YEARS ago when I still made regular visits to Pakistan, a young journalist came up to me in a shopping mall and asked for my thoughts on “St. Valentine’s Day”.
I was flattered. Here I was walking around with my teenage son and daughter — and he wanted my opinion, not theirs. Why? His response was brutal — but charming. I had been selected because I looked “mature and experienced” — and like someone who knew about love.
So I told him the truth: Yes, I did know about love — a great deal. It was my favourite emotion.
And yes Valentine’s Day is commercial and hyped up to make us all spend money on silly things like chocolates, perfume and roses and stuff. But I am all for reminders of love in a cruel world full of hate and anger.
Give me crass, commercial symbols of love over hate speech, suicide bombers and terrorism any day. Roses over guns, balloons over bullets. And then came the second question: wasn’t it all anti-Islamic? “Only if you think Islam is not about love,” I said. And we all burst out giggling.
I don’t know if that interview was ever aired but I was reminded of the brief encounter as I read the latest anti-Valentine’s Day rants by a swathe of Pakistanis.
I saw pictures of billboards decorated with a black heart urging citizens to “Say no to Valentine’s Day” because “this tradition reflects insensitivity, indignity and ignorance of Islam”.
Luckily the paper also reported that in Islamabad, hawkers selling heart-shaped balloons staked out street corners and florists were doing a brisk trade. A young man said he was buying a red balloon for his lucky mother.
But back to the anti-love campaigners. In the wise words of Syed Askari, a spokesman for Jamaat-i-Islami (as quoted by news agencies): “Valentine’s is against Islamic culture … we have arranged marriages in this culture and people don’t get married for love.”
Good heavens, I had no idea. I did not know that ‘Islamic culture’ was so opposed to love. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was growing up and all the wonderful qawwalis I listened to evoked so beautifully that sublime moment when the loved one came home (piya ghar ayaa). Or that the references to the “beloved” in ghazals of Madam Nur Jehan and the soulful songs of Mehdi Hassan were all written by non-Muslims and foreigners. What a shock also to learn that all the wonderful Pakistanis I know — married and otherwise — have never known love. I am sure they are equally surprised to discover that the wonderful heart-melting feeling they have for their spouses and friends is going to lead them straight to perdition.
But just who is Mr Askari kidding? As the song says, “love makes the world go around” — and I am convinced that there is love in the heart of even the most virulent anti-Valentine campaigners.
Actually, unlike the anti-love lobbyists in Pakistan, I’ve been boring friends and colleagues about the importance of bringing love back into our lives.
It all started earlier this year when I saw the Taj Mahal once again and realised that it was not only the most breathtakingly beautiful, magical, awe-inspiring monument ever built, it is also the only edifice I know which has been built to celebrate love.
Think about it: there are great buildings around us — mosques, churches, palaces — and they rightly evoke admiration. But only the Taj Mahal symbolises eternal, enduring love. That’s why the Taj touches you like no other monument can.
And guess what? It was built by a Muslim king for his Muslim wife. And even as the extremists kill, murder and torture, the Taj Mahal remains a permanent reminder of another softer and gentler version of Islam in South Asia which encouraged love, cultivated tolerance and awed the world with its knowledge and culture.
To be fair, curmudgeonly Pakistanis are not the only ones raging against Valentine’s Day. A four-paragraph story in People’s Daily in China has also denounced Valentine’s Day as a “hatchery of decadent ideology, indulgent lifestyle, fraud and corruption for some party members who squandered money indulging their lovers”.
Another equally fascinating article said that Valentine’s Day was a particularly embarrassing time for men and women who are looking for love in China, “where it’s considered shameful to remain single after 30”.
The problem was so acute that some young people were being forced to “rent a friend” to accompany them to family gatherings and feasts.
But one Chinese friend told me that Valentine’s Day was so popular in China that the prices of roses had skyrocketed. “Chinese women expect nice presents on this day,” he told me ruefully. “The pressure on men is very high.”
In Japan, meanwhile, it appears that Valentine’s Day has morphed into an all-out celebration of chocolate, with women buying the sweet stuff to give to men. The gift giving isn’t limited to a significant other, but co-workers, friends, and family.
A recent survey by department store Printemps Ginza found that women on average spend about $35 on chocolate for their significant other, and shell out more than $100 for obligation chocolates. They set aside $30 to buy chocolates for themselves, also known as “jibun choco”.
Here in Europe, anti-love advocates in Pakistan and elsewhere will be glad to know that Valentine’s Day is losing its appeal. Yes, sales of flowers and perfume rise — and restaurants put up their prices. But, among my friends only one beautiful 25-year-old said her boyfriend had sent her roses. Who knows: as economic and political power shifts to Asia, perhaps Valentine’s Day will become an Asian phenomenon.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.