How Is Valentine’s Day Celebrated in the Arab World?
By: Claire Boyle/Arab America Contributing Writer
Valentine’s Day has a significant meaning for couples and individuals all around the world because it celebrates love, romance, partnership, marriage, and friendship. Gifts for this holiday typically include (but not limited to) a fresh bouquet of brilliant red roses, Valentine’s note, a fancy dinner, a piece of jewelry, and even just time spent one on one with your loved one. Valentine is not just for people in the Western world. Did you know that countries in the Arab world have adopted their own unique traditions on how they celebrate Valentine’s Day? It’s true, but before we delve into that, let’s examine the history behind Valentine’s Day, and then we can take a look at the unique cultural celebrations popping up in numerous countries throughout the Arab World.
History of Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day has always been celebrated on February 14, but did you know there is a disputed origin of who Valentine actually was? The original purpose of the holiday was vastly different than it is today. This is because the day was originally meant to honor one, possibly two, Catholic martyrs who were both named Saint Valentine. There are numerous stories that surround various acts of kindness that “Valentine” did for others, such as being imprisoned in Rome for spreading Christianity. While imprisoned, Valentine allegedly gave the jailer’s blind daughter her sight back through a miracle. Another tale narrates that he oversaw weddings for Christian soldiers who were not always allowed to get married. Regardless of the holiday’s origin, it has become a day that celebrates love, romance, fun, and happiness.
Valentine’s Day Celebrations in the Arab World
Over the last few years, the celebration of Valentine’s Day has become widely accepted in the Arab world. In the past, a fair number of Arab countries did not celebrate Valentine’s Day because it was seen as only a Western holiday which contradicted both Christian and Muslim theology. Through secularization, many of these holidays have been more accepted now than in the past. Some, through the secular lens, see Valentine’s Day as not being harmful since it promotes quality concepts such as love, respect, happiness, marriage, and friendship.
As we explore those engaging in the festivities of the February holiday, we travel to faraway places such as Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.
The country of Egypt loves to celebrate Valentine’s Day. They engage in the celebration by having their shops covered in “flowers, red hearts, chocolate, and teddy bears.” The country is so in love with the holiday that up until a few years ago, they had their own version which was called “Hearts Day,” that has been part of their lives every November since the 1950s. However, Hearts Day never caught on like Valentine’s Day on February 14.
In Cairo, be prepared to pay high prices for flowers, even weeks beforehand. An interesting cultural feature that has happened with the high demand for Valentine’s Day related items is that the practice of haggling prices (a tradition in most Arab countries) is all but eliminated during the frenzy leading up to the holiday. Another benefit is that Valentine’s Day helps keep business owners fueled for profits all year long since a lot of them now sell the bulk of their items around February 1. Finally, the uniting force that brings Egyptians together on this day is the notion of celebrating love, which is a treasured emotion for most citizens to embrace.
Lebanon has their very own special celebratory traditions in that they emphasize familial love as well as the focus on couples. The country’s celebration also recognizes their Christian heritage since “Saint Valentine is a patron saint of the Lebanese.” Because of Lebanon’s Christian roots, Valentine’s Day is also celebrated as a feast day, meaning that the holiday is a day to reflect upon the patron saint as well as its secular messages. Couples celebrate in numerous ways, which may include exchanging sweet messages, treats, and ravishing red roses which are considered to be signs of passion and sacrifice. Lebanon’s way of celebrating is also unique given that they seem to focus on commitment, sacrifice, and following traditional mores by respecting family, as well as significant others. Finally, marriage is also emphasized as many women become engaged on February 14.
Over the past few years, celebrating Valentine’s Day in Iraq has become widely accepted, especially among the country’s young people. Interestingly, it has also become associated with protests. The holiday also has a special meaning for Iraqi Kurds.
A traditional gift or gesture to give your significant other in Iraq is to “decorate a red apple [by putting] cloves on top of the fruit to preserve it, and [this kind gesture symbolizes] the Adam and Eve story in the Bible. In more recent years, young Iraqis have used the platform of Valentine’s Day to protest for change to illustrate how much they love their country. A young Iraqi was quoted as saying, “we are here to express our love for Iraq [in which we are declaring that today is the] Valentine’s Day of Iraq.”
The country of Saudi Arabia has loosened its restrictions on celebrating the holiday because until about two years ago, Valentine’s Day was considered haram or forbidden due to Islamic law. In 2016, the Saudi government and prominent religious leaders issued a fatwa or decree, stating that Valentine’s Day was no longer banned as the holiday is not considered religious, and thus, was not in violation of the Quran. Furthermore, an important Muslim cleric recently stated that the “day celebrates a positive aspect of the human being, and thus, there is no religious reason to ban it.”
How have Saudis embraced this newfound holiday? They celebrate by having newspapers print dining guides for the night, flower shops take orders for bouquets, restaurants create themed dinners with Valentine’s Day surprises, and even upscale jewelers have gotten in on the fun by creating pieces bedazzled with diamonds, rubies, corals, and other precious stones.
In Morocco, the traditions surrounding Valentine’s Day center around receiving the much-coveted red roses. A florist in Rabat remarked that “[those flowers] are the best-selling items during February and March.” Additionally, high-end chocolates are in demand as customers want to customize their assortments. Morocco’s celebrations are somewhat similar to those of Lebanon because they also buy gifts for their families and not just significant others. The holiday is also very popular among the youth in Morocco who buys special presents on Valentine’s Day in the shopping malls. Finally, a lot of the country’s traditions have been influenced by the United States and globalization.
Valentine’s Day in the Arab World has taken on a life of its own. In the case of Lebanon, we see how their Christian roots have influenced how they celebrate the holiday. In Iraq, we learn why an apple decorated with cloves symbolizes preservation and togetherness. Additionally, we saw how celebrating Valentine’s Day has even promoted an intertwining of cultures between the Arab and Western world. But the most important of all is learning how the concept of love continues globally, uniting forces that know no boundaries. And for all those still waiting for their love to arrive, be patient and have hope that Cupid’s arrow is on its way to your heart!
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