Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 May 1999
Issue No. 429
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Books Monthly supplement
Antara

Food for thought
A word from the Editor-in-Chief Hosny Guindy

Time for forgiveness?
Mona Anis revels in a 1960s memoir vividly chronicling the underground life of Egypt's angry young writers

A sun which leaves no shadows
Mokhtarat (Selections), Ghaleb Halasa, Al-Ahram (Kitab fi Garida), February 1999

Mothering the populace
The Pure and the Powerful, Studies in Contemporary Muslim Society, Nadia Abu Zahra, London: Garnet Publishing,1997. pp.308

Lights, camera, chit-chat
Cairo: From Edge to Edge, essay by Sonallah Ibrahim and photographs by Jean Pierre Ribière, Cairo: AUC Press, 1998. pp21+ 70 photographs

The art of conversation
Tawfiq El-Hakim Yatathakar (Tawfiq El-Hakim Reminisces), ed Gamal El-Ghitani. Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture, 1998. pp183

Not quite another country
Alnesaeyat, Malak Hefny Nassef. Cairo: The Women and Memory Forum publications, 1998. pp246

Journey of a giraffe
Zarafa, Michael Allin, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1998. pp215

Village life from within
Denys Johnson-Davies offers insight into Mohamed El-Bisatie's work, and translates an extract from his new novel, appearing this Saturday in the Al-Hilal series
And the Train Comes


Short Reviews:

*Al-Kotob: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints)

*Soheir El-Qalamawi, Nabila Ibrahim

*Sifr Amal Donqol (The Book of Amal Donqol), ed Abla El-Reweini

*Mithl Saif Lan Yatakarar Kathiran: Mahkiyat (Like a Summer that will Not Often Repeat Itself: Anecdotes)

*Al-Sayida allati wa'l-Rajul alathi lam... (The Lady who and the Manwho did not ...), Sabri Moussa

*Buka'iya illa Hafiz Al-Shirazi (Elegy to Hafiz Al-Shirazi), Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati

*Deen Al-Harafeesh fi Misr Al-Mahrousa (The Religion of the Harafeesh in Egypt the Protected), Ali Fahmi

*Al-Ibna Faten (Daughter Faten), Naim Sabri

*Siwa Door: Poems 1993-1997, Tom Lamont

*Tujar Al-Tawabil fi Misr fi'l-Asr Al-Mamluki ah (Spice Merchants in Egypt in the Mameluke Period), Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Ashqar

*Ragul Tayeb Yukalim Nafsah (A kind man who talks to himself), Girgis Shukri

*Nizwa: A quarterly literary Journal

*Al-Tifl Al-Manbuz (Testaments Betrayed), Milan Kundera

*Arba' Masrahiyat 'Iraqiya (Four Iraqi Plays)


 

Abla  

Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Mothering the populace

Umm el-awagez, the mother of those who cannot look after themselves; Umm Hashim, mother of the house of the Prophet - ahl al bayt. Ya sit ya illi kullik sham' (O Lady who is all candles), Ya sit ya illi menawwara el-midan (O lady, you who lights up the square). In Cairene popular imagery Al-Sayeda Zeinab, granddaughter of the Prophet, is perceived as the Mother of Egypt, and all powers of motherhood are attributed to her.

In The Pure and the Powerful, an exceptional and highly enjoyable work by the Oxford-based Egyptian anthropologist Nadia Abu Zahra, the names and attributes of Al-Sayeda Zeinab are vigorously depicted and intelligently contextualised. The maternal powers of Al-Sayeda, epitome of purity and light, include the ability to heal the sick and alleviate affliction and pain. Abu Zahra guides us through the labyrinth of myth and reality in Al-Sayeda's biography, detailing the powerful symbolic role of her cult among both the popular and literate classes of Egypt. Egyptians associate her with Egypt and the Nile, insisting that she is buried in Cairo, though this is by no means certain.

Abu Zahra's position as one of a new breed of Egyptian female anthropologists lends a certain weight to this, her second book, a volume whose most interesting sections are those devoted to Al-Sayeda. This book might be read as a mosaic, integrating her previous work on Tunisia (her doctoral dissertation on a village called Sidi Ameur) with later studies. The style is both scholarly and surprisingly personal, relating how the author's curiosity as an anthropologist was triggered by her mother's death, as well as by a Youssef Idris story (Dastur ya Sayyeda), in which he depicts Al-Sayeda alone in her tomb as the mother (or patron saint) of lonely vulnerable women, and other literary works by Yehya Haqqi and Abdel-Hakim Qasim. Those who know Abu Zahra personally, could see through the text how deeply she has been involved emotionally with her own research.

