Happy Sham El Nessim! I know, has it been a year already? I’m not sure I’m even properly prepared. Let’s see… shoes, proper clothing for outdoors (meaning no holes), door leading to outside, air, stinky salted fish and onions. Yup, I’m prepared!
In actuality, this is our first opportunity to celebrate the annual “Sham El Nessim” holiday, which literally translates to “Smell the breeze.” It’s an Egyptian holiday held on the Monday following the Coptic Easter. During this day, Egyptians grab their family, neighbors and friends and head out to the parks and gardens or any exposed piece of green grass, plunk down, and enjoy the Spring breezes whilst partaking in the traditional foods of lettuce, onions (green and/or white), dyed eggs and smelly salted fish (i.e., sardines, mackerel, anchovies).
Interestingly, this may be the only national holiday here that is not Islamic or war-victory related. In fact, it dates back to Pharaonic times, when they gave offerings to the Gods to bless the upcoming harvest and was carried through to the Coptic times, which predate Islam. Today, even though it has a Coptic history, it’s celebrated by all Egyptians regardless of faith.
There is a wee bit of controversy surrounding the whole salted fish bit, though. There are a few online articles expounding on this, “Fiseekh is at the centre of things: Grey Mullet is caught, piled high in containers, and left out until distended. When sufficient evidence of its putrification is available, salt is added and the fish are left to pickle for a few more months. And voilà, the fish that Egyptians are willing to literally die for is made. It is no wonder that tens meet their death every year during Sham Al-Nessim -- usually as a result of botulism contracted from the smelly culprits. This year [date not specified], the authorities impounded approximately 38 tonnes of spoiled fish and arrested nine Cairo shop-keepers for selling bad fish.” Lovely. Apparently some folk dismiss the botulism concerns, while others opt for the less-fear-inducing can of tuna. I say drop both, go vegetarian!
I asked both my language teacher and her cousin (whom I do the weekly “language swap” with) if there was a certain time of day this happened or when I need to go out to see everyone. “Stay inside,” my teacher said. “There are too many people. It’s a good day to watch movies.”
So it appears that the holiday is having a modernization backlash. But, considering the weather currently is beautiful (a few really warm days creep in here and there, but for the most part it’s still Spring and gorgeous), there’s no work today, and there are 16-20 million people out enjoying the breezes, she’s probably right.
Our on-scene reporter Roland McGillicutty (a.k.a. Wheaties boy) has been giving all-too-frequent updates on the activities of local Egyptians out our back window. His latest report: “Folks, we are LIVE here on Sham el-Nassim!! This is very exciting. We are live here from Zamalek, and we are going to tell you all about the steady flow of Egyptians walking along 26th of July Street, on this, Egypt’s secular spring holiday. Can you just smell that spring breeze? Can you? Breathe in, DEEP! Ah! Oh! (cough, cough, ack!). Lookee here now, we have four young Egyptian men walking at a leisurely pace along the road. That’s right four men on 26th of July. They appear to be talking to each other. Very leisurely, very much on holiday! They are strolling along. They might be heading to a park, or they might be heading to a bridge to while away the time. Their faces are relaxed, utterly relaxed, as they walk along, arms swinging. What’s this now, folks – look, it’s little Johnny, coming along behind them. He’s going to join his friends for a bit of merry making on Sham el-Nassim, right here in the heart of downtown Cairo. And what’s this, another elderly gentleman is coming along behind them, skullcap perched on his head, shirt out of his pants, going the other direction, very relaxed, very relaxed! He’s taking deep breaths, taking in that spring air (cough, cough, ack!). And what do we have here now, folks? It’s a couple calmly pushing a baby carriage down the street, that’s right a baby carriage. They’re walking, strolling right along pushing the baby, very calm and well behaved baby, just stretching her little fingers, breathing in that spring Cairo air! (cough, cough, ack!).”
So, we may just opt to enjoy our air snuffle day from the comfort of our couch, partaking in a marathon of “Battlestar Galactica, Season 4,” with periodic updates from Roland McGillicutty, unless I can convince him otherwise. Happy Sham El Nessim!