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Arab World Celebrates Valentine's Day - 2002-02-15

It is a relatively new phenomenon in the Arab World but St. Valentine's Day February 14 is fast becoming one of the region's most popular occasions. In Cairo, a frenzied atmosphere has enveloped the region on this special day for lovers.

Shops selling Valentine's cards, gifts, flowers, candy, and just about anything red are jumping with business in Egypt and many other countries in the Arab world.

In Cairo, Choco Chocolat, a shop that sells expensive candies is packed with customers. In fact, there is a line waiting to get inside the store ... at 10'oclock at night.

At a time when the region's economy is still suffering from the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the sound of customers is music to shopowners' ears. Amal Aladreesi is the owner of Choco Chocolat. She says Valentine's Day accounts for 40-percent of her annual business.

"Actually it is one of the most important days and important weeks, actually, before Valentine's," says Ms. Aladreesi. "This is the season for us. This is where we zoom, hopefully. We have been quite busy for the past 10-days and we wait every year for this time of the year, Valentine's."

Stores in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are decorated with red hearts, teddy bears, red candles, red pillows, red towels, seemingly red anything, and tens-of-thousands of people are buying.

This gentleman says he is not sure if Valentine's Day is a blessing or a curse.

"It means to me I pay money. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. It is a way to spend some money, lots of money," he says.

Even so, the same man says the occasion is one he looks forward to.

"It is like an occasion where you can tell the person that you love that you love them and it is a time to forget your problems and forget everything, and spend a very romantic time with each other, giving each other gifts that make you more happy with each other," he says.

Ashaff Yousef owns a Cairo store called Party Perfect. He sells party favors, greeting cards, and just about any party item you could imagine. Five-years ago he started decorating his store for Valentine's Day. When asked how important Valentine's Day is to business, Mr. Yousef responds "It is very important. It is the most important day of the whole year It was not that great a few years ago, but it gradually began increasing, and the last two or three years it was very good."

Flower shops throughout the region have a hard time keeping up with demand, as Malak Yakan knows. She works in a Cairo shop called Flower Power. She says in the week leading up to Valentine's day she often works from 8:00am until 2:00am the next day. A few years ago, she says, she would have never been this busy.

"I can not remember Valentine's being celebrated as much as it is," she says. "I mean, during my years at university I can not remember Valentine's being celebrated as much as it is now."

Ms. Malak, who is in her mid 20s, says, for her, Valentine's Day is not that much fun.

"A lot of work. So much work. I never enjoy it," she says.

But she appears to be in the minority. In Damascus, Amman, Cairo, and Beirut hotels are throwing huge Valentine's parties that will last well into the morning hours. But for some countries in the region, Valentine's Day is definitely not something to celebrate.

In Saudi Arabia or Kuwait buying or selling a Valentine's card could land you in jail. In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, Valentine's Day is considered an occasion influenced by Western religions.

But Cairo candy store owner Amal Aladreesi says she wishes there were more Valentine's Days.

"Oh please, we need Valentines," she says. " I wish we had it twice a year. It would have made our whole year and then we could close the shop."

Some see the occasion as a strain on the pocketbook, alienating people from the real meaning of love. Others say it is a renewal and revival of feelings that are separate and apart from the daily routine that sometimes prevail on the lives of lovers.