Abu Zahra weaves together the anthropological, the literary and an understanding of the way Islam works in popular religion, through ritual processions, burials, rain rituals, the moulid, food and food processing in a way that allows the reader to visualise both material and symbolic culture. She completes her interpretation with the Qur'an, texts related to Islamic tradition and Arabic commentatories on the Prophetic tradition. She refers too to Sheikh Shaltut, and Al-Tabari, as well as the literary works dealing with moulids and the shrine of Al-Sayeda Zeinab. As the daughter of Azharite scholar Mohamed Abu Zahra she has privileged access to the oft impenetrable world of the ulama.

Abu Zahra's first field work in Tunisia took place during 1965-66, and the summer of 1972, followed up by a visit in January 1984. The fieldwork on Al-Sayeda took place between 1986 and 1988, and the present volume is dotted with diary descriptions of female visitors to the shrine, situations, mental illnesses, locations, food production and distribution that are, throughout, very lively. It is rich in maps and details about the shrine and the other saints related to Al-Sayeda.

What is it, though, that makes this book original?

Abu Zahra progresses by examining how Islamic prescriptions are variously integrated, developed and socially realised in Muslim societies. This is concretised by looking into burial rituals, through close consultations with the washers of the bodies of the dead and by Abu Zahra's interpretation of the rain ritual as a form of social regeneration. It is a procedure that challenges established Oreintalists and anthropologists, questioning the assumptions of anthropologists such as Tapper and Tapper 'that the native is a naive and ignorant person' and Michael Gilsenan's thesis that the learned Islam of the ulama is different from Islam as practised by the people. She argues that the weakness of these anthropologists is that they overlook the relationship between the ulama and the people, ignoring the functions of fatawi.

She also challenges Gellner's view that Islam is a constant autonomous entity independent of society. Gellner associates two types of Islam with two types of structures, the bookish puritanical Islam practised by the merchant classes in the city, and the popular Islam associated with the tribe and the cult of saints. Abu Zahra attempts to reveal the vital interaction between the texts and popular culture by focusing on the intermediary role of the ulama in formulating popular ritual.

"My fieldwork on the channels of communication between the ulama and the people and my ethnography on the other aspects of Muslim society refutes Gellner's claim that the Islamic text is outside society," she writes.

The book is full of witty observations. There is the case of the eminent actress and belly dancer who became an important Sufi Sheikha, maintaining the best marquee in the mawlid of Sayeda Zeinab. She provides detailed description of the marquee, the gathering and the food that was served and the way the hajja dressed. She cites the lively cases of women who visit the marble courtyard surrounding the tombs of Sidi Atris and Sidi Idarus to complain and to socialise, to console; counsel, advise and support one another in addition to providing detailed descriptions of the mawlid.

The last two chapters in the book are about Ramadan in Cairo and Sham El-Nessim, though the latter is perhaps a little too short and might have benefited from greater elaboration. The chapter on Ramadan, however, is strong on the idiosyncrasies of the festival and its celebration, and of the foods associated with it.

Overall, the question of power and domination and the pervasive role of the state in enhancing the domination of the ulama could have done with more detailed discussion, and Abu Zahra seems to overlook the connection between orthodoxy and the state, between what the Algerian-French intellectual Mohamed Arkoun calls the functional solidarity between the "culture savante", orthodoxy, scripture and power.

Al-Azhar and its ulama are in the final instance an official instrument of the government, spreading a specific, ideological form of Islam. How, then, is this related to the intermediaries and interpreters of the ritual? The government has played a pervasive role in sponsoring and reviving rituals and etatising popular culture, so what of the relationship between mass culture and the media, on the one hand, and popular religion on the other? To what extent has the Egyptian state, through fighting Islamic opposition, undergone Islamisation from the top and what is the impact of this Islamisation on aspects of popular Islam? Such questions remain unanswered.

However, and regardless of minor question marks, this book provides us with a rich and delightful perspective, transmitting an interesting image where the personal trajectory is so closely woven with the field of study.

Reviewed by Mona Abaza

   Top of page
Front Page