There are risks associated with the Easter Monday celebration in Egypt. [See yesterday’s post.]
For one thing, you can’t have an enjoyable picnic if you’re in the middle of a sandstorm! But severe sandstorms are uncommon at this time, it seems. Sham el Nessim is at the very beginning of khamsin, the windy season.
Several people each year die of botulism poisoning from eating the traditional fiseekh, which is salted fish. Some people dispute that the botulism is contracted from the fish. Others have switched to dishes such as tuna salad—which also has its dangers as a picnic food in a hot climate! In any case, the moral seems to be that you should buy your fiseekh from a reputable fasakhani and not from your local supermarket.
They say that fiseekh was part of the festival in pharaonic times. But this can’t have been true in all places. In some regions of upper (upriver, southern) Egypt, fish was taboo and wasn’t eaten. Even then, apparently, it was hazardous to eat fish from Nile waters! [Although the other day I saw one or two people fishing from the dubious-looking waters of a canal. And people fish from the Nile even in Cairo, where the water must be really nasty. After all, not so long ago the worst danger from falling into the Thames wasn’t drowning but poisoning from the murky water.]
Apart from fiseekh and boiled eggs, traditional foods of this season are onions and scallions and garlic, as well as tirmis, a kind of bean (legume). One source also lists molokheya, a dish prepared from a kind of green leaves. But Egyptians eat this all the time anyway.
Many places in Europe have special Easter breads. No special bread is reported for Egypt. But bread is special here every day. So many kinds, all absolutely fresh and delicious. The wheat is grown in the fields all around Luxor.
As we’ve seen, the word sham means not only smelling or breathing, but also life and resurrection (shemu in ancient Egyptian). The word sham must surely be related to shams, the sun. The sun gives life. Without sun, the crops cannot grow. (In ancient times, remember, shemu was the hot, dry season, the season of harvesting crops.)
Of course, the sun also gives death. We all know that the desert sun is deadly. So the ancient Egyptians often depicted the sun with a cobra at its heart. It gives life, but it carries a deadly poison. The Pharaoh was the sun, giving life to his people and bringing death to evildoers. (Well, in theory, anyway.)
Here’s a happy thought. This is one picnic where you don’t have to worry about getting rained on. Oh dear! That’s not a very happy thought for people living in the English climate, enjoying a picnic of soggy sandwiches, crammed inside a car because the grass is too wet.
Happy Sham el Nessim, everyone!