eds. María Rosa Menocal, Raymon Scheindlin, and Michael Sells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Fédéric Lagrange, Islam d’interdits, Islam de jouissance (Paris: Téraèdre, 2008), 185-97; William Chittick, “Love in Islamic Thought,” Religion Compass 8, no. 7 (2014).

[xi] El Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory; Hanan Kholoussy, For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Kenneth M. Cuno, Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2015).

[xii] Lucie Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[xiii] Elena Aoun and Thierry Kellner, “La pénétration chinoise au Moyen-Orient: Le cas des relations sino-égyptiennes,” Monde chinois 44, no. 4 (2015).

[xiv] Lila Abu-Lughod, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 47-51, 220-23.

[xv] Lisa B. Rofel, Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Judith Stacy, Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Jean-Baptiste Pettier, “The Affective Scope: Entering China’s Urban Moral and Economic World Through Its Emotional Disturbances,” Anthropology of Consciousness 27, no. 1 (2016).

[xvi] Eva Illouz, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Eva Illouz, Les sentiments du capitalisme (Paris: Seuil, 2006).

[xvii] Samuli Schielke, “Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam,” ZMO Working Papers 2 (2010); Farha Ghannam, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 63-64.

[xviii] The fieldwork involved interviews and observations about coffee shop conversations, Valentine’s Day, and sexual harassment, as well as in-depth research at a counseling center. My respondents on the topic of Valentine’s Day were of all backgrounds and generations, with a focus on men visiting coffee shops in the neighborhoods of ‘Abdin and Sayyida Zaynab, upper-class women in Helwan, and vendors of items linked to the holiday in the areas of ‘Abdin and Heliopolis. I was able to conduct the fieldwork thanks to a grant from the Centre d’études et de documentation économiques, juridiques et sociales (CEDEJ).

[xix] Shereen El-Feki, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013).

[xx] Mustafa Amin (1914-1997) is a famous Egyptian journalist. His twin brother ‘Ali Amin (1914-1976), also a journalist, created the Egyptian Mother’s Day.

[xxi] Mustafa Amin, 100 fikra wa fikra (Cairo: Akhbar al-Yawm, 1989), 88-89, 94-95, 126-27, 175-76. This book gathers Amin’s chronicles. Though they are undated, a study of their content shows that all described events happened between 1978 and the start of 1979. Further, the “holiday of love” is announced as “Saturday, the fourth of November”—and in 1978, this date was indeed a Saturday.

[xxii] Unfortunately, I lack evidence for the cities of Upper Egypt, as I was unable to conduct fieldwork around the topic in this region.

[xxiii] The Coptic Christmas is on 7 January. On the marketization of Muslim holiday, see Walter Armbrust, “The Riddle of Ramadan: Media, Consumer Culture, and the ‘Christamtization’ of a Muslim Holiday,” in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, eds. Donna Lee Bowen and Evelyn A. Early (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

[xxiv] Salwa Ismail, “Piety, Profit, and the Market in Cairo: A Political Economy of Islamisation,” Contemporary Islam 7, no. 1 (2013).

[xxv] On stereotypes about the inhabitants of Upper Egypt, see Fançois Ireton, “Les quatre relations d’incertitude d’un construit identitaire collectif à référence territoriale: l’exemple des Sa‘idis,” in Valeurs et distance: Identités et sociétiés en Egypte, ed. Christian Décobert (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2000), 319-61.

[xxvi] English original.

[xxvii] My translation.

[xxviii] Samuli Schielke, Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence Before and After 2011 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 83-104.

[xxix] It is also called “living room marriage (zawaj salunat)” because the future partners meet for the first time in the living room of the apartment of the bride in the presence of her parents.

[xxx] Robert Springborg, Family, Power, and Politics in Egypt: Sayid Bey Marei--His Clan, Clients, and Cohorts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 29-30.

[xxxi] Samuli Schielke, “Living in the Future Tense: Aspiring for World and Class in Provincial Egypt,” in The Global Middle Class: Theorizing through Ethnography, ed. Carla Freeman, Rachel Heiman, and Mark Liechty (Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research), 31-56.

[xxxii] Diane Singerman and Barbara Ibrahim, “The Costs of Marriage in Egypt: A Hidden Dimension in the New Arab Demography,” Cairo Papers in Social Sciences, 24, no. 1-2 (2001), 80-116; Diane Singerman, “Marriage and Divorce in Egypt: Financial Costs and Political Struggles.”

[xxxiii] Andrea Rugh, Family in Contemporary Egypt (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 1988), 121-47.

[xxxiv] Lila Abu-Lughod, “The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism in Egypt: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics,” in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 243-69.

[xxxv] Walter Armbrust, “Bourgeois Leisure and Egyptian Media Fantasies,” in New Media and the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, eds. Dale Eickelman and Jon Anderson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 106-32; Assia Boutaleb et al., “Dire les classes moyennes: Quand des citoyens égyptiens en parlent,” Carnets de Bord 10 (2005).

[xxxvi] Janine Clark, Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); Aymon Kreil, “Science de la psyché et autorité de l’islam: Quelles Conciliations?” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 170 (2015).

[xxxvii] Paul Amar, “Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out?” International Feminist Journal of Politics 13, no. 3 (2011); Perrine Lachenal, “Beauty, the Beast, and the Baseball Bat: Ethnography of Self-Defense Training for Upper-Class Women in Revolutionary Cairo (Egypt),” Comparative Sociology 13, no. 1 (2014); Aymon Kreil, “Dire le harcèlement sexuel en Égypte: Les aléas de traduction d’une catégorie juridique,” Critique Internationale 70 (2016).

[xxxviii] Aymon Kreil, “ Love Scales: Class and Expression of Feelings in Cairo,” La Ricerca Folklorika 69 (2014).

[xxxix] Luc Boltanski, The Making of a Class: Cadres in French Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 291.

[xl] Assia Boutaleb et al., “Dire les classes moyennes,” 24-45.

[xli] Lucile Gruntz and Delphine Pagès-El Karoui, “Migration and Family Change in Egypt: A Comparative Approach to Social Remittances,” Migration Letters, 10, no. 1 (2013), 71-79.

[xlii] Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 54.

[xliii] In this regard, it is reminiscent of Bourdieu’s depictions of the difficulties in finding a wife endured by men who grew up in a rural environment because of their lower-class background (Pierre Bourdieu, Le bal des célibataires: Crise de la société paysanne en Béarn (Paris: Seuil, 2002). See also Ghannam, Live and Die Like a Man, 59-84.

[xliv] Anouk de Koning, Global Dreams: Class, Gender, and Public Space in Cosmopolitan Cairo (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2009), 9.

[xlv] Luc Boltanski, On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 33-37.

[xlvi] Aymon Kreil, “Territories of Desire: A Geography of Competing Intimacies in Cairo,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 12, no. 2 (2016).

 

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