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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 users.

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The Riddle of Ramadan: Media, Consumer Culture and the 'Christmas-ization' of a Muslim Holiday

Walter Armbrust, Georgetown University
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 concerns.

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 Ramadan.

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 extravaganza.

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 world.

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 fasting:

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 night.

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 that you will (learn how to attain) piety."(2:183)

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
-- A full automatic washing machine
-- a four-burner stove
-- ten bicycles
-- 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 four-burner stove?

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 restaurant.'

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 faba.

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 good luck."

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 another film.

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, 92).

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 advertised.

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 the programming.

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 notes that

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, 53).

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 adhan al-…). 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 chandeliers.

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 commercial.

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 Luck.

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 window.

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 affluent.

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 was revived.
  • 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 as Nelli.

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]

The riddle:

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 kabitan?

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, captain?

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 batta.

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 fahmantish?

The train travels and pulls into the station,

The Love Boat arrives at a foreign port ("wi sharta"? "wi shatta"?).

Even a plane landing on the ground, sweetie.

There's no difference between first class and some trashy passenger.

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 through 1950s.

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 them apart.


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Appendix A: Additional words from Fawazir Ramadan.

From Intro:

'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

Ikbari, nawwari

Irsimi, sawwari

Il'abi wi ?

Wara'a mizawwa'a


Da 'alam ehh? (male voice) Haqqan innahu, innahu (chorus) 'alam wara' …

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 medium?

Captain: Medium.

Gypsy: What do you do for a living?

Captain: Captain.

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)

Captain: Right.

Gypsy: Pay me then.

[Riddle in main text]

... Get it?

Captain: Maybe.

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?

Captain: True.

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 propeller?

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, 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 Here is a summary of some of the themes of internet Ramadan material:

  • 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 and Industry.
  • 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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