NMIT Working Papers present preliminary
formulations of new data and thinking from ongoing social
science research on the economic, cultural, policy and social
implications of new media, communication and information
technologies in the contemporary Middle East.
Views expressed are those of the
authors, who welcome feedback and comment from
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Riddle of Ramadan: Media, Consumer Culture and the
'Christmas-ization' of a Muslim
Paper delivered at the American Anthropological
Association, November 2000.
The basic outlines of the Ramadan fast are familiar to all
practicing Muslims. During the month of Ramadan Muslims are to
refrain during daylight hours from eating, drinking, and sex
(indeed, all activities that involve introducing a substance
into the body, including smoking, snuffing, and injection).
Certain categories of people are legitimately excused from the
fast, such as pregnant women, young children, the physically
infirm whose health would be harmed by not eating, travelers,
or combatants in a war. Everybody else must observe the fast
during daytime for the duration of the month, which is
reckoned on a lunar calendar (by the phases of the moon
observable from earth) rather than a solar calendar (based on
a full revolution of the earth around the sun).
Of course the observance of Ramadan does not always adhere
strictly to an unchanging and abstract ideal. There is nothing
exceptional in such disjunctions between the formal rules of a
ritual practice and its actual performance. Just as American
celebrations of Christmas have changed enormously, acquiring
all sorts of social accretions in the context of changing
historical circumstances, so too have practices associated
with the observance of Ramadan evolved in response to new
cultural and material realities. Today many people do in fact
simplify or curtail their daily routines during Ramadan in
order to lessen the hardship of the fast. New habits of
consumption have become associated with Ramadan, some of which
may be questionable in terms of the meaning of the ritual, as
opposed to its technical performance. It is no secret that for
many people the quiet contemplation during Ramadan of values
such as piety and humility sometimes take a back seat to other
Of course my purpose in this paper is not to expose the
rough edges of Ramadan fasting. Presumably they have always
been there to some extent, and it is, in any case, quite
impossible to gauge how closely an individual's intent in
observing (or not observing) Ramadan conforms to ideal models
of religiosity or worldliness. It is the articulation of
modernity and the observance of Ramadan that concerns me.
Particularly modernity in the forms of consumerism, and mass
media. Quite obviously mass media and consumerism enable the
elaboration of practices that conflict with more abstract
understandings of the significance and proper observance of
The centerpiece of my paper is a description and analysis
of the Fawazir Ramadan (fawazir: riddles; sg.
fazzura) television program. The program tells a riddle
each night of the month of Ramadan. The riddle is not just
stated; it is enacted in lavish song-and-dance routines
broadcast roughly an hour after the iftar, the breaking
of the fast just after sundown. Currently there are many other
fawazir programs on the air, almost certainly a
steadily increasing number. Furthermore, the custom of telling
riddles on television shows during the post-fast periods of
Ramadan is widely practiced in at least the Arabic-speaking
Middle East. I have by no means satisfied my curiosity about
the origins of either the custom or the television programs,
but to the best of my knowledge, the "Ur" Fawazir
Ramadan is the Egyptian program, which for at least the
past two decades, has been a post-iftar dance
I am interested in the Fawazir as a ritual of
mass consumption. I hypothesize that the Fawazir
program promotes a "Christmas-like" association of materialism
with cultural value. In the Anglo-Egyptian Christmas that has
become a global holiday the key value linked to Christmas
materialism is "family" - what Americans would call "family
values." Those who have written about the globalization of
Christmas suggest that the association of Christmas with
materialism is fairly constant, but that the values to which
it is linked are variable. In Japan, for example, Christmas is
celebrated with gusto and frank commercialism, but "family
values" take a back seat to a youthful celebration of romantic
couples (Moeran and Skov 1993). In Trinidad a conventionally
materialistic Christmas is linked to both family and
Trinidadian identity (Miller 1993b; 1994).
It is conceivable that the connection of globalized
Christmas to mediated productions such as the Egyptian
Fawazir Ramadan may be useful in more than just a
comparative sense. I speculate that the evolution of such
practices as the Fawazir may have been directly
influenced by the globalization of Christmas, specifically the
globalization of Christmas as a morally rationalized
celebration of materialism. The Fawazir Ramadan program
has been increasingly tied to the promotion of multinational
corporate interests, as well as to state interests. The most
obvious manifestation of these interests is the lucrative
prizes given to those who guess the correct answers to all the
riddles. These have transformed what began as entertainment
for children to something considerably more complex.
For those who have not seem them, the Fawazir are
almost beyond description. One Lebanese Arabic professor my
wife and I knew in Cairo, when first exposed to the
Fawazir in 1985 responded with some confusion, "That
program was ... very surreal." His response was motivated
partly by the character of that year's Fawazir, which
featured a computer generated special effect that put the
disembodied head of well-known actresses onto an undulating
stick figure. But I suspect he was also a bit overwhelmed by
the sheer over-the-top spectacle of it. Since 1985, when my
former teacher from Lebanon expressed surprise at the
phenomenon, satellite broadcasts have made such spectacle
available throughout the Middle East, and indeed, the
A Non-Islamic Ramadan Program
It should be immediately emphasized that Fawazir
Ramadan is not an "Islamic" program in terms of its
content. It is not, and does not pretend to be, "Islam on
television." It is, however, a program geared to the Islamic
calendar, and therefore has relevance to the practice of
religion in the contemporary Middle East. Although much media
attention in Egypt and elsewhere is given to the "lighter
side" of Ramadan (riddle shows, internet Ramadan greeting
cards etc.), many books and web sites on Ramadan take the form
of a quite sober discourse on "the meaning of fasting." Aside
from considerations of such things as how to fast, the
conditions under which one can be excepted from fasting, and
what can potentially invalidate a fast, the emphasis appears
to be on such values as piety, humility, uniformity of the
Islamic community, sincerity, and struggle in the Way of God.
