Feb. 14 is one of the most celebrated events in Egypt despite the country’s at times conservative culture and the fact it is largely a Western tradition. Across the country, restaurants, hotels, florists and taxi drivers rush to cash in. But there have also been the annual grumblings from conservatives condemning the date’s popularity.
On Monday, Dar El-Ifta, the Egyptian government body founded to represent Islam and a center for Islamic legal research, said for the first time that Valentine’s Day is not forbidden in Islam.
This has led to a split in opinion on Egyptian talk shows, with channels such as Al-Haya and CBC airing debates questioning whether or not it is appropriate for a religious body to interfere in such matters.
“There are many foreign holidays that are ignored in Egypt, but Valentine’s Day is one that caught on because it hits a very important emotion with Egyptians — love,” Rola Kharsa, a TV presenter and author, told Arab News. “Love was never considered taboo in Egypt, I think it was just the fact that it was Western. But over the years, thanks to TV and especially thanks to social media, Valentine’s Day has become accepted within all social classes.”
As far back as the 1950s, Egypt had its own version of Valentine’s Day on Nov. 4. This was set by Mustafa and Ali Amin, founders of the publishing house “Akhbar Al-Yom” after publishing a poll in their paper asking people when they thought it should be celebrated.
But the date never caught on in the same way as the Western date of Feb. 14, even though it was known as “Hearts Day” up until the last decade.
In Cairo, the frenzy for the modern Valentine’s Day starts at least a week ahead of Feb. 14.
Florists raise their prices to extortionate levels, with the cost of a bouquet starting at $17 up to $55. And unlike the rest of the year, there is no room to haggle because demand is so high.
“February is the most profitable month of the year for me thanks to Valentine’s Day,” Sherif, a florist in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood, told Arab News. “But I don’t just like it because of the business. I think that it is nice that there is a day that celebrates love, and it makes me happy to see so many people in my shop buying my flowers to give to the ones they love.”
Hotel restaurant reservations also fill up quickly and offer special Valentine’s menus that — while delicious — cost much more than during the rest of the year.
“I think Valentine’s Day is such a big deal because of the fact that we’re a society that is caught between trying to be too open-minded and being like ‘Americans or Europeans,’ and the other extreme which considers it taboo,” Aya, a student at the American University in Cairo, said. “Most people in Egypt used to only celebrate birthdays, so what happens is that because people are so desperate to have someone to spend Valentine’s Day with, they also try to make it not so taboo by making it a big national event.”
While Valentine’s Day is being celebrated by more and more people of all social classes around the country, some hard-line conservatives are still against it, along with all other non-Muslim holidays.
Abu Islam, a controversial Salafist preacher sparked outrage in 2013 when he referred Valentine’s Day as “adultery day” that was only celebrated by Christians.
This mentality — while not as widely expressed as it was in 2013 before the conservative President Mohamed Morsi was in power — is still heard in some parts of Egyptian society.
But with Egyptians continuing to embrace Western celebrations and holidays and making them their own, it appears to be declining.
“My daughter just received flowers from an admirer,” said Sharbat, a domestic cleaner from the poor Imbaba neighborhood in Cairo. “Other than the fact that they are overpriced, I have no problem with it. In fact, every year I see the shops advertising Valentine’s Day more than the last.”