Saturday,23 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Saturday,23 June, 2018
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Sayeda Zeinab — ‘close to joy’

With its fading architectural beauty and elusive spiritual splendour, the Al-Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood of Cairo can provide visitors with both joy and heartache, as writer Dina Ezzat and photographer Sherif Sonbol found out

Al-Sayeda Zeinab

“Oh lady… mother of grace and salvation… the eternally beautiful… what bliss you offer to those who love you…”

These are the words that Sufi singers chant in the love of Al-Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed who was born to his daughter Fatema and his cousin Ali.

As the daughter and the sister of three men – Ali, Hassan and Hussein – who died during the first grand inter-Muslim war that eventually brought about the Sunni and Shia division in Islam, Al-Sayeda Zeinab is sometimes referred to as the “mother of those who suffer calamities.”

Her grand mosque-mausoleum in southern Cairo where she is said to have been buried after a short stay in Egypt is the destination of people with ailments who pray for her blessings to spare them from suffering as a result.

Arafa Al-Kanafani

Few pay attention to the debate about whether the lady buried in the mausoleum might be another Zeinab – the granddaughter of one of her brothers – rather than the lady herself “who brings joy in the place of heartache.”

The Mosque of Al-Sayeda Zeinab in the heart of the Cairo neighbourhood carrying her name is an important destination for pilgrims throughout the year, but especially so during the holy month of Ramadan and in the weeks of the moulid (religious festival) in the run-up to the fasting month.

The mosque, an important destination for many Sufi groups, is a place of great spirituality that has always been associated with the neighbourhood despite the fact that the date and history of its construction have been subject to debate by historians.

Al-Gahsh foul and falafel

All around this popular mosque there are places associated in the minds of many with the Al-Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood. One of these is Arafa Al-Kanafani in Al-Sayeda Zeinab Square where from the late 19th century onwards hand-made sweets like kunafa and katayef have been sold during the month of Ramadan. There are still long queues of people waiting to buy what are now machine-made sweets, as well as Syrian bread and even puff pastry.

Another place is the Al-Gahsh foul and falafel restaurant off the busy Port Said Street. This is named after its late founder Hanafi Al-Gahsh, and for decades it was the destination of choice for clients from across the socio-economic spectrum for a delicious traditional Egyptian meal.

During Ramadan, Al-Gahsh would typically see long queues of clients starting from 10 pm until minutes before dawn prayers. Five years ago, the death of the founder reduced the restaurant’s claim to fame, and activities were split between his sons. However, the restaurant is still holding its own.


“We opened a new restaurant and several parallel activities after my grandfather passed away seven years ago. For the past four years the old restaurant has been closed due to a legal battle, but we open it for the month of Ramadan,” said Islam Al-Gahsh.

The basic foul and falafel dishes are still being served, along with vegetables ranging from potatoes to aubergines. “We stick to what we have always served. We are not introducing new items because our clients from outside Al-Sayeda Zeinab come for the experience of having foul at Al-Gahsh and the residents of the neighbourhood like what we have been offering for years,” Al-Gahsh said.

For writer Ahmed Samir, a resident of Al-Sayeda Zeinab who was born and raised there, Al-Gahsh and other similar restaurants that serve traditional Egyptian cuisine are not necessarily the kind of place that residents of the neighbourhood would frequent.

“I would not normally go there, except for sohour, but I would go if friends wanted to come to Al-Sayeda Zeinab to eat at Al-Gahsh or any of the other popular restaurants, including Habayib Al-Sayeda that serves a large variety of meats,” he said.

Nor would Abed Attia, a retired civil servant in his late 70s, necessarily always performs his prayers at the Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque. He often leaves the neighbourhood where he had been living for the last 40 years to perform his prayers in other mosques that relate to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Prophet all around Cairo.

For Samir and Attia, the magic of Al-Sayeda Zeinab lies elsewhere. Neither man attends the moulid of Al-Sayeda Zeinab or the many cafes that flank the small and largely well-shaded roads of the neighbourhood that goes all the way from the mosque of Ahmed Ibn Toulon to the French Institute in Al-Mounira next to Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street, the other side of Garden City.