Here is an example of one such explication of the meaning of
The prescribed fast ... make[s] people realize the
hardships which others endure for lack of sustenance for their
life. Only those who themselves undergo the hardship of hunger
and thirst can understand the miseries of those who, inspite
of labor, are not able even to meet their basic needs. This
naturally induces people to help others in need and to abstain
from hoarding wealth ... (Ali 1995, 7).
This statement was made by a Pakistani scholar, but it
conforms with widespread understandings of the significance of
fasting generally in Islam. The fast is not meant to be an
extreme form of asceticism (Wagtendonk 1968, 131); nor is it
meant to be a simple reversal of normal activities. One is not
supposed to simply sleep during the day (which of course would
greatly ease the discomfort of fasting) and stay awake at
In practice of course peoples' daily routines are often
interrupted. In the days leading up to the 1999/2000 Ramadan
fast one person posted to an internet newsgroup an
announcement published in the Egyptian paper al-Ahram:
"The working hours for all governmental agencies during the
month of Ramadan will be from 9 am to 2 pm five days a week,
Thursday and Friday holiday. The Cabinet will confirm the
decision tomorrow" (al-Ahram 2/12/99). The poster of
this message followed it with a plan for what he described as
a "realistic" work day: 9:00-9:30 arrival; 9:30-10:00 chat;
"10:00-12:00 "work"; 1:30-2:00 leave. A two-hour work day
might perhaps be considered not precisely a "normal" work
schedule (though a cynic might well argue the point in the
context of the public-sector workplace). Obviously such jokes
circulate in order to poke fun at the gap between real-life
behavior and the abstract principles expressed in the "meaning
of Ramadan" discourse.
I mention these issues because I want to suggest that there
is some ambiguity about the significance of such customs as
the Fawazir Ramadan program for correctly performed
religious ritual. I am not assuming that a "correct" fast is
necessarily the most austere. Nonetheless, there is no
question that for many Muslims anything that could be
considered excess occurring during the month of Ramadan, even
during the nonfasting hours, is to some degree reprehensible.
It took me all of five minutes to find an internet site about
Ramadan that clearly disapproved of eating to excess during
the night hours during the month of daytime fasting:
Excessive intake of food is avoided (this regulates the
stomach from being pot-bellied and distinguishes Muslims from
kaafir whom Qur'an describes as those who eat like cattle
(47:12)); etc. All these good things which Ramadan fast
teaches Muslims are the means to attain piety. This is why the
verse on Ramadan fast says: 'O ye who believe, fasting is
prescribed for you...so that you will (learn how to attain)
The description of the Fawazir Ramadan that appears
below suggests that it takes very little imagination to assign
the program to a complex of excess. And it is no secret that
in Egypt the consumption of food rises during the month of
Ramadan, and luxury hotels and restaurants do excellent
business. Christa Salamandra notes a similar pattern in Syria.
One of her informants argues "that the very religious, whom
she equates with the poor, fast out of belief, but elite
Damascenes fast as a mode of distinction" (Salamandra
forthcoming). I remember similar grumbling from Ramadan in
Cairo, and it would be unsurprising if such objections to
Ramadan excess are being raised elsewhere. If the Ramadan
excess that punctuates fasting is properly described as a tool
to achieve social distinction (and it almost certainly is),
then one might well expect to find a wide range of behaviors
associated with it.
Since the Fawazir Ramadan program comes embedded in
a dense mixture of both commercialism and state interest, I
want to also describe briefly what comes before the
Fazzura. The social setting in which the television
sequence described below occurs is a middle-class home just
after the iftar. After eating, the dishes are cleaned,
and everyone is usually sitting in some common room chatting.
Typically everybody is stuffed from having consumed an
abnormally large meal on an empty stomach. Most people have
not yet left the home to visit friends and relatives, a
practice widely observed in Egypt and elsewhere. Before the
main riddle program comes a "pre-Fawazir Ramadan
fazzura" (pre "Ramadan Riddles" riddle), a kind of a
warm-up before the main event. After that a commercial
interlude, which I believe is an important and under-analyzed
aspect of television consumption. After the "little
fazzura" and the commercials comes the introduction to
the Fawazir Ramadan song-and-dance routine, followed
ultimately by the main event: the evening's installment of
the Fawazir Ramadan program.
The "little fazzura" described here is from Ramadan
in 1990. My recollections of Ramadan are from a number of
years between 1985 and 1994. In 1990 (the year I videotaped
the Fawazir Ramadan) the program was sponsored by
Sharikat Nasr lil-Kimawiyat al-Wasita (Nasr Company for Middle
Chemicals. I am guessing that this is a public-sector company,
and its market appears to be the common folk, judging from its
product line, which includes insecticides, detergents, and
cheap perfumes. The program is hosted by a matronly
un-hijabed woman identified as Fayza Hasan:
Ladies and Gentlemen, happy holidays. The Nasr Company for
Middle Chemicals gives you its best wishes for the blessed
month of Ramadan. The company presents to you each day of the
month after the Arabic musalsal caricature riddles. The Nasr
Company for Middle Chemicals offers valuable prizes:
-- Hajj and 'Umra tickets.
-- A color television
full automatic washing machine
-- a four-burner stove
-- five tape players
-- 100 prizes from the
products of the Nasr Company for Middle Chemicals
Before we tell you the riddle we'll see it together in a
caricature. Pay close attention, because the solution to the
riddle is contained in the drawing.
Then comes a series of caricatures which the audience sees
being drawn in fast motion, punctuated by shots of the
caricaturist smiling at the camera. The caricatures are all
designed to evoke a certain kind of food being eaten in humble
circumstances. The riddle is absurdly easy. The first thing
the caricaturist draws, in fact, is some letters being pulled
out of a ful pot and formed into the words "ful sadiqi"
(beans are my friend). Anyone who is literate of course
already knows the answer. One might surmise that the goal of
the program is entertainment for young children. On the other
hand, one wonders just what a toddler would do with the
prizes. A four-year-old winning hajj tickets? A
After the caricaturist is through the Fayza Hasan comes
back on and restates the riddle in a poem:
Shall we say the riddle?
