Imagine a loud karaoke room, but set outside and turned up to the maximum with the subwoofers blasting a man’s voice and drumming and horns. Fill the streets with cars and Egyptians swaying to the beat to celebrate the birth of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand-daughter of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
A wall of sound surrounds us, but it is really more of an assault on the eardrums than anything else. It is at this moment that I realize the Western ear is clearly more sensitive than the Egyptian one. Our hearing has been spoiled by regulations modulating decibel levels. We sell ear plugs; silence is observed on Sundays by banishing church bells; we have an “inside voice” and an “outside voice.”
Men are swaying back and forth on their heels, almost like they’ve been possessed by the Holy Spirit. Pendulum-like…Back and forth. Back and forth. We might as well be at a southern Baptist revival meeting, minus the preacher.
An elderly woman, veiled in black, to my left, sways back and forth, to and fro, aided by her companion, who greets my gaze and smiles briefly. I try not to stare.
I am with Tom, a 21 year old British wanna-be journalist. He ventures into the breach of the crowd with his blackberry camera to capture a photo or two. A few minutes later, an Egyptian man with a bottle of liquid – 7 up?—oil?—playfully douses Tom’s hair with the strange concoction. And then laughs, revealing his brown, tea and tobacco stained teeth.
We return to the cheap hotel of my Egyptian friend Mohamed Aly. It is now filled with visitors from upper Egypt. They can be identified by their crisp galabeyas (flowing robe) and headdress, which are not normally worn by most Cairenes.
One room is full of middle-aged men, seated against the wall, drinking tea, smoking sheesha and chatting. Each time a new visitor enters the room, he goes around the room and greets everyone with “Salaam Aleykoom” or peace be upon you. It seems to be a necessary ritual.
As we are invited to a meal next door, I notice charcoal in a metal tray outside the room. The local fire marshal probably is unaware of this. (or maybe he is aware).
Another room is reserved for food—a few large communal plates of pita bread and potato cubes, chunks of boiled beef with some bits of fat attached. A cross-eyed man with a cane and a galabeya approaches and welcomes us. Another man—perhaps a caretaker?—quickly ushers him away from us. (Is he afraid that the man’s presence will disturb us?)
The man across from me is from Suhag in Upper Egypt and greets me warmly as we share bread and boiled beef. Then, the perennial question, “deenak ey?” or what’s your religion? I try to be coy and quote the Qur’anic scripture, “In Allah yeHdee min yesha’!” or God leads those whom he wills. It’s a fairly nebulous statement open to interpretation for many people. However, for this gentleman, it is not enough. He presses on, “so, what’s your religion?”
We return to the first room with the sheesha imbibers. I sit first next to a gentleman who speaks basic English. He interrogates me in the King’s English; I respond in Egyptian Arabic. He asks why I chose to study the Egyptian revolution, of all the revolutions.
I then sit next to an Arabic teacher who works at a local high school teaching girls. He asks me for my opinion of the Jan. 25 revolution. Odd. I tell him, “I should be asking you the same question!”
Every few minutes, another attendant asks me if I want tea. Or food. Or a sheesha. Or a cigarette.
“La…shookrun!” No, thanks!
On the last night of the Moulid, we visit the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque.
The Crowds, elbow to elbow, body pressed against body, arm on shoulder, flows forth like a small river. There is no turning back. Pilgrims remove their shoes at the door, but are given only a split second.
Several bowabeen or doormen take the incoming supply of shoes, and hand each pilgrim a small tag with a number. Wait—is this an actual system?! I hold onto my shoes, despite their protests, not wanting to lose them in the confusion.
The crowd is mostly men, upper Egyptians of galabiyehs; they are pilgrims here to worship Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed. As I enter, a man grabs my hand and asks if I am from Malaysia. Indonesia, I respond. (not really, but I am playful). He then introduces me briefly to an Indonesian pilgrim before I am conducted forward.
As we approach the exit, a small group of men – seated on the carpet, begin talking with Peter, my American classmate from MN. The usual questions pepper him: where are you from? What do you do? Your religion? I serve as the informal interpreter. The men—mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, are a chocolate complection, with a mustache or two, and a working class flavor. They are from Assiyut and arrived two days ago. They have stayed at the mosque ever since, praying and sleeping and resting.
“Why are you here?” Peter asks them.
“For the Mulid of Sayeda Zeinab,” They respond.
“What do you hope to get out of this?” Peter presses further.
“To honor Sayeda Zeinab,” they explain.
It is that simple.