Al-Sayeda Zeinab

For Attia, “it is the spirit of the neighbourhood that is important to me. It is something that you cannot quite quantify. It is there in the streets I walk in from my house to the mosque or to the bus station I go to if I wish to visit the Mosques of Al-Hussein or Al-Sayeda Nafissa. This area is very different from other places in Cairo, even from the other popular districts.”

For Samir too, the neighbourhood holds many memories about “long walks through streets and alleys, about the old buildings of my school days like Al-Khideweya or Al-Saniya or Al-Ibrahimiya. It is really just about the roads and the walks. The area is not spacious in the direct sense of the word, but it is large and it has much to offer. I like to gaze at an old apartment building that is almost empty except for a few apartments, or an old tree next to a small café and the people sitting there. Or I just walk about not looking at anything or anyone in particular and enjoy a deep serenity that is hard to put into words,” he said.

Al-Sayeda Zeinab

Like Attia, Samir likes the fact that his neighbourhood is centrally located in the capital. But he is not keen on frequenting a wide range of mosques like Attia does at any time of the morning or evening. Instead, he enjoys simply wandering. “When it used to get really crowded during the month of Ramadan, for example, I would still be able to avoid the most-crowded streets and walk to Cairo University. During the 18 days of the 25 January Revolution I walked home from Tahrir,” Samir said.

Moving around Al-Sayeda Zeinab comfortably is something shared by many of the residents of the neighbourhood, even those who have left to live elsewhere. A taxi-driver in his late 60s, Mohamed Salem left his family house off Al-Sad Street in the district over 30 years ago in order to get married. But every morning when he turns on the engine of his white taxi he picks up his first client in the Haram neighbourhood where he now lives to come into town. “Right away I spend my day in Al-Sayeda Zeinab,” he said.

Al-Sayeda Zeinab

“The streets are old, but you cannot feel bored or angry in the traffic here. It is hard to explain why it is so effortless to drive from the north to the south of the neighbourhood and to get into the very narrow alleyways,” Salem said.

Long strolls through the streets of Al-Moubtadayan to the borders of Al-Helmiya have also been a passion that has kept Mohamed Al-Hajj, a scriptwriter in his early 30s, going to this neighbourhood for years “to walk there, away from all the obvious spots, and to look at the beauty of the old fading buildings that are nearly falling apart or of old villas that have been saved by being turned into schools.”

For Al-Hajj, it is wonderful to see this generally popular but essentially middle-class residential neighbourhood still holding out despite all “the ugliness that we have got used to seeing everywhere despite the fact that unlike Al-Azhar this is not exactly a tourist area.”

“In Al-Sayeda Zeinab, I feel close to society or at the heart of it. I understand how it used to be, with the apartment buildings and houses that were there for the middle classes, and how this architecture with its elusive beauty is still holding out gracefully even if only for a little while longer,” Al-Hajj said.

“But while there is beauty, though not necessarily immediately obvious, there is still something heart-breaking about the district,” he said. “The heartache comes from the fact that we might be the last generation to see the beauty of the heart of Cairo where the people of the past would have lived. This is quite different from Dokki on the other side of the Nile, for example, or from a neighbourhood like Boulaq Al-Dakrour where I spent my childhood,” Al-Hajj said.

“This area represents the Egyptian middle class as it was through the best part of the 20th century and as I thought it could have continued to be had the 25 January Revolution found the right path,” he argued.

Samir agrees that when his two young children grow up to go to university in some 10 to 15 years’ time they will not necessarily be walking through the same neighbourhood that he has always been in love with. “It is changing, at least in terms of architecture, but slowly because this is mostly a neighbourhood of rented apartments and it would be very hard to force the residents or their children out in order to knock down the buildings and build ugly high-rise apartment blocks in their place. It is happening, but only slowly,” Samir said.

Nevertheless, Samir is not sure that the streets he loves to walk around will always be able to retain their spirit. “It is a struggle that the neighbourhood will go through, and maybe the beauty will lose out to the new norms, but even so perhaps not completely,” he said.

In 1944, writer Yehiya Hakki wrote a famous novella, “Qandil Om Hashem” (The Lamp of Al-Sayeda Zeinab), in an attempt to describe the struggle of the old and the new in this neighbourhood where he was born in the early decades of the last century.

This year, Samir will see the publication of his own first novel “Close to Joy,” which depicts the surrender of a young man in his 20s to the beauty, the mystique and the inspiration that this neighbourhood has left him with.

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