'Amm Zaghlul al-Zanati
When the cannon sounds
Says 'Woman, bring me some protein from the
She smiles, and says to Zaghlul al-Zanati:
"We have some vegetarian protein
Its scientific name is Vichya Faba
Food of the poor
Add a bit of lemon and oil, and let's go
Everyone eat, and whoever gets full should thank God
For a loaf of bread and the vichya
She restates the riddle, then tells the audience the terms
of the contest: "We hope the riddle is easy, and we wait for
you to send the answers to Egyptian television, and don't
forget to attach to the answers two coupons for products from
the Nasr Company for Middle Chemicals. The company wishes you
One thing that can be easily inferred from this program is
that fawazir put a premium on localized imagery. They
are often tied, with varying degrees of explicitness, to
efforts to construct imagined communities. I think this is
true even of the far more "surreal" fazzura that I will
describe below, though in that case it is much less obvious.
Before the other fazzura - the "main event" so to
speak - comes an advertising interlude. Advertisements are
part of the "flow" of television programming. The concept of
"flow" was described by Raymond Williams in an often-cited
book on the social effects of television. Williams suggests
that television differs from other media in that viewers tend
to experience it as a flow, or an organized sequence, rather
than as the staging of discrete events. According to Williams,
the key to creating a sense of flow, rather than one of event,
is filling the "interval" between programs in such a way that
the television-watching experience is continuous. Announced
programs grade into one another and into unannounced
advertising. In the United States we perhaps no longer even
have a sense of the space between programs constituting a
break, because the programs are sponsored by intrusive
advertisers, whose presence is felt throughout a show, and
because later shows are continually foreshadowed in whatever
show one is watching. Of course this form of television is
hardly natural, and is not the only way that programming can
be organized. As Williams puts it, "What is being offered is
not, in older terms, a programme of discrete units with
particular insertions, but a planned flow, in which the true
series is not the published sequence of programme items but
this sequence transformed by the inclusion of another kind of
sequence, so that these sequences together compose the real
flow, the real 'broadcasting'" (Williams 1975, 90). For those
unaccustomed to such patterns the effect of American-style
television programming can be disconcerting. Williams
describes watching a film on American television that was
intercut not just with advertising, but also with trailers for
I can still not be sure what I took from that whole flow. I
believe I registered some incidents as happening in the wrong
film, and some characters in the commercials as involved in
the film episodes, in what came to seem - for all the
occasional bizarre disparities - a single irresponsible flow
of images and feelings. (Williams 1975,
In Egyptian television the advertising does not occur
within programs. As in most of the non-U.S. world, advertising
intervals in Egyptian television occur in blocs of time
between shows. In the early-to-mid 1990s, when I had my most
regular exposure to Egyptian television, advertising intervals
could last up to half an hour. It is possible that the longer
advertising segments were grouped before the most desirable
television events, such as the main prime-time musalsal
(dramatic serial) of the evening. But I also strongly suspect
that there is not automatically a clear connection between 1)
the length of advertising intervals; 2) the presumed value of
advertising time - i.e. the most valuable times before the
highest rated programs; and 3) the type of product being
Williams suggests that the "central television experience"
is of flow, and not of event (Williams 1975, 95). He also
pointed out that there are various ways to structure flow.
What he had in mind was the differences between British and
U.S. television. In Egypt advertising is an increasingly
important part of programming, but the system is far more
state-dominated than the television system in either the U.S.
or Britain. In all cases, the analysis of television flow
hinges crucially on the intentions of planners. In U.S.
television commercial programmers have to structure the flow
so that it continually flashes forward from the event being
aired at any given time to upcoming events. Preferably shows
should have an exciting first segment in order to keep the
viewer watching. The programmer has to balance between keeping
the viewers interested in the stations own programming, and
distributing advertising time to sponsors.
Clearly Egyptian television sells advertising time. But the
pattern of distributing advertising time, and the structuring
of flow in Egyptian television, are quite different from
American television. Some of the difference is attributable to
the fact that Egyptian television is a state monopoly.
Hegemonic state discourse is often presented quite explicitly.
The insertion of advertising is connected to the state's
free-market economic policies (infitah), but the
television system itself is a hybrid. Much of the programming
is privately produced, but all programming is ultimately
controlled by the state. I will describe the pattern of
advertising shortly, but of course a more thorough
understanding of the logic used in creating the flow of
Egyptian television can only be attained through talking to
the people who set the programming, and unfortunately that was
not possible for this paper.
I have, however, been told by one person who makes
advertisements that certain assumptions that one might make
about American television advertising do not necessarily
pertain to advertising in Egypt. I happened to be visiting the
man's studio during the making of a television advertisement
for chocolate-covered croissants. The creative process began
with the studio owner playing various tunes on his synthesizer
until the advertising agent heard one that he liked. This was
the melody to "The Twist" by Chubby Checkers. Then a singer
was brought in and words were made up on the spot, having to
do with a sad man dragging himself through his morning until
eating a delicious chocolate-covered croissant, at which point
the "Twist" music kicked in. It took about an hour and a half
for the studio owner, in consultation with the advertising
agent, to fine-tune the lyrics, and for the singer to perform
it to everyone's satisfaction. The tape was made, and sent on
to the television studio, where someone else would have the
responsibility of creating visuals to go with the music.
My studio-owner informant insisted that the process of
making advertisements such as this was every bit as haphazard
as it appeared. According to him, one of the main reasons for
making such quick-and-dirty (and presumably very cheap)
productions is that the state does not permit marketing
research. He told me, disdainfully (advertising was by no
means his true love - he only worked on advertisements because
the music business at that time was slow) that the advertising
executives had absolutely no idea if the advertisements really
worked. He believed that for many of the companies who
produced advertisements for television the advertisements were
entirely a product of vanity. Of course from an American
perspective this sounds quite odd. Television advertising time
in the U.S. is an expensive high-stakes game. Why invest in
advertising if the effectiveness of such publicity is dubious?
