Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2011
Issue No. 1054
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sound of the soul

For the first time, Nesmahar Sayed attended the Sayeda Zeinab moulid, and found, as did Sherif Sonbol who took the pictures, the influence of the 25 January Revolution very much alive

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The driver was thrilled he was given the task of taking us to the Sayeda Zeinab moulid, or birthday celebrations. "She is the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed, one of his family," Mohamed Abdel-Aal explained, obviously excited about the impending visit to this quasi religious-carnival attraction.

Abdel-Aal spoke about the importance of such an event for many Egyptians. "We are lovers of Al-Albayt [the prophet's family], and I love to go to listen to religious songs by Yassin El-Tohami and meet with family and friends from all over the country."

We had to leave the car around 300 metres away from the main square where the moulid participants were surrounding the mosque. On your way on foot to the square no one can miss the spirit of generosity and hospitality among visitors. "We have been attending this ceremony for 25 years," a visitor from Mehalla, in the Gharbeya governorate, said. The out of towner was sitting with his friends eating fuul nabet (fava beans) and batawu (baked bread eaten mainly in the Delta governorates). Nabet, fatta, moulid sweets, hommos and meshabek are all over the place. People are offering food and water to each other. Lamps of bright colours, pleasant scents of bokhour and the echo of zikr gatherings give a spiritual atmosphere to the site and soul.

The word Allah is said by the muridin, people you could call moulid full-timers whose voice have a powerful sound and effect on the heart ê" a voice coming from inside, akin to an echo.

In the centre of Sayeda Zeinab Square, a large Egyptian flag connects one tall building to a lamp post. The photos of those killed during the uprising are hung atop the lamp posts, too, and the burned out police station of Sayeda Zeinab, with the Egyptian flag fluttering from its rooftop, all represent the 25 January Revolution, even in celebration.

After the revolution and the fall of the State Security headquarters in March, some Salafist groups attacked the adreha (graves where religious figures are buried). The assault ignited clashes between Sufist groups and Salafis. An event like the moulid would be considered a battleground for such a fight. "But we do not fear such threats. We come for God's sake and nothing but that," Haj Mustafa Ahmed, from religious edicts Al-Tarika Al-Baioumiya, and who came from Moqattam district to offer food to the poor, relatives and friends, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are all Muslims. I do not accept such divisions."

Ahmed was wearing a white galabeya. Another, donning an orange T-shirt, said the same thing. "I am here in God's service. I am neither a Brotherhood nor Salafi or Sufi."

Esmat Sayed Ahmed was eager to speak to the Weekly, saying they wanted to send a complaint to officials and human rights activists. It seems a young man, according to his mother, refused to participate in the Battle of the Camel on 2 February, the height of the uprising. His punishment: a People's Assembly member attacked him and now the victim is charged in five lawsuits.

Although the attacker, a National Democratic Party member, is currently a resident in Tora prison along with many other prominent officials including Fathi Sorour, the People's Assembly speaker, and PA member for the district of Sayeda Zeinab, the mother Ahmed said "corruption still exists".

More than five months after the start of the rebellion, calls for executing Arab leaders are voiced, even in the moulid, on a stage in a makeshift kangaroo court with a noose overhead.

Aside from the cross and crescent lying side by side in a show of Muslim-Coptic ties that bind at a time of sectarian strife, banners expressing the new rising parties including Free Egyptians Party and Freedom Party were there, too.

A new image pops up that no one could have predicted before 25 January: a tent for Shia was pitched for the first time in this year's celebration. "They [the Shia] are part of the Egyptians who can breath freedom easily these days after the 25 January Revolution," Ammar Ali Hassan said, adding that this could be problematic for the Sufis as the Salafis accuse them of being the gateway to the Shia method, taking into consideration that Egyptian law considers Sufis and Sunnis alike, Hassan said.

Alaa Abul-Azaiem, who employs the Sheikh Al-Azaimiya method, believes that there is no fear of Shia whatsoever. "Especially when you consider that Iran, which is the centre of Shia, has a Sunni population of 25 per cent. Shia are Muslims above all so why do we deal with them as our enemies?" Abul-Azaiem added.

If this is how some Sufis look at Shia, how will it be like for Salafis and Sufis? Hassan believes that the next phase of the relationship between Salafis and Sufis will be one of calm. "Since Salafis are entering political life vigorously they will try not to lose the Sufis' vote."

Because of swine flu, for the past two years many restrictions were forced upon the moulid ceremony "but this year we feel free of all fears," Zeinab Othman, 45, said. "Security was not as noticeable as it was last year."

Children had the most fun in the celebrations, and many parents do go just to make them happy.

Face paintings are no longer for cats and spidermen. The red, white and black of the Egyptian flag hold a prominent place on children's faces.

Costa, a daredevil Greek who has been performing for 52 years, rides his motorcycle roughshod high around a track. It was the best of all the shows in the moulid. "Despite the crowds and large number of visitors for the moulid, the economic crisis has affected revenues," one of the entertainers at the moulid told the Weekly.

Again, many people have not gone to the moulid for fear of leaving their rural homes in the wake of a security vacuum left by the revolution.

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