Eid Al-Fitr is equivalent to Christmas on this side of the world. It comes after the holy month of Ramadan (a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and worship), however for the spiritually bankrupt like myself, it’s a month of mass-starvation and agony. Since all the devils and demons are detained in hell for that period, people are nicer due to the unavailability of supernatural creatures to blame for their own faults.
Contrary to the much-publicized stereotypes, not all Arabs are bearded, angry men screaming profanities and on the verge of committing suicide to make a point (that only happens in traffic jams, you guys!). Al Qaeda material or not, we Arabs have at least one thing in common with the Western world: family gatherings.
By default, family gatherings are exams to test one’s pain threshold. They’re designed as incentives for one to work hard, so one day they can afford to disown their family. People young and old come together to scorn each other and perhaps envision the painful disembowelment of several blood relations. Naturally, one’s appearance is to be evaluated and rated by one’s relatives, they also take it upon themselves to inform you of their assessment and suggest ways for you to improve your flaws in order to please them. On the bright side, family gatherings are like the flu, once a year is enough to achieve immunity.
Unfortunately, one’s weight is a critical criterion in the annual examination by the relatives, and seeing how most of us eat at Iftar (breaking the fast at sunset), which is quite the eat-a-thon. Traditionally, an actual canon is fired to mark the beginning of the who-can-fit-more-meat-in-their-mouth race. Minutes before Iftar, plates are set around dining tables, packed with unholy amounts of various coronary-artery-blocking foods. Usually, everyone is already seated, eyes set on the prize that is finishing first and being able to move on to dessert. Like a starting gun having been fired, all at once, everyone digs in, not bothering to make small talk or attempt to bond with anything other than their plates.
Although Eid brings the much-coveted, sweet return of food, you’d think I would be excited about it. However, and I say this with conviction, the only thing worse than Ramadan, is Eid.
For starters, the day begins with Eid prayers, where masses of people, mostly men, take to the streets and pray together. For reasons I’m oblivious to, this only lasts exactly ten minutes. Like clockwork, the praying men all lose interest simultaneously. Allah, we really felt a connection today, but a man’s gotta eat, they seem to decide.
Though I am not a morning person, I always make an exception for Eid; just to have cereal and whatnots at nine in the morning. Because I can, that’s why. What follows is simply more gorging.
A half a jar of cookies and two-dozen pancakes later, I start to wonder if I’m going to fit into my overpriced, new outfit—another Eid custom. I can vividly recall the trouble I went through to acquire it. After two hours of pointless rummaging through stores and trying on clothes to determine whether I loathed or despised them, I found a blouse I liked. A split second later a sales-assistant with a nasty attitude eyeballs me and, after a long stare says, “We don’t have extra smalls, sorry.” Being skinny isn’t really celebrated in the Middle East. Talk about being born on the wrong side.
(If you listen really closely, you’ll hear the sound of fat people booking one-way plane tickets to the Middle East.)
Either you host the celebration, or you attend one. I prefer the later, because enduring hours of old people discussing their bowel movements over tea and then cleaning up after them is like getting mugged then driving the perp home after having a heart-to-heart—only much worse.
Contrary to the western world, Egyptians usually don’t celebrate religious occasions with fine dining. We do it pharaoh-style, celebrating with Ringa and Faseekh, smoked fish, which is really salty, but it looks and smells rotten. When eating it, one is very aware of the risks and of just how dead this fish is. An odd description, I know, but when you’re eating pork, for instance, it stops being a pig and becomes bacon. Ringa doesn’t follow that logic. It remains dead, dead fish. To make matters worse, one of the stages in the preparation of Faseekh is actually burying it, and the fish is served whole, so its body is even intact, reinforcing the “this-thing-is-dead” feeling.
Also, it tastes like death.
Instead of presents, we exchange condescending life advice, which is only meant to submerge you in a pool of misery, before immediately criticizing you for not taking it. Add painfully-lame, culturally-deprecating jokes for garnish. They always feature the average Egyptian as a thick-headed, cheap individual who doesn’t understand imaginative wordplay. To illustrate, here’s an example: Why does an Egyptian farmer look down whenever he meets foreigners? Because he is waiting for the Arabic subtitle translation.
After this, gradually reassemble and separate according to gender. Unfortunately, for me, my vagina lands me the worst of two evils, the women’s company.
The two unequivocally important points that the Egyptian woman’s life revolves around are mating and body mass. At any given family gathering, the other women present may very well know my body better than I do. The moment any female enters the room, she goes through a thorough cavity search, her measurements are taken and she is searched for any irregularities or changes, no matter how small they may be to the naked eye.
As always they’re quick to voice their verdicts. “They call it junk food because it makes one’s junk look awful, dear,” my aunt tells my sister, trying to mask her gloating with concern. Moments later she “advises” her to shake her bottom half for her own good. (One can’t help but imagine my aunt forcing Kim Kardashian to run in a life-sized hamster wheel while dangling one-hundred dollar bills in front of her for motivation.) This may confuse you, but according to the Arabic rationale; skinny people are unhealthy, wood-like, “Eke” half-humans but being voluptuous or just a tad too curvy qualifies you to be a female bear. (We’re not known for being moderate.)
Unluckily for me, my turn to be scrutinized is up, and being skinny engenders even more criticism and with even less sugarcoating and fake courtesy. “She (meaning my sis-ter) is probably eating Nour’s food,” my cousin who could be cast in the title role in Fat Albert mocks. Nonetheless, what sucks more than getting criticized for your looks, is having no one comment about your appearance at all. Then you might as well end your life, because that means you’re beyond ugly.
As always, when mothers get together they must discuss their offspring. They usually bitch incessantly, until they come to the realization that this damage to your dignity would inevitably affect your already slim marital prospects. To illustrate:
MOTHER: “Maha can’t wear skinny jeans because her thighs are very thick, see? Maha, sweetie, get up and show them.”
15 minutes of a highly uncomfortable, inspection later.
RELATIVE: “Oh my, that’s nasty. I have a fat friend who could recommend a dietitian… or surgeon.”
MOTHER: “Don’t bother; with a face like hers, she’ll get any man she wants. Did I mention she speaks three languages? Maha, say something foreign!”
Finally, to seal my exceptionally dreadful Eid this year, I head to the kitchen for some quality time with my refrigerator. It’s our annual reunion. Much to my dismay, I spot a cockroach, standing defiantly on the spray can of insecticide, seemingly indifferent to the presence of a superior species.
There I am, on top of the food chain yet helpless, and completely outsmarted by a roach, one more incident going on my appropriately titled list of mishaps: “Fuck 2011; Hello, Apocalypse 2012."