This makes one wonder how much one can assume about the value
of advertising time during "prime time" viewing hours in
Egypt. Indeed, my impression is that the advertising on
Egyptian television is always roughly the same no matter what
time of day. But confirming or rejecting such an impression
must await both a more systematic survey of the advertising,
as well as (hopefully one day) interviews with those who do
Of course audience reaction to advertising would also be a
natural concern of a future field research project. In the
mid-1980s, when I first began spending time in Egypt, one
often heard the apocryphal story that many people considered
the advertising segments to be of greater interest than
official programming. At the time advertising on local
television was still to some degree a novelty - a product of
the economic infitah ("open door" policy) initiated in
the 1970s. If it was ever true that advertising segments were
something of an "event" in and of themselves, I doubt if it is
true now in the much more advertising-saturated media
environment of the present.
* * * * * * * * * *
Between the rather low-budget Fawazir program
described above, and the much more elaborate and expensive
Fawazir flagship described below, there are around
twenty minutes of advertising commencing just after the
'isha`, the evening call to prayer. Although most of
the advertisements were not tailored specifically to Ramadan,
their placement vis a vis the prayer times appears to be
deliberate (or this, at any rate, is my working hypothesis
until I can conduct more field research). During the
non-Ramadan year calls to prayer come in the middle of films,
dramatic serials, news broadcasts, and (I suspect) advertising
intervals. Whatever happens to be on will be interrupted at
the correct time for the adhan. But in the
post-iftar television flow there are (possibly) certain
programming principles which must be adhered to. The most
important elements of the experience are both televisual and
ritual. They are 1) the maghrib call to prayer, which
marks the end of the daily fast; 2) the 'isha` call to
prayer that occurs at some fixed interval (roughly an hour and
a half later, depending on the length of time between twilight
and evening at a given latitude); and 3) the Fawazir
Ramadan program that occurs after the 'isha`. The
Fawazir Ramadan mark the end of the segment because for
many people it is only after the Fawazir that they
begin visiting friends and neighbors.
The marking of religious time on a daily basis in the
television flow is not comparable to anything in American
television programming. I suspect that the most fixed items in
the Egyptian television flow are not programs (dramatic
serials, news shows, sports events etc.). The announced
schedule of these programs is rarely adhered to strictly, as I
discovered when trying to video tape programs by timer.
Sometimes a program scheduled for a given time would be late -
not just by a few minutes, but by as much as 45 minutes.
Sometimes the scheduled program was early. Although I am not
absolutely sure (again, more research is necessary to confirm
this), I suspect that only the only fixed points on the
television schedule during most of the year are the calls to
prayer, which interrupt whatever programming is in progress.
During Ramadan one of these fixed points provides a kind of
reference point to which the entire television schedule can be
synchronized. The "reset point" is the maghrib call to
prayer. In Cairo the end of the daily fast was customarily
signaled by a cannon blast (now broadcast on television and
radio), which announced the time of the maghrib prayer,
after which the iftar food is served. From the
maghrib until the end of the Fawazir Ramadan
program (the main riddle show) consists, in effect, of a bloc
of television-watching time for millions of people. This bloc
is not exactly an event, or at least not analogous to the
experience of a play or a film, the non-televisual experience
that Williams contrasts to the televisual "flow." But by the
same token, the maghrib to Fawazir Ramadan
programming bloc is not pure unfixed "flow." People are not
just "watching television" (as Williams [1975, 94] describes
it), as distinct from watching a particular program. Nor are
they watching an "event." The point is that many people are
implicitly synchronizing their television watching to ritual
time. In effect, the overall structure of the
post-iftar television segment facilitates a transition
from fasting time to "normal" time. The main Fawazir
Ramadan program, the "surreal" program that, as we will
see, features imagery that is not just non-religious, but is
aggressively secular, occurs after the last call to prayer of
the day. From the 'isha` until the next day's
fajr prayer people have the greatest possible license
to indulge in activities forbidden during the fast.
* * * * * * * * * *
The television segment I am describing here begins just
before the 'isha` prayer, and continues to the
Fawazir Ramadan. The child-oriented (but highly
commercialized) "caricature" fawazir described above
comes first. Between that program and the adhan there
is a brief interval. This interval is not filled by
advertising, but by a religious song. Although I am fairly
sure I have seen this song used outside of Ramadan, I can only
describe it as a "Sufi Christmas carol." The words to the song
are perfectly ordinary. It is sung by a woman who wears a
scarf over part of her light-brown hair, not a hijab,
or at least not one worn in the style typical of women who
wear the Islamic head-scarf in their everyday lives. As she
sings the image of her face fades to scenes of a Sufi order
circling a tomb (I think it's the tomb of Husayn in Cairo). It
is a peculiar Arabic song in that it is arranged with harmony.
The harmony gives it a Christmas-carol-like sound. The song
ends with the shahada (witness to the unity of God)
sung in harmonized rounds, suggesting pealing bells far more
than it suggests either Quranic recitation or any recognizably
Arabic style of music.
This Christmas-ized, harmonized, and lavishly orchestrated
Sufi song performed by an incorrectly hijabed woman is
clearly intended as a transitional buffer to the call to
prayer. In normal television time, as previously mentioned,
the call to prayer would simply be inserted into whatever
program is in progress. In Ramadan time more care is taken to
juxtapose the sacred with officially sanctioned imagery. In
many ways the sufi song is an expression of the state's vision
of a domesticated, "modernized," and non-oppositional Islam.
The buffering function of the song is clear from the fact
that the adhan cuts the song off. Although during the
normal television program the adhan can occur anywhere,
during Ramadan programming one suspects there is greater
sensitivity to juxtaposing religious discourse with the highly
commoditized post-iftar discourse. In an article on the
political economy of religious commodities Gregory Starrett
As religious commodities are to be understood as material
things, they have two networks of signification in which they
can act as markers of difference: first, with regard to other
objects defined as religious, and second with regard to the
field of commodities as a whole (Starrett 1995,
Consequently, often religious objects, like the televised
call to prayer, are placed in spaces of high visibility, but
protected from disturbance (Ibid., 53). The call to prayer is
not a religious commodity, bought and sold like an amulet,
calendar, or clock inscribed with religious formulas.
