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Vivian Salama is an award winning reporter, producer and blogger. Currently based in Lahore, Pakistan, she has reported for various publications from across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, the United States and North and South Korea. She has also appeared as a commentator on the BBC, France24, South African Broadcasting Corp., TVNZ, NPR and as a reporter for Voice of America radio. Her byline has appeared in numerous publications including Newsweek, USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, the National, Jerusalem Post, and the Daily Star. Salama has an MA in Islamic Politics from Columbia University and she previously worked as a lecturer of international journalism at Rutgers University. Close.

Vivian Salama

USA/Middle East

Vivian Salama is an award-winning reporter, producer and blogger. Currently based in Lahore, Pakistan, she has reported for various publications from across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, the United States and North and South Korea. more »

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Christmas an Egyptian National Holiday

The first year I lived in Egypt, Ramadan fell in November. Journalists are often invited to company iftars (the meal to break fast) as a way of networking and exchanging in the holiday spirit. You can imagine my surprise when, at one of these iftars, Santa Claus marched in to spread …Ramadan cheer(!?)

While this is an absolutely comical (and unusual) incident, Christmas is by no means a laughing matter in the Arab world's most populous nation. Of the 75 million people crammed mostly along the banks of the Nile River, approximately 15 percent are Christians – mostly Coptic Orthodox. Along the streets of Cairo, holiday lights and decorations commemorate Christmas and the Muslim majority goes out of its way to share in the holiday spirit just as many Christians do during the month-long celebration of Ramadan. Unlike the West, where the consumer craze has obliterated all logic, and "celebrations" (read: shopping season) start in October, Coptic Christmas is not synonymous for parties, eggnog and mistletoe. Rather, it is the end of a 40-day fast where families often flock to midnight mass and eat various traditional dishes. In fact, traditions such as the Christmas tree and Father Christmas ( "Baba Noel") have only recently been incorporated into the culture.
That said, Christmas 2003 was one to remember in Egypt as President Hosni Mubarak – for the first time – marked it as a national holiday. The usually congested streets of Cairo are now ghost towns on the Eastern Orthodox Christmas (January 7) as Christians and Muslims alike stay home from school and work. While Egypt still maintains the practice of listing religion on national identification cards, Christians are very much a part of mainstream society and incidents of marginalization have been isolated. Many Christians in Egypt hold public offices. Even Egypt's richest man, Naguib Sawiris, CEO of Orascom Telecom is a Copt and is responsible for building a number of churches in Egypt's upper class resort towns. Most Christians welcomed the move to declare Christmas a national holiday, particularly given domestic fears by Christians and moderate Muslims that the country may be headed in the same direction of some of the more conservative, less secular Arab states.
While Christmas may not be the best example, Western customs have seeped into Egyptian culture in other ways. Valentine's Day is an absolute obsession in this ancient nation where young lovers shower each other with material sentiments since physical sentiments (at least pre-marital) are frowned upon. However Egypt still maintains some of its ancient traditions as well. The day after Easter Sunday is a national holiday commemorating Sham el Naseem, a celebration which dates back to Pharonic times commemorating the start of Spring. Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish and onions, as well as a young woman, to the Gods of the Nile River. Today, no woman is sacrificed, but families do maintain the tradition of eating salted fish and onions, and several production companies even reenact the Pharonic offerings to commemorate this ancient festival.

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