Gargeean’s Bittersweet Offerings

The holiday brings more to the Gulf than a merry tradition

Gargeean’s Bittersweet Offerings
Gargeean festival celebrations at a park in Kuwait City earlier this month. (Jaber Abdulkhaleg/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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A bright full moon gleams down on the 14th night of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which this year fell on April 6, a Thursday, shining on a mishmash of children and their elders all dressed in Gulf traditional clothes. Dishdashas are draped over little boys’ bodies, sometimes clumsily oversized compared with their tiny torsos, complete with oversized spacious pockets. Little girls don colorful woven dresses with golden head bracelets, shiny coins glimmering on their foreheads and throughout their braided locks.

By the 15th night, the lunar cycle central to Ramadan reaches a circular peak before beginning to wane toward Eid-al-Fitr’s silvery crescent. This night marks Gargeean, a celebration in which children pair their traditional garb with fashionably color-coded pouches and spill out in droves across Gulf Arab neighborhoods on a hunt for sweets.

In one of the most iconic elements of Gargeean, children, usually accompanied by their mothers or another supervising elder, often in the form of a migrant domestic worker, sing an “ihzooja” (a poetic ditty), which for this celebration is a mixture between hymns wishing neighbors well and a jolly pleading for a confectionery prize. If it sounds like Halloween, that’s because it is. Gargeean is a day of communal jubilance in which children across the Gulf as well as other areas close to the region enter a festive mode with specific attire while seeking out sugary treats. Though much less spookiness is involved, the day is culturally rooted in the region’s Ramadan traditions.

With lyrical variants spanning Gulf countries, one Kuwaiti Gargeean ihzooja roughly translates to: “Gargeean, oh, Gargeean, between Gusayir and Irmeidan. May you return to fasting it with every year. God, keep your child; God, keep him for his mother. May harm never touch him or bereave his mother.”

Each ditty is sung with local expressions such as Gusayir and Irmeidan – colloquialized versions of the Muslim months of Shaaban and Ramadan – which then instantaneously prompts its recipient to demand a louder, more fervent encore. The more animated their singing, the more treats the children receive.

In the old days, Gulf children paraded through mud streets visiting one neighboring house after another in huddled small towns, before the economic boom from the oil trade transformed their simple dwellings into urbanized metropolises. For my generation, particularly with my growing up in a very middle-class Kuwaiti province, traditional clothing and door-to-door knocking was slowly substituted with kids, almost exclusively boys, in shirts and shorts zooming around on BMX bikes from one neighborhood to the next. We skipped the singing, and the traditional mixtures of nuts, kernels and wrapped sweets along with the occasional money quickly turned into prepackaged, store-bought combos.

It was a ’90s upbringing in which pistachios and locally made sweets were gradually replaced by imported candies and Kit-Kat bars. Like its waning full moon, a traditional Gargeean was changing into something else.

As the Gulf’s fiscal standing rose, be it by petroleum or fruitful economic planning, whether wanted or unwanted, the cultural expression of Gargeean transformed alongside it. It became more and more difficult to preserve the traditional customs in the face of capitalism’s relentless capacity to commercialize anything, and the day’s more religious connotations, and arguably its Islamic roots, were all but forgotten. Sectarian erasure coupled with the temptation of capitalism didn’t bode well for Ramadan’s merry midpoint.

Along with catering to her own children and their Gargeean expectations, Jinan Ashkanani is also a longtime preschool teacher. Between hoisting Kuwait’s flag during the morning line-up and the many national traditions observed in public education institutions, she notes that the finer details of how changing traditions about Gargeean affect different social classes aren’t always clear-cut.

“It doesn’t feel right to look at Gargeean this way, but I see it in my family, I see it when parents get competitive, and I see it as something that’s just part of consumer culture, too,” she said, mentioning that her students come from a variety of different socioeconomic backgrounds. It is not always clear which families are going overboard with their festive spending.

“There’s no doubt expenses existed in the olden days, but, if we’re supposed to measure it in our times, some families take it as an act of showmanship,” she continued. “How much some people will spend for a single day can be baffling.”

For global and regional brands, from car dealerships and supermarkets to telecom companies and government institutions, the rapid commercialization of Ramadan, let alone Gargeean, comes with targeted marketing that shepherds consumers into a bazaar of special offers. “Imagine a list of receipts with tailored clothes, jewelry if you have daughters, custom-made boxes for the sweets, the amount of sweets itself and hosting a suhoor banquet on top of everything for a family gathering,” Ashkanani continued. “It’s a fun and simple day, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get chaotically extravagant.”

On the other side of the border, Saudis have their own traditions. Saudi artist Elham Dawsari fondly recalls the heritage upheld in Gargeean, particularly the clothes children wear and the traditional sweets, but similarly laments how commercialized it has become.

“Other than that it’s a bit superficial,” she explains. “In Riyadh, it can get competitive among the neighborhoods as in whose Gargeean is more fun, and that’s mostly in the richer suburbs in the north,” she continued. While just a few years ago celebrating Gargeean was “officially haram” (forbidden), the kingdom’s expansive push toward a more liberal lifestyle has made it easier to celebrate in recent years.

“There’s also suburbs and old towns that are simple, celebrating in a humble and cute way that focuses more on the children’s fun and innocence,” Dawsari added.

In Kuwait, the country enjoys a more open society than its larger neighbor and Gargeean’s halal (permissible) vs. haram status is less rigid. And yet hardline conservatives who often politicize their religious leanings have tried to eliminate cultural expressions like Gargeean.

“Some scholars see it as a tradition carried over from the Fatimid state, so if that’s the case, then there’s originally a sense of religious worship; therefore it’s unacceptable,” said controversial Sunni jurist Othman Alkhamees during one of his weekly lectures in 2014, referring to the Shiite Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt from the 10th to the 12th century. “And if it’s not that, then what happens today with Gargeean is undoubtedly haram.”

