19 - 25 August 1999
Issue No. 443
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A night of feasting and devotionOn Tuesday night last week, Moulid Al-Hussein ended with Al-Layla Al-Kabira (the great night), which begins on the last evening of the feast and lasts until dawn. Fayza Hassan sees the moulid through the eyes of the past, while photographer
Mohamed Wassim attended the event
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Long before the French Expedition, foreigners were fascinated by the festivals (moulid, pl. mawalid) marking the birthdays, the martyrdom or the death of figures venerated by Muslims, in Egypt and elsewhere. Scholars dedicated serious treatises and lengthy dissertations to the topic. Bonaparte himself made a great show of participating in the ceremonies, and, ever since, travellers and writers have felt that their study of Egyptian customs would not be complete without a first-hand account of at least one moulid. To their delight, they have been able to trace these periodical feasts, the dates of which were long calculated according to the agricultural calendar, to Antiquity and Pharaonic times, and have endlessly remarked on the fact that Muslims, Christians and Jews joined celebrations of each other's feast days as a matter of course. They also directed their attention to the almost pagan character of several of these mawalid, noting that they were as much occasions to visit the tomb of a particular saint as opportunities to meet old friends, engage in business transactions, or plan marriages. Apart from the ever-present Sufi orders closely linked to the saint being celebrated, most mawalid have their regulars who follow the moulid trail from village to village, from town to town and up to the major cities: there are the singers and dancing girls (ghawazi), the magicians, the popular "teeth doctors" and the barbers, who will give a hair-cut and a shave in an open-air salon, on a street corner, but who are also "qualified" to carry out circumcision on demand.
The performance of the ceremony of zikr is one of the main attractions of the mawalid and those who witness it for the first time are invariably bewildered. Having attended the zikr of the Issawiya dervishes (a Sufi order made up of the followers of Sidi Mohamed Ibn Issa Al-Maghrebi), E W Lane described the attire of the participants and the musical instruments used during the ritual. A characteristically colourful description of the zikr itself followed: "Before the ring of dervishes a space rather larger than that which they occupied was left by the crowd for other dervishes of the same order and soon after the former began to beat the tambourines, the latter, who were six in number, commenced a strange kind of dance...There was no regularity in their dancing, but each seemed to be performing the antics of a madman -- now moving his body up and down, the next moment turning round, then using odd gesticulations with his arms, next jumping, and sometimes screaming: in short, if a stranger observing them were not told that they were performing a religious exercise, supposed to be the involuntary effect of enthusiastic excitement, he would certainly think that these dancing dervishes were merely striving to excel one another in playing the buffoon."
Strangely enough, Egyptian chroniclers do not seem to have shared the interest of foreigners for the moulid and have seldom dwelt on the event, possibly because popular culture, until recently, was outside the realm of their preoccupations or, on the contrary, because the practice was so familiar that they failed to perceive it as exotic or unique. It is mainly to foreign sources, therefore, that we have to turn for a detailed narrative of these occasions.
Egyptian saints are venerated for their healing powers, their courage in war, their moral qualities in peace and their reputation for performing miracles. Their tombs and shrines are visited all year round as well as during the religious feasts -- sometimes by men, but mostly by women. Amina's ardent desire to visit the Mosque of Al-Hussein in Naguib Mahfouz's famous Trilogy is an apt example of the veneration which this particular saint, martyred in tragic circumstances, still arouses. Three quarters of a century later, the same devotion can still be observed: "One night, while squeezing through the crowd some distance from the saint's tomb," writes Max Rodenbeck, "I felt a clutching at my sleeve. I looked and found the blind eyes of a stooped old man beseeching me. In a thick country accent he begged me to lead him to Al-Hussein and as I piloted him through the noise and confusion he kept repeating, 'Ya Hussein, Praise be to God!' When we merged in the fervent crush at the door of the shrine, I felt him tremble with anticipation. His hand slipped down to mine, which he kissed and raised to his forehead. 'May the Lord preserve your sight my son,' he cried before vanishing over the threshold like a bird released from a cage."
Al-Hassan Ibn Ali (the Prophet's grandson) was murdered in 661 by Mu'awiya, the Ummayad governor of Syria who was trying to secure the position of ruler of the Muslims for himself and his clan. Al-Hassan's brother Al-Hussein was then invited by the people of Kufa in Iraq to join them and was promised great support against Al-Hassan's executioner. In 680, he marched toward Kufa to take up the secular and spiritual leadership of that city's inhabitants. He was however intercepted during his journey by the soldiers of Yazid -- Mu'awiya's son -- who insisted that he acknowledge the supremacy of their master. The battle of Karbala' ensued, during which 72 members of Al-Hussein's family were massacred. Outnumbered in the end, Al-Hussein himself was martyred and beheaded by his enemies.
