Who is afraid of love?

Friday 19/02/2016
People shopping for Valentine’s day gifts in al-Qaimaryeh street, in old Damascus

When a day celebrating the notions of love and affection is decreed a crime there has to be something critically and funda­mentally wrong with that society, or rather with the leadership of a society, that feels threatened by potential displays of affection among its citizens.

February 14th is recognised around the world as Valentine’s day, when lovers express their feelings, traditionally by offer­ing flowers, typically red roses or chocolates and sometimes accom­panied by a card.

In the Middle East, Valentine’s day is celebrated in some countries more so than others.

Despite the wars that have ravaged Iraq and the one that continues to plague Syria, Iraqis and Syrians were reported to be celebrating, along with many oth­ers in the Arab world, even if there were more visible signs of Valen­tine’s day in the reputedly more Westernised Arab countries, such as Tunisia and Lebanon.

In replying to criticism from some in the region that the holiday celebrates the memory of a Chris­tian martyr, the celebration offers a positive development in many aspects.

In a way the celebration con­stitutes a rejection both of Iran’s anti-Western narrative as well as the Salafist discourse. Ultra-ortho­dox preachers have been telling worshippers in the region that Valentine’s day is haram (sinful). Young Muslims went out nonetheless and celebrated by showing affection for a loved one, as tradition dictates.

This is a very telling sign that, in spite of all of their efforts, radicals have failed to impose their grip on society. They simply do not have the grip they wish to impose. The celebration of Valentine’s day denotes an acceptance by the new generations in the Arab world of cultural globalisation. The West is not always demonised. Its mores are celebrated and can serve as bridges between the Middle East and the West.

The celebration of love is much needed as a healthy outward expression of affection in a region where such expressions have been repressed and where violence and hate are given preference over love and affection.

Iran’s ruling mullahs feel threatened by such display of Westernised behaviour and said they would crack down on Valen­tine’s day celebrations and shops engaging in them would be guilty of a crime.

Iranian news outlets reported a police directive warning retail­ers against promoting “deca­dent Western culture through Valentine’s day rituals”. Police informed Tehran’s coffee and ice cream shops trade union to avoid gatherings in which boys and girls exchange Valentine’s day gifts.

The annual February 14th hom­age to romance has become popu­lar in recent years in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.

The backlash in the Islamic Republic is supposedly part of a drive against the spread of Western culture, which Iranians avidly cel­ebrate when police are not looking. Saudi Arabia has also sought to stamp out Valentine’s day but it is celebrated widely in nearby places such as Dubai.

Although the holiday is named for an early Christian martyr, dat­ing to the days when Rome was the predominant power, February 14th has transcended all religious con­notation, becoming the day — par excellence — when romance is cel­ebrated. In recent years, pushed by commercial motives, the day has come to be celebrated in China and many Muslim countries as well.

In the United States, for exam­ple, red roses bought any other time of the year sell for about $10- $12 a dozen. Come Valentine’s day those same 12 roses suddenly cost $30-$45. This may reflect certain greed on the part of the vendors but that is the rule of supply and demand. It is pure capitalism in its basic element.

Radical admonitions against the display of affection are hypocriti­cal. They run against the grain of Arab and Islamic cultures and their deep traditions of romantic poetry and celebration of love.

It is not because hate and vindic­tiveness seem to have the upper hand in today’s Middle East that love will not prevail. After all, it has genuine social and cultural roots in the region.