Nonetheless, on television, and particularly in a programming
structure that juxtaposes one of the most commoditized
television events of the year, the Fawazir Ramadan,
with religious discourse surely programmers run a risk of
making too close an association between objects that should
remain apart. The "field of commodities as a whole" must be
taken into account, particularly if the televisual "flow" has
the effect that Raymond Williams suggests it has, i.e. of
causing the viewer to implicitly mix images, thereby
insinuating overt commercial content with narrative
programming. Hence the need to provide a "protected space" for
religious discourse during Ramadan programming.
The actual call to prayer in this case is quite long
(during normal program it can be as brief as a window inserted
in one corner of the screen showing first a clock, then
). It includes filmed scenes of pilgrims
circumambulating the Ka'ba, and recitation of a hadith
appropriate to the ritual occasion.
After the call to prayer comes more buffering material, at
least in the sense that the viewer still sees a
state-sanctioned message. It is, however, a message that not
only buffers sacred language (the call to prayer and
recitation of a hadith) from the profane world of
commercialism, but that also perhaps benefits from the
juxtaposition. It is a family planning advertisement. Actually
the segment following the call to prayer begins with a family
planning advertisement that is a compilation of scenes from a
number of family planning ads, a kind of "best of" selection
orchestrated by an authoritative white-jacketed female
doctor-figure. Then more gradual steps toward the outright
profane, beginning with an ad for Bank Faysal al-Islami. This
is one of the few ads specifically tailored to Ramadan. It
extols the bank's charity work and gives holiday greetings to
the audience. After Bank Faysal al-Islami comes a slightly
anomalous ad for wedding dresses by Abudi, anomalous because
the religious portion of the advertisement segment is not
quite over. There is, however, still a connection between the
product (wedding dresses) and the season (Ramadan). People do
not generally marry during Ramadan because it would be
improper for the newlyweds to engage in intercourse during the
fasting hours. But typically just after the completion of the
month of fasting there is a spate of weddings, hence the sale
of wedding dresses can be seen as still connected to Ramadan.
Abudi is followed by a quick spot for Tafsir al-Qurtubi, a
thirteenth-century Islamic scholar. On twentieth century
Egyptian Ramadan television al-Qurtubi finds himself
sandwiched between Abudi wedding dresses and an ad for crystal
From al-Qurtubi on to the end of the advertising segment
all the ads are completely secular and very materialistic.
Chicken bullion, al-Ahram locks, Toshiba VCRs, Riri baby
formula, the Filfila restaurant (long a favorite of American
Arabic students in search of a fairly cheap sit-down meal, but
now aggressively marketed to Egyptian consumers as a haven for
sanitized "folklore"); then a delightful Meatland
advertisement in which chickens and cows cluck and moo to the
tune of the 1812 Overture as their carcasses are efficiently
hacked up in a clean industrial packing plant; juice
concentrate, corn oil, smokers toothpaste, more wedding
dresses, more crystal chandeliers. An intriguing Juhayna
Yogurt ad in which a cow metamorphoses into a beautiful
spinning woman. A perfume ad showing a woman going out on a
date (or perhaps the man shown picking her up in a spiffy red
sports car is her brother?). Sa'd cars. And finally the
advertising segment ends.
Clearly the religious and state-sponsored advertising is
grouped. As previously mentioned, I think the ordering of the
advertisements construct an implicit transitional period from
fasting time to normal time. It is also possible that the
advertising time closer to the Fawazir Ramadan program
is more valuable, and therefore sold to the highest bidder. In
terms of flow, the overall effect is that the handful of
state-sponsored and religious messages blend smoothly into a
veritable sea of commercialism. If, as Raymond Williams
argues, television programming creates an "irresponsible flow
of images and feelings" (Williams 1975, 92), then as a whole
this segment links religious discourse with commoditization,
even as it seeks to set off the formally religious from the
The Main Event
Finally comes the main Fawazir Ramadan program. It
is announced by an attractive un-hijabed woman: "Ladies
and gentlemen: Fawazir Ramadan, by the title "World of
Paper, Paper, Paper." The program consists of 30 pieces of
paper which have a special significance in our lives. The star
of the show is the 'fannana isti'radiyya' Nelli
" (and various
other important contributors to the project are named). Then
comes the familiar grandiose (and perhaps deliberately retro)
sign-on for the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, Economic
Section. But before the program can actually begin, an ad is
inserted into the flow. This is a fairly recent practice. I
remember that the insertion of ads into the introduction of a
program (but still not yet into the actual program, as is done
in American commercial television) caused some comment in the
early 1990s, though it is now quite common. The ad is for that
year's sponsor of Fawazir Ramadan:
[deep, ponderous voice] Name of the manufacturer -
Noritake; type of product - fine quality china; name of the
manufacturer - Noritake; place of sale - Fitihi Center, Jidda;
name of the manufacturer - Noritake; type of product - finest
tableware and tea sets for the best taste; name of the
manufacturer - Noritake; mark of the manufacturer - concern
for detail. The Fitihi Center in Jidda presents LE 30,000 in
cash prize money for Fawazir Ramadan. Good
Before I continue, let me explain a bit more about
background of what I am describing.
Undoubtedly the most eye-catching form of television in the
Middle East is the musalsal - the dramatic narrative
broadcast in 15-30 episodes. In the still nascent writing on
Middle Eastern television by Western academics,
Musalsals have received the lion's share of scrutiny.
Ramadan programs such as the urban epic "Hilmiyya Nights, a
three-part spy-in-Israel narrative called Ra'fat al-Haggan
(Abu-Lughod 19__, 19), and the Syrian musalsal
"Damascene Days" (Salamandra 1998) are obviously public events
of some importance. The state invests more in these
productions than in run-of-the-mill musalsals. Some
serials, such as a Heritage-heavy tale of a woodworker called
"Arabesque," or the quasi-propagandistic anti-Islamist "The
Family" (both broadcast in Ramadan, 1994) serve obvious state
interests. The press gives greater build-up to the Ramadan
television lineup. Audiences anticipate Ramadan programming
more keenly, and do seem to watch these programs more avidly
(though there have been some conspicuous failures, such as the
second and third installments of the Ra'fat al-Haggan spy
series). For outside observers the musalsal, and more
specifically, the Ramadan musalsal, forms a manageable
coherent whole in which the content of the program obviously
matters. A program with a definable beginning and end, and one
that facilitates making an analytical link between a text, an
audience, and in the case of Ramadan television, a significant
context, is a comforting oasis in a sea of relentlessly
repetitive television flow.