Although Al-Hussein is said to have been buried in Iraq, it is generally believed that his severed head travelled first to Damascus, then to Ascalon in Palestine and finally to Cairo in 1153, to save it from the advancing Crusaders. The funerary mosque where the remains of the martyr are assumed to be buried is one of Cairo's most venerated shrines, notwithstanding the serious doubts which have often been cast on the accuracy of this belief. In a verbatim transcription of a conversation he had with an imam, Lane reports the comments of Sheikh El-Amir El-Kebir ("Sheikh of the sect of the Malikis") as recounted to him by his visitor: "[El-Amir El-Kebir] proceeded to remark, in his lecture, after having given a summary of the history of El-Hassan and El-Hussein, that, as to the common opinion of the people of Masr respecting the head of El-Hussein, holding it to be in the famous Mash-had [shrine] in this city... it was without foundation, not being established by any credible authority." The imam was shattered by the great sheikh's discourse, but that night, as he confided to Lane, he had a dream where the Prophet appeared to him and appeased his doubts. He therefore awoke from his sleep "joyful and happy" and went to inform the sheikh of his vision. Listening carefully, the sheikh was convinced of the true message contained in the dream and said to him "Thou hast believed, and I have believed, for these lights are not illusive." To those who venerate Al-Hussein, in any case, historical accuracy has little relevance and has in no way stemmed the flow of visitors to his shrine.
"It may be that the Shi'ites [from Shi'a, partisans or followers; believers that Imam Ali, and his sons after him, were appointed by the Prophet Mohamed as his legitimate successors] of Iran mark the saint's death by public weeping and self-flagellation, but Cairo's mawalid devotees... come for fun as much as for devotion," writes Rodenbeck. It is true that the commemoration of Al-Hussein's martyrdom is transformed, at times, into a joyous celebration of his memory; in 1902, however, Bimbashi McPherson, attending the Moulid of Al-Hussein in Cairo, did observe "Persians bewail the martyrdom of Hussein and proceeding through the streets, in the glare of flaming torches and with their bodies in some cases half naked, slash their bodies with their sharp curved swords. When they passed us," he wrote, "their heads were gashed in all directions, they were blinded with blood and their bodies and clothes dripping and they left the streets slippery behind them. The police under British direction with Mansfield bey at their head were securing them an uninterrupted course and driving back the surging crowd with whips and the flat of their sword."
Writing in 1834, Lane had offered a considerably less gruesome picture: "During a period of fifteen nights and fourteen days in the month of Rabi' Al-Thani (the fourth month), the Mosque of the Hasaneyn [today better known as the Mosque of Al-Hussein]... is the scene of a festival... celebrated in honour of the birth of Al-Hussein... whose head is said to be there buried... This moulid is the most famous of all celebrated in Cairo excepting that of the Prophet. The grand day of the moulid is always a Tuesday; and the night which is properly called that of the moulid is the one immediately ensuing, which is termed that of Wednesday... In the mosque I saw nothing to remark but crowding and confusion and swarms of beggars -- men, women, and children. In the evening the mosque was still crowded to excess, and no ceremonies were performed there but visiting the shrine, recitation of the Qur'an, and two or three zikr. The streets were then more crowded than ever till long after midnight and the illuminations gave them a very gay appearance. The gowhargiya (or jewellers' bazaar) was illuminated with a great profusion of chandeliers and curtained over. The madnehs [minarets] of the larger mosques were also illuminated. Many shops were open besides those at which eatables, coffee, and sherbet were sold; and in some of them were seated fiqhis (two or more together) reciting the khatma (or the whole of the Qur'an). There were sha'ers [poets] muhaddiths [reciter of the Hadith] musicians and singers in various places, as on the former nights."
Describing his experience of the moulid some seventy years later, Rodenbeck confirms the joyful character of the festival. Little, it would seem, has changed over the years: "The revelry begins after dusk, gaining momentum far into the early hours. Fair-goers jive and joke and test their skills in shooting galleries and trials of strength. Some, drawn by the rhythm of drums and the whine of reed flutes, join ritual dances in the dozen of marquees set up by different Sufi brotherhoods. Others press into the shrine itself to gain the saint's baraka or blessing, while Breughel-faced beggars and weasel-featured pickpockets work the throng outside."
Sheikh Fadhlalla Haeri: The Elements of Sufism, Element, Inc., 1993
E W Lane: Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, East-West Publications, 1978
Max Rodenbeck: Cairo the City Victorious, Picador, 1998
Bimbashi McPherson: A Life in Egypt, Barry Carman and John McPherson, eds., British Broadcasting Corporation, 1983