2011 § Leave a Comment
As night approached and the minaret of al-Hussein Mosque flushed with orange and red, hundreds of tiny lights hanging on the building facade suddenly lit up. The final “leyla kabira” (big night) of the Mulid of Hussein, Cairo’s most famous religious festival, was about to begin.
Thousands gathered in the old Cairo neighborhoods of al-Azhar and Hussein to celebrate in defiance of the low expectations following recent political instability and economic crisis. Believers coming from as far as Aswan, near the Sudanese border, pitched their tents in the alleys of the Islamic neighborhood and built stages to host religious chants and sufi trance dances.
People feared that police’s drawback from the street and midnight curfew would impede the realization of the 5-day long utopia, were believers dance and sing together until late in the night, living a lifetime experience through the sharing of food, drinks and messages of peace. The Army’s sudden but timely decision to delay the curfew to 2AM eased the pressure on partakers and the few policemen guarding the celebrations easily dealt with the peaceful crowd of thousands.
Hammam comes from Aswan and works as a builder for a construction company. He dreams about traveling to Europe and find a better-paid job. Nonetheless, he and his family did not hesitate to spend part of their savings to organize a week-long expedition to Cairo every year and take part in the fascinating mulid. They offered tea and sweets to passer-by throughout the night.
As a main event of the final big night, famous sheikh Yassin exhibited in front of a crowd of a few hundred before the Hussein mosque and squeezing into the next square. The celebration went on in the alleys behind the mosque until 4AM, in complete defiance of the curfew. No clashes were recorded.
The mulid of Hussein celebrates the birthday of the Propet Muhammad’s Grandson, killed in 680 AD during the battle of Kerbala. His be-headed body was buried in the same city, while his head was carried in triumph to Damascus and successively transferred to Cairo, where it is now preserved in a silver shrine.
“The martyrs of Islam never die,” says Ramadan, pointing at Hussein’s tomb inside the homonymous mosque.
“There is still blood flowing in their veins when they are buried, and their bodies never age. For ever.” Ramadan comes from Mansura, in the Delta. He wishes to come back to Cairo in three months, in order to celebrate the other big mulid of Sayed Zeynab.
The Mulid of Hussein is only one of more than three thousands similar celebrations held in Egypt every year. There are Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim mulids; the celebrations stand as proof of the plurality and uniqueness of Egypt’s cultural and religious tradition.
Some argue that such celebrations date back to Pharaonic times, and therefore are among the few manifestations of true Egyptian identity. Nowadays, they constitute a fundamental part of Sufi Islam.
For this reason, mulids came under strong criticism from secular and muslim reformist authorities, who see in these celebration a display of backwardness or wrong religious practice.
“Some people try to drive the Brotherhood and Sufis apart to serve their personal interests,” declared Mohamed al-Shahawi, head of the International Sufi Council, responding to a proposal to ban Sufi dhikr dancing.
Opposite views came to a dramatic confrontation in 2009, following a mulid ban issued by the Ministry of Health and supported by the head of the Supreme Sufi Council. According to official communications, the gathering of people would have increased the danger of a swine-flu epidemic.