The Fawazir attracted a large audience during
several of the Ramadan's in which I was living in Egypt.
Particularly in the Ramadan that fell in 1986 the
Fawazir seemed to be attracting a very large crowd.
That year I was in Cairo as an Arabic student at the American
University. Most nights during Ramadan I attended iftar
with a lower-middle-class family whom I had met through an
Arabic student from the previous year. The family consisted of
a divorced woman and her two daughters, one of whom was a
teenager, the other being around ten years old. Although the
Fawazir are an aggressively secular counterpoint to a
religious holiday, I can only say that this family watched
them religiously, missing few, if any episodes. They were also
trying to guess the answers to the riddles, for reasons I will
come to shortly.
My impression at that time - in 1986 - was that watching
the Fawazir was a mass ritual. I generally joined the
iftar, then stayed through the Fawazir, which
began about an hour and a half after iftar (just after
the 'isha`) and lasted for roughly an hour. When the
Fawazir ended I returned home or to other social
engagements. It appeared that my pattern was fairly typical.
When the sign-off music of the Fawazir program played I
said my goodbyes and headed for the street. When leaving their
apartment the streets were usually empty; but the streets were
filling rapidly. Everyone seemed to be leaving at the
same time. On the occasions when I left early the streets were
empty, and the program could be heard wafting from many a
My impression was that in 1994, the last time I was in
Cairo on a long-term basis, the Fawazir program was
either losing its hold over audiences, or was perhaps simply
getting lost in an increasingly large shuffle of programming.
However, this may be a function of the company I was keeping.
Most of my friends and acquaintances by this time were male
college students. Possibly such people have never been very
interested in this program. Maybe the 1986 Fawazir were
just more successful than the ones broadcast in 1994. And
maybe the Fawazir Ramadan targeted a particular segment
of the television audience - i.e. women and children, and
possibly the lower middle class more than the more
The Fawazir Ramadan program is nominally for
children. There are, however, certain complexities to its
appeal. I have not yet done anything like a history of the
Fawazir Ramadan. But some informal queries to Egyptian
friends and acquaintances, as well as a query to an internet
discussion group devoted to Egypt and things Egyptians did
yield a basic profile of the custom:
- The Fawazir Ramadan is very clearly an "invented
tradition." Among the people I queried, there was a
consensus that the practice of telling riddles in a mass
mediated format on each night of the holiday dates to the
1950s. Some suggested that its origins were further in the
past - in the 1930s. Others believe that the custom of
telling riddles during Ramadan is ancient. Given the
capacity of modern holiday practices to create nostalgia
through very recent practices, I am putting aside the
question of the possible antiquity of Ramadan riddle telling
practices. The most practical provisional starting point for
the mass mediated phenomenon I discuss here is the 1950s.
- The program was originally the brainchild of the
vernacular poet Salah Jahin and a radio hostess named Amal
Fahmi. Amal Fahmi became known by the phrase "wi ni'ul
kamaan" ("and we'll say it again ... " after which the
riddle was repeated). You heard this phrase in the first
fazzura that I showed you here.
- Ten years later the program migrated to television.
- After a five-year hiatus due to the 1967 war the program
- In 1975 it metamorphosed into Sura wa Fazzura (A
Picture and a Riddle). The riddle was enacted by a vivacious
dancer known on the stage as Nelli.
- Also in 1975 the manager of the electronics company
Casio began to offer prizes for guessing the riddles. The
first prizes were digital wrist watches. He was followed by
the owner of the local BMW dealership. In his case the prize
was substantial - a luxury car.
- In the mid-1980s the Islamic investment companies
(al-Rayan and el-Sa'd among others) used their sponsorship
of the Fawazir to promote their businesses. By the
late 1980s these companies were accused of massive fraud and
dissolved by the government.
Nelli, the main performer in the episode I analyze here,
was described by the announcer as al-fannana
al-isti'radiyya, which one might translate as "the
revue-show artiste." She is essentially a dancer, though
usually not of the "oriental" type, which of course has more
problematic overtones. I have been told that Nelli, though
vivacious and often presented in form-fitting outfits, is
considered more "cute" than "sexy." She has an obvious flair
for comedy, and does seem to have a special appeal to
children. She is also getting too old to be the main
fannana isti'radiyya in the Fawazir Ramadan.
Others have tried their hand, but few have had as much success
One final observation before I roll the tape: each year the
Fawazir have a theme. It is always secular. "Fold
proverbs," for example, or tales from A Thousand and One
Nights. In the fazzura being discussed here, as the
announcer mentioned at the beginning, the theme is "paper."
Birth certificates, graduation diplomas, marriage licenses
etc. It is a playful swipe at the bureaucratization of
everything in the life of an individual. The surreal
introductory dance segment - the longest part of the show -
shows Nelli dressed in a luxuriant variety of outfits (the
number of outfits is always the subject of pre-Ramadan
speculation in fan magazines). She dances with a sparkly-blue
overall-clad male ensemble (the look like the Village People),
a Turkish Pasha, a fleet of baby carriages pushed by chic
women, and various other assemblages of glitzy male and female
dancers. All the while she sings about "'Alam Wara'a Wara'a
Wara'a" (world of paper, paper paper ... ). She ends the
introductory segment dressed as a gypsy. Speaking in a heavy
"gypsy" accent, she then tells the riddle to a different
character each night. In this episode the riddle is directed
to a sea captain - captain of The Love Boat apparently.
