Incense, Fenugreek, and Eggs: Images of Easter in Arabic Literature and Drama

To those who celebrate, or just like owning any holiday because it’s a holiday, Happy Easter:

From Palestine:

eggsIn Search of Walid Masoud, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, transated by Roger Allen and Adnan Haydar

One Easter Day, I went out into the street wearing my new shoes and carrying three colored boiled eggs. There were droves of children in the streets, all wearing their best clothes, or the ones with the fewest patches. The were all swapping candy, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios, and betting cheerfully on the eggs. A boy who was slightly older than me came up to me; his name was Nasri, and his father was a car driver while my father still drove my grandfather’s carriage. He had a bundle of eggs in his hand, too. “Do you want to play?” he asked, and I said I did. I took a red egg out of his hand and tapped the top of it lightly with my front teeth to test its strength and then the bottom as well. He took a blue egg out of my hand and tested it in the same way. We began to play. I hit the top of his egg with the top of mine and it broke. He turned it over, and I hit the bottom with the bottom of mine. It broke again, and so I won it. We played again, and I won another egg, and then another, till I’d won all five of his red eggs. Then suddenly, he grabbed me by the throat. “Walid!” he said. “Give me back my eggs!”

From Iraq

Papa Sartre, by Ali Bader, translated by Aida Bamia

Nadia and her mother Helen were invited to Mrs. Adileh’s, in the Hasan Pasha district, to celebrate Easter. The young women of the house received them warmly, but Edmond was not there. Grandma Adileh’s living room displayed signs of her faith, such as the image of the Virgin Mary on the wall and the cross above the door. Samaan, Edmond’s uncle, was praying and sprinkling the house with holy water he had brought from the church. The smell of incense filled the house.”

From Egypt

Leaves of Narcissus, Somaya Ramadan, translated by Marilyn Booth

Between the passages and the arteries of her heart a civil war rages among all Egypts. And she is all of them: if she rings her eyes with kohl, so, and becomes Nefertiti; if she plants fenugreek and lentils in anticipation of Eastern Easter; if she recites Arabic poetry; if she longs for her father’s house in Alexandria; if she recalls her mother’s tales of the trousseau of her Turkish mother-in-law, and her father’s derisive words about Al-Azhar, the venerable Muslim university in Cairo, and its families of adherents.

From Palestine

In Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period, edited by Roger Allen and D.S. Richards, from a fascinating essay by Philip Sadgrove on pre-modern drama:

Comedians of this type were to be found in many Arab lands. In Iraq the farce was called ikhbari, with the standard content of comic dialogue and fisticuffs. A troupe of young Arabs, at Jericho in 1851, performed a bedouin burlesque for Easter, portraying Satan fighting and killing his father. After his death, Satan makes a show of despair, pulling the body about in every direction, and bitterly deplores the poverty that leaves him unable to provide for the funeral of the deceased. At last the burial of the father is undertaken by two collections of money from the audience. Satan begrudges spending money on the burial, so he decides to revive his father. He puts a heated stone on his bare ankles. The father instantly revives, and then commences between them a furious and violent dance.

Feel free to add your own below.


  1. There are some lovely Lent/Easter scenes in another of Jabra’s books, “The First Well”, too.

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