Tis the season, not for Christmas, but rather for spring, which brings with it a set of national holidays in Egypt. This year, the holiday calendar means that many people can bridge their way through them and enjoy a 10-day break from work.
Thursday 25 April is Sinai Liberation Day that marks the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 after 15 years of occupation as a result of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
On Monday 29 April comes Sham Al-Nessim, or “smelling the breeze”, the official start of spring. It comes one day after Eastern Orthodox Easter, as calculated by the Egyptian Coptic Church, with the precise date varying each year.
Wednesday 1 May is Labour Day in Egypt in tandem with International Workers’ Day.
Noha Abdallah, who works at a call centre in Cairo, will be making the most of the holidays by travelling back home to Aswan to spend the break with her parents. Abdallah is one of millions of people who live in Cairo for work purposes, but whose families live in other governorates. With most businesses taking time off, such people go back home or do not come into the city for work, leaving the Cairo streets clear of traffic.
A “traffic-free Cairo” is what Ahmed Abdallah said he will enjoy most during the long break. With a population of around 20 million, Cairo traffic can be hectic. Abdallah commutes every day from his house in Maadi to the smart village 40km away where he works.
Others have bigger plans. Mai Hussein, who works for an information technology company in Cairo, is taking the opportunity to travel to Dubai with friends. But travelling may not be feasible for everyone: families with children will likely stay put because their children are about to begin their exams right after the holidays.
Travel is also not feasible for many due to the expense. The increased cost of living over the past two years has meant that even many middle-income families who could previously afford weekend travel now do not have much to spare for luxury trips, especially since hotel costs are higher during the holidays.
Hisham Gomaa, an engineer, is thankful for his parent’s resort home in the Northern Coast. He is taking his family there for the break.
Manal Sayed, another Cairo resident, will be making the most of her break to settle into a new home. She has just moved into a new apartment and between work and the daily routine she has not yet had time to get everything in order.
However, the long break will not be positive for everyone. Bata, who makes a living cleaning houses, will lose out during the holidays because the people she works for will be away. However, that will not keep her from going out early in the morning with her family for Sham Al-Nessim, as this is the one day all Egyptians celebrate regardless of religion or income group.
It is a feast that is neither Islamic nor Coptic, but instead dates back to Pharaonic times. Sham Al-Nessim dates back around 4,500 years when it was called shamu, or the “renewal of life”. It marked the start of the spring festival and the beginning of the agricultural year.
On Sham Al-Nessim today it is traditional for families to get together and to go out and smell the breeze, whether to tiny green spots in crowded neighbourhoods, to the Nile, public parks, the Cairo Zoo or to coastal areas.
Above all Sham Al-Nessim is associated with coloured eggs, spring onions and lettuce, as well as smoked herring and feseekh, fermented mullet fish.
Famous for its pungent and not very attractive smell, the fish is considered a delicacy. People continue to eat it on Sham Al-Nessim despite warnings from the Ministry of Health of the risks involved. If not processed correctly, feseekh can lead to food poisoning. This year, it is selling for almost LE200 per kg. “I would rather spend the money on buying meat,” said Bata, saying it was too much to pay for what she called “rotten fish”.
Most people opt for smoked herring anyway, which is available at a much cheaper price of around LE35-LE40 per kg.
Marwa Mohamed, a teacher, plans to meet her family on Sham Al-Nessim for breakfast. They will gather together just after dawn at the social club they belong to in order to colour eggs and have breakfast. Mohamed also plans to use her break to rest and prepare for Ramadan.
After the long break on 6 May, it will be time for Ramadan. This has meant that businesses have been scurrying to close any unfinished business for the past three weeks, as things tend to slow down during the holy month due to a shorter working day and a different daily routine.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Holiday binging