The annual celebration of birth of Sayeda Zeinab has been banned amid concern over the spread of swine flu, reports Reem Leila
Silence has veiled Sayeda Zeinab district since 13 July, the first day of moulid of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand daughter of Prophet Mohamed. Typically, the area surrounding the mosque should be packed with stalls, tents, swings, the narrow alleyways home to hundreds of thousands of people who flock from across Egypt for the week long celebration. This year, though, amid fears of the spread of swine flu, the event has been banned by Cairo Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir, who issued a decree cancelling the moulid on 12 July.
Abdel-Rahman Shahin, official spokesman at the Ministry of Health, says crowds provide the perfect environment for the virus to spread. "The annual celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary in Zeitoun district will also be banned," said Shahin.
More than 1,000 moulids take place every year, and the celebrations are attended by millions of people. "Such gatherings are an ideal breeding ground for the virus," argues Shahin.
Wazir's decree came in response to recommendations made by the committee formed by Health Minister Hatem El-Gabali that Muslim and Christian celebrations across Egypt be cancelled.
A few days before the beginning of the moulid tents had started to mushroom in the narrow alleyways surrounding the mosque. Immediately after the decree was issued security forces began turning arrivals away and dismantling the tents and stalls that had already been set up. Several people were arrested in the maze of alleyways that surround the mosque.
Hedaya Ibrahim and her husband, Ali Zeinhom, spend their lives hopping from one moulid to another. The couple, who come from Assiut, and their four children serve as celebrators. They set up camp in one of the narrow alleyways behind the mosque almost a month ago.
"This decision is unfair. We earn our food from these celebrations. I also know they will cancel the celebration of the Virgin Mary. If the government continues with this my family will not find anything to eat," said Ibrahim.
Feelings are mixed in the area around Sayeda Zeinab. Local resident Ahmed Abdel-Ghani cannot see the point of the ban. "If they want to cancel the celebration because of the crowds then they should also shut down the metro, crowded buses and trains. Crowds exist everywhere all the time so what's the use of banning a moulid. It's a rich tradition that is difficult to forego."
Mohamed Gamal, from Alexandria, had planned to set up a food stand during the week serving visitors to the moulid, estimated by some to reach almost one million during the course of the week-long festivities.
"I was preparing myself for this event and bought a lot of stuff. Now what will I do?" he asked. "I have lost a lot of money."
Others, though, agree with the ban.
Bahaa Taher, proprietor of a metal workshop, sympathises with official concern over swine flu.
"If only one person was infected, all of the people around will catch the virus," he said at his store on an empty side-street that would normally be packed with travellers and street vendors. Other locals arrived at the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque to pay their respects to the prophet's granddaughter without the usual festivities. Othman Ismail explained that he was visiting the mosque but cared little for the missing festivities.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that swine flu cannot now be contained.
"At this point, further spread of the pandemic, within affected countries and to new countries, is inevitable," said a WHO statement released last week. "As part of continued efforts to document the global spread of the H1N1 pandemic regular updates will be provided describing the situation in newly affected countries. WHO will continue to request that these countries report the first confirmed cases and, as far as feasible, provide weekly aggregated case numbers and descriptive epidemiology of the early cases," the statement continued. "As for countries already experiencing community-wide transmission, they are no longer to submit regular reports of individual laboratory- confirmed cases to WHO."