Among my most treasured memories as a child is the day of Shamm al-Nessim. That day we used to wake up very early while it was still dark, get dressed, and go down. By that time, the sun might, or might not, have come out but it would be light. We would ride our car and head to our favourite public gardens in Cairo or, when in a more adventurous mood, to the fields outside the city. The smell of the fresh early morning air and greenery still fills my nostrils to this day. But most exciting, and most uplifting, was the open space that stretched endlessly before my eyes, a city girl accustomed to concrete buildings more often than not blocking any extended vision. The uplift always remained with me, stirring profound emotions that could never be put into words.
We would return home a little after sunrise, to a special breakfast of eggs—sometimes we managed to colour them; sometimes we ate them uncoloured—salted fish, and onions.
Our early morning outing was not customary with many people, so it gave us the opportunity to evade the crowds who would later in the day descend in full force on the green spaces. As I grew older and learned about the origin of Shamm al-Nessim, it amazed me that we had been doing exactly what the ancients did to celebrate the coming of Spring. I learned that the Spring celebration went back to ancient Egypt when our ancestors would go out early in the morning for the fresh air, and would traditionally feast on onions, eggs, and salted fish. Onions were believed to drive away evil spirits, fish symbolised life in the Nile’s life-giving waters, and eggs were symbols of the renewal of life.
When Christianity came to Egypt in the first AD century, the Spring feast and its symbols lent themselves easily to the Christian value of the Resurrection and renewed life. However, its date frequently came within Lent, a period not fit for feasting or celebration. Egyptians thus moved it to coincide with Easter Monday, the date still holds to this day.
Today that I am much older, the extended responsibilities, and Egypt’s polluted air and exploding population, all make the early morning outing next to impossible. But I am lucky to live in an area where there are numerous gardens, so a traditional Shamm al-Nessim is not an altogether impossibility. We gather, children, grandchildren, and friends in a garden; we laugh and talk and feast, the children play, and we have a pleasant, cheerful Egyptian Spring feast.
And the spiritual uplift of my childhood years? It has been relegated to the innocent memories of childhood.
17 April 2017