Although I found it quite difficult to understand the "gypsy"
accent, the riddle itself was not particularly difficult (the
answer was a boat ticket). Nelli asks the riddle, then enacts
it as a stowaway on the Love Boat, ending the spectacle
dancing in a ballroom with the captain. Then Nelli returns to
her gypsy persona and restates the riddle:
[For additional words see appendix]
Gypsy to the captain:
Fi tarigak ya kapitan waraga. Ma hiyya basibort wala
kharita wala kart. Ma yiz'ag waburak 'ala al-safar illa lamma
tistalimha min illi yigaddimha. Fahman wala mu fahman ya
There's a piece of paper in your life captain - not a
passport or a map or a card. Your trip doesn't start until
you've gotten one from everyone who has one. Get it,
Fazzura (at end of dance routine):
Gatr safar wi farmil 'ala rasif min al-mahatta.
Wi Markib al-Shug ("Shauq" - the love boat) yuwsal 'ala
bort barra, wi sharta (?)
Wi ta'ira min il-gaww tihbat 'ala al-ard hatta, ya
La farg bayn daraja ula wi illi rakib awanta.
Aysh il-muihimm? Il-Karasi wala il-wusul lil-mahatta?
Hintish bintish garrab wintish. Fahman, wala mu
The train travels and pulls into the station,
The Love Boat arrives at a foreign port ("wi sharta"? "wi
Even a plane landing on the ground, sweetie.
There's no difference between first class and some trashy
What's more important? The chairs, or getting there?
Hintish bintish garrab wintish. Get it?
That is a sample fazzura. The playful anarchy of the
program is noteworthy. "World of Paper, Paper, Paper" is kind
of a joke about the iron cage of bureaucracy. What I want to
emphasize here is that the moral value attached to the
over-the-top commercialism of this vehicle for Noritake china
sold from a Saudi shopping center is related to that of the
humble caricaturist in the first program. Both are about local
identity. Remember, Nelli's surreal anarchy is part of a
series: the audience has seen her do this something like ten
times before. And every time it is associated with breaking
the fast during Ramadan: a well-deserved pleasure after a day
of doing God's will. The repetitiveness of the ritual makes it
part of Egyptian Ramadan. Fawanis (Ramadan lanterns
that children play with); kunafa (a very sweet pastry)
and various other foods associated with the holiday; certain
songs and poems; the misahharati going around the
neighborhood waking everyone for their final pre-dawn meal;
the cannon going off to signal the end of the fast; and now
Fawazir Ramadan. The program functions very much like
Frosty the Snowman or How the Grinch Stole
Christmas, or Miracle on 34th Street.
Every single one of them is a strong candidate for the Mother
of All Invented Traditions.
Of course as with Christmas, it is entirely possible that
the commercial side of the package goes entirely unnoticed by
the audience, particularly a young audience more fascinated by
the dances than by the prizes or the riddles. This does not
negate the importance of bundling commercial and state
ideologies with entertainment. One could argue that it makes
them more insidious.
The Fawazir program is also eminently pirate-able.
Versions of it have spread all over the Middle East. The
United Arab Emirates, for example, has its own fawazir
program. In the Emirati Fawazir the emphasis on
nation-building is far more obvious than in the Egyptian show.
It is set around a simulacrum of a Bedouin campfire set on a
stage and surrounded with folkloric objects. The "camp" is at
one end of an open-air arena. Emirati men in national dress
sit on one side of the arena; women on the other. At the
opposite end of the arena a large black Mercedes is parked,
within which sits a son of Shaykh Zayed. Prize money is
sometimes passed out through the window of the car. A master
of ceremonies appears in national dress stands on the stage by
the "campfire" and asks the riddles. In this invented
tradition the riddles are all about vanishing traditions:
Emirati place names; folk games; shooting rifles; falconry.
All practices that the younger generation is apparently in
grave danger of losing (at least if one takes the gist of the
program seriously). The program is a spectacular illustration
of a community imagined, particularly given that the state is
identified with a family, a representative of which looks on
in a black Mercedes, giving official sanction to the event,
and dispensing largess.
One challenge that phenomena such as the Fawazir
Ramadan present for us is to resist dismissing them as
"inauthentic." In his history of Christmas in the United
States Stephen Nissenbaum notes that the idea of "invented
tradition" is inescapable in the context of such practices as
celebrating Christmas (and increasingly, celebrating Ramadan).
But, he continues,
The easiest and most tempting way to abuse the idea of
invented traditions may be to believe that if a tradition is
'invented,' it is somehow tainted, not really authentic. ...
There are several reasons why such a belief is false. But the
most important of them is that it is based on a profoundly
questionable assumption - that before there were 'invented'
traditions there were 'real' ones that were not
invented (Nissenbaum 1996, 315).
The Fawazir Ramadan television program is as
invented a tradition as there ever was, and precisely for this
reason it makes an intriguing comparison to Anglo-American
Christmas. I believe that the comparison could ultimately even
be extended to include an investigation of actual influence of
globalized Christmas on commoditized celebrations of Ramadan.
I was surprised that my first experience of Christmas in a
Muslim country (Tunisia in 1983) was marked by an irresistable
insistence on my celebrating the holiday with my Muslim hosts.
Two years ago a friend in Cairo sent me a Ramadan Christmas
card: Santa by the pyramids under an Islamic crescent moon. A
visit to the United Arab Emirates during the Christmas of 1994
brought me face to face in a department store with a chubby
red-cheeked Santa (from Kerala). When I incorporate a more
historical dimension to this project, I fully expect to find
an awareness of Christmas, and a fascination with its invented
traditions, in popular Egyptian magazines from the 1930s
A crucial part of this phenomenon is that the materialism
of the newly-invented rituals enable a discourse of
disapproval. I remember a friend who adamantly refused to
watch the Fawazir. "Al-Fawazir al-Burgwaziyya" he
called them: "the bourgeois riddles." A discussion of "the
spirit of Ramadan" requires a profane twin. This is akin to
one of my own relatives, a Christian fundamentalist, demanding
a counter-traditionalism to the accretions of pagan and
Victorian celebrations that became Anglo-American Christmas:
he makes the historically nonsensical call to "put the Christ
back in Christmas" (to which one might plausibly reply, "put
the carnival back in Christmas"). There are undoubtedly many
in the Muslim world who want to refocus the prescribed fast of
Ramadan into a quest for purity, Islamic community, and
religious merit, and they are, of course, as justified in this
as my relative's demand for a more Christ-centered Christmas.