With just under 3 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, where his lectures are broadcast, Alkhamees sees all commemorative celebrations except Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha as forbidden. The 61-year-old Kuwaiti jurist, who completed all his higher education, including a doctorate, at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, applies the same rules to Kuwait’s national and liberation days, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and even Almawlid-al-Nabawi —the Prophet Muhammad’s globally celebrated birthday.

Ironically enough, Alkhamees supports his Gargeean verdict with unsubstantiated religious rhetoric, despite his status as a scholar, and addresses his reasoning as to its “haram” status with an arguably anti-capitalist social critique. In the same lecture, he justifies the day’s lack of religious importance because of the “unbelievable” consumption Gargeean encourages.

“Before, we’d look for torn dishdashas for Gargeean,” he said. “Now, no; brand-new clothing is tailored with hefty expenses.”

Alkhamees’ religious jurisprudence is often emblematic of Kuwait’s charged and recurring societal debate over civil liberties and ideological expression. As a more liberal nation in the Gulf, political camps from across the spectrum, on top of existing yet mostly dormant sectarian friction, compete against one another for their own visions of what Kuwaiti society should look like. With a strong footing in the country’s National Assembly through several religiously conservative blocs, and while women in Kuwait continue to struggle for equal rights, Alkhamees issued a fatwa forbidding women to show their faces on social media last year. Still, as with many of his fatwas, religious hardliners and staunch progressives alike rarely see their visions reflected in Kuwaiti society through new legislation.

Though he has a history of sparring over religious polemics with his Shiite counterparts, Alkhamees’ “Fatimid” explanation for Gargeean only alluded to Shiite beliefs without referencing them directly. Still, as Sunni Islam is also the official faith of governments and ruling families alike, the omission of Gargeean’s religious position regarding Shiite Muslims remains unaddressed in these power dynamics.

Unfortunately, there is little consensus on the origins of the celebration or the etymology of the word. There is a verse in the Quran that reads: “They are [the believers] those who pray, ‘Our Lord! Bless us with pious spouses and offspring who will be the joy of our hearts, and make us models for the righteous.’”

In the verse, the original Arabic form, “qurrata ayun,” means “the comfort of our eyes” and sounds similar to the name Gargeean. There are other language markers such as “gara” (to knock), which could be referring to the way that children knock on their neighbor’s doors for sweets. Across other Gulf countries and parts of Iraq, Gargeean also holds different names. In Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia it is known as Girgeean. In Bahrain it is Garangaoun, in Oman, Garangasho, and in Qatar, Garangao.

However elusive Gargeean’s origins are, Shiite Muslims widely agree that the 15th of Ramadan is the birthday of Muhammad’s first grandson, Imam Hassan ibn Ali. In Shiite narratives, the tale of Imam Hassan’s birth commonly mentions his mother, Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, calling her newborn with the same words in a different phrasing: “Oh, joy of my heart” or in this case, “oh, the comfort of my eyes.” Because those words in Arabic are connected through a Shiite Muslim history and even though Muhammad’s family holds undisputed sanctity in both sects, this debate over the cultural origins of the name animates clerical opposition to celebrating such occasions.

While some Shiite Muslims connect Imam Hassan’s birth with Gargeean, Shiite scholars, such as Fakhrudin Alturaihi’s Majma’-al-Bahrain from the 17th century, say that this could be a “bida’a” (false additive to faith) that is not rooted in religious history. Many practicing Shiites do not oppose the celebration, but Gargeean has largely become an occasion celebrated without reference to Imam Hassan’s birthday and its religious origins. This leaves Shiite Muslims across the Gulf feeling culturally alienated. For Bahraini poet and writer Ali Al-Jamri, whose work often focuses on the cultural underpinnings of Gulf society, Gargeean brings with it an uncomfortable “sanitization” of Shiite beliefs that cuts off Shiite Muslims from the rest of Gulf society.

“It is appropriated and this is a part of a long process of ‘khaleejification,’” Al-Jamri said, pointing out that cultural practices that predate the Gulf (“Khaleeji”) as we know it today are often homogenized into a Gulf identity.

As the commercialization of Gargeean’s traditions continue, the khaleejification that Al-Jamri references aims to form a contemporary Gulf identity, which many see as mimicking Sunni-Shiite power dynamics across the region. For many within the Shiite minority, erasing Shiite cultural expressions, in celebrations of Gargeean and beyond, is a sign of a politics that will inevitably serve the Sunni majority and leave Shiites marginalized.

Even Shiite worship, however, has been changed by the festival.

Celebrating Gargeean while also partaking in its more mainstream iteration is commemorated differently in Shiite circles. Husseiniyas, the Shiite houses of worship typically characterized by communal eulogies attributed to an imam’s martyrdom, transform into places of festive chanting and clapping for an imam’s birth. To more religious Shiites, the 15th of Ramadan also poses as an opportune day for extra piety and worship beyond Gargeean’s festivities.

Throughout the Gulf, similarities among the region’s many ethnicities and backgrounds run as rampant as people’s differences. Gargeean is neither an exception of that reality nor is it exempt from the politicized reality shaping the region.

“The problem is not that Gargeean has broad appeal but that specific religious and cultural roots are ignored,” Al-Jamri said. “I similarly take issue with sanitized Christmas celebrations that remove the faith but keep the capitalism.”

Last Thursday, children across the Gulf donned their traditional best as they celebrated Gargeean, but as with Easter eggs or Christmas shopping, the religious message is watered down to a sugar-filled pursuit. While the sweetness opens up Gargeean to a broader set of people regardless of faith, a bitter loss of what once was is palpable.

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