It has brought us boundless joy, which brings to mind those hardly forgotten words of the poet T S Eliot. In the first line in his masterpiece “The Wasteland”, written in 1922, he laments “April is the cruelest month.”
Far from it. We have been fortunate indeed, for after two joyless years of confinement, fear, despair, disease, and death, April came with trees of green, and Ramadan followed, bringing sunshine in our lives and joy in our hearts.
Following the lunar calendar, Ramadan’s date changes from year to year, and this year it has come in April.
A time for fasting, prayers, and abstinence from worldly pleasures from dawn to dusk, Ramadan is a month of contrasts, offering feasts, charities, reunions and friendship, a mingle of faith, hope and charity.
The joy of giving and forgiving of Ramadan is equal to none, making April also equal to none.
Amidst flowers and sunshine, love and romance, came the holiest day in the Christian calendar, Easter. It was an extravaganza of little chickens and bunnies and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Crucified by the Romans, he rose again.
The resurrection symbolises the same theme of nature’s spring — new life, re-birth and hope.
This sacred day was celebrated not once, but twice.
The Christian Orthodox Church follows the old Gregorian calendar, which is about two weeks later than the Julian calendar the West follows. The majority of Egyptian Christians, the Copts, follow the Orthodox Church as do many others around the world. Once more Easter rituals were held at churches and the faithful attended mass.
More coloured eggshells, rabbits, and chicks; more prayers, embraces, laughter, and tears.
The day is a public holiday in honour of the sacred day of the Copts. The whole country celebrates. But that is not all.
One feast that is celebrated by all Egyptians, Sham Al-Nessim, falls one day following the Coptic Easter Sunday. It is uniquely a feast for all Egyptians, regardless of their religion. Copied by no other nation, (unlike the originally American Thanksgiving Day), it has been celebrated in this precious land for almost 3,000 years.
It has its roots in ancient Egypt, as the natives welcomed the coming of spring in their fashion. This feast dates back to at least 2700 BC, the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. The name of the feast in Arabic is loosely translated as “inhaling the breeze” — of spring of course. The name is derived from the ancient Egyptian language, Tshom hi Tchom, which means “garden meadows”. How appropriate. Is that not where we should all be?
How did the Egyptians figure out the coming of spring? Easy. The Spring Equinox was the date which was determined by looking at the direction of the sunlight and sunset over the Pyramid.
During the Christian era under Roman occupation, Sham Al-Nessim joined the Christian Easter celebrations. With the advent of Islam, however, the ancient Egyptian feast was observed a day after Easter. Since then, it has been celebrated regularly by all of Egypt. One feast, one country, one big happy feast.
Out of their homes at last, this April millions of Egyptians were strolling by the banks of the Nile, picnicking in the parks, staring at animals at the zoo, or taking their first sunbath on one of our many beaches. Family and friends inhaled the fresh breezes of spring, a welcome sensation, after years of masks and social distancing.
One can safely say this is eggs-travaganza…for multi-coloured eggs are the fun food of both feasts. This, too, is an ancient Egyptian tradition as the egg was a symbol of re-birth, new life and new beginnings.
What a blessed April this has been, now making way for May, king of all months: “If you were April’s Lady, and I was Lord of May.”
May heralds the breaking of the fast of Ramadan. Eid Al-Fitr, or feast of the breaking of the fast. Morning prayers give thanks and on to more feasting, with children’s laughter pervading spring’s fresh air.
Kitchens in homes and bakeries are busy creating their special Eid delicacies, with kahk, a sugar cookie being the most popular.
How can April, fresh and gay as the childish laughter of an innocent girl, be cruel? If you wish to choose a cruel month, why not March? It is named after Mars, the god of war, the month of the great Spanish flu pandemic as well as the announcement, on 20 March, of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was March when Hitler annexed Austria, and lest we forget, “Beware the Ides of March”, when Julius Caesar was killed by his friend Brutus.
As we read and re-read the landmark work of our modernist poet, we dispute the claim that “April is the cruelest month,” yet we forget, or choose to forget, the last word of the first line, “breeding” a very significant implication of hope, and breeding what? Lilacs, the first blossoming flowers of spring.
The poem was written after WWI, the Spanish flu, which killed 20 million, leaving his adopted city London, once a merry, busy capital, desolate, and dreary. Eliot was also expressing his own personal state of depression after a nasty divorce and wife Vivienne being committed to an asylum.
Would he have written it this April, almost a century later, it might have read: “April is the sweetest month… breeding lilacs, laughter, and hope.”
“And time remembered, is grief forgotten/ And frost is slain and flowers begotten.”
Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.