All the same, it seems likely that the ingenious coupling of
materialism with moral value is intensifying. In effect a
religious holiday blurs into a ritual of mass consumption. In
mass mediated public culture the religious obligation of
fasting during the month of Ramadan has become the twin of the
holiday Ramadan. Ramadan the holiday is associated with
Ramadan the period of ritual fasting. The two aren't exactly
the same, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to pull
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Appendix A: Additional words from Fawazir
'alam wara' wara' etc. ...
Awraq gidditi fiha hayatha
A'raha wi-ashuf eh hikayitha
Wi eh rihlitha 'ala il-wara'a
(chorus) 'alam wara', 'alam wara' ...etc.
Awwilha awwilha wara'it wa'wa'a
Ism (i) dalla' il-wa'wa'a mish fil-awraq
Ya misimsima, ya miniminima, wi mihanida'a
Il'abi wi ?
Da 'alam ehh? (male voice) Haqqan innahu, innahu (chorus)
Ya habibti ya gidditi
Min sinn al-itnashar
Khatabuuk wi gawwazuki
Min ghayr ma yi'arrifuuki
Hatta al-rabat wil-irtibat 'ala al-wara',
Innahu haqqan 'alam wara'
Lead-in to riddle:
Gypsy: How do you like your coffee? Extra sugar or
Gypsy: What do you do for a living?
Gypsy: You play soccer?
Captain: No, I play with the sea.
Gypsy: The sea is powerful (qaddaar?).
Kayf til'ab ma' [missing word] il-qatt ma' il-far?
(s.t. to do with playing cat and mouse with the sea). Here's
your coffee, medium sugar Captain Love Boat (mazbut ya
kabitan luv buut).
["al-sha'bata" - the stowaway - flashes across the screen.
Title of the episode.]
Should I read your cup, or your palm?
[Captain holds out his hand; she inspects his palm] Your
palm is all lines, length and width. They're your guide at sea
and on land. Right? (kaffak khutut, tul wi 'ard. Hiyya
dalilak lil-shatt wi-l-ard)
Gypsy: Pay me then.
[Riddle in main text]
... Get it?
Gypsy: What do you mean "maybe"? This answer is
floating Captain, always floating ('aayim ya kabtan, dayman
'aayim ... she's moving her hands back and forth as if on the
surface of the water). (inn 'awwad wi infaham li-muballim
munsahhim ? probably a proverb). This paper, Captain ...
tell me o captain of captains: God has made people into
different levels, and degrees in beauty, and wealth, and
travels. True or not?
Gypsy: When the boat goes out to sea what's the
difference between the one who's in the cabin and someone in
the cheap sections; first class or someone clinging to the
Captain: The clinger [stowaway] drowns.
Gypsy: God help the stowaway or the one who drowns,
and may he not deprive you of the paper. Get up. Go. The sea,
Appendix B: Commercialization and Entertainment
Two means by which new technology can spread are through
commerce and through utilization of the medium as
entertainment. The two can obviously converge in the case of
commercial television, in which content is to a substantial
degree advertising for advertisements. State run television,
the most prevalent form of the medium in the Middle East (at
least in terms of domestic broadcasting), can in theory afford
to ignore entertainment value, though of course at the risk of
having an inattentive audience. However, in practice most
Middle Eastern television is state dominated, but only
partially state-produced. States invest heavily in Ramadan
television production, but a great deal of domestically
produced television broadcast during the holiday and
throughout the year is made by private companies. Furthermore,
Middle Eastern television is hardly devoid of advertising. The
relation between advertising and content in domestically
produced and broadcast television needs to be looked at more
closely. Of course satellite broadcasting, much of it
privately owned (and this is true of both Arabic-language
channels and of European-language channels) raises the stakes
for state-run television systems.
In the case of the internet the relation between
commercialization and entertainment is even murkier. One
avenue through which internet use in the Middle East might
spread is entertainment. But if this is the case, it doesn't
appear that Ramadan will play as prominent a role as it does
on television. The sorts of commercial entertainment
incursions that are highly prominent on television are much
less obvious on the internet. Samples of this material (mostly
links) can be found at http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/armbrusw/Ramadan.htm
Here is a summary of some of the themes of internet Ramadan
- Egypt-net (the interest group which I have followed most
closely over the years), reproduced a homegrown version of
the Fawazir (and of "1001 Nights" stories), but of
course without the commercial sponsorship that is so
prominent in the televised riddles. The nostalgic side of
Ramadan was heavily emphasized over its religious aspect,
probably because most members of the list are expatriates
living in the West, and also because religious discourse on
this list tends to cause bouts of "flaming" (hostile
messages). There were a few messages protesting the
perceived commercialization of the holiday.
- Activists' sites offering information on the meaning of
the holiday and its correct practice.
- News items about the holiday, frequently including
criticism of perceived commercialization of the Ramadan.
- Ramadan electronic greeting cards.
- Sites related to the Sharjah (U.A.E.) Ramadan Festival,
a trade fair organized by the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce
- Cartoons published in on-line newspapers. Many of these
allude to the commercialization of Ramadan.
Such material appears to be substantially reflective of
practices that take shape outside of the internet. If
anything, links between Ramadan and commercialization appear
to be less insistently made in this medium than on television.
While it has been promoted through media technology, the
phenomenon of coupling commoditization with religion is surely
part of a larger cultural complex. Starrett (1995, 1999)
analyzes religious commoditization in several Islamic
contexts. The Fawazir Ramadan, however, are less a case
of religious commoditization than they are a case of
materialism linked to the religious calendar. They do not
violate observance of the fast. They do, however, encourage
excess consumption that many view as contrary to the overall
meaning of Ramadan.
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