Feeling devotional

My camera can’t keep up

My father, a librarian from Croydon, is a formidable collector of data, and will hunt down figures for e.g. total annual pencil production in Tajikistan with an assiduity last witnessed during the first NASA moon space landing.

I was therefore unflustered when I recently received an email from said parent with the subject heading: ‘moolid Sayyeda Zeinab’ and ‘When is it?’ in the main body of the text.

Knowing that he has no particular devotion to dried chickpeas, large crowds or saints, I concluded that the General Knowledge Database was being updated and promised him that I would find out. Serendipitously, the Sayyeda Zeinab moulid was this week, and I went – out of curiosity, and to collect statistics for Wikipedia my Dad.

The last time I was in a human sea of these dimensions was in Nasr City after Egypt’s triumphant win of the African Cup, when I watched people narrowly avoid setting each other’s heads on fire with improvised blow torches. Out of happiness.

The Sayyeda Zeinab moulid, while it also featured large numbers of young men, was a different vibe altogether, although as with the African Cup madness, I noticed a distinct lack of a visible police presence. This was made all the more obvious by the fact that I had gone straight to the moulid from a protest where about 60 protestors were policed by rows of riot police and the usual characters from the interior ministry.Funnily enough, this is the exact inverse of the situation in the UK, where football-related joy necessitates an army while political protesters are more or less left to get on with it.

During the moulid the street outside the mosque is necessarily closed to traffic. In its place are people. Thousands of them – mostly men – but families, too of course. Lining the pavements are hawkers – of chickpeas, masks, hats made out of biscuit wrappers, posters (Nasser, Mubarak, Shereen), sweets, masks, toys and pirated cassette tapes of popular Sha3by singers.

Children ride on ancient looking, battered fairground swings of the type which can turn a full 360 degrees. Amour informed me that where he lives ‘it’s half a pound to swing and a pound to go all the way round. But we don’t pay.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the man in charge is bent and we know it,”

He didn’t expand.

The air reverberates with a million and one sounds from above and below and around; sounds of firework bangers, chanting – devotional and mercantile –, shouting and bass-fuelled pop music. Olfactory senses are equally bombarded, with the smells of donkey shit, rubbish, dust, Sheesha and cooking – the scent of an Egyptian summer.

The crowds making it virtually impossible to move in the vicinity of the mosque, we moved further out to a parking lot area which had been commandeered by a troupe of singers and musicians. Their presence was announced by a line of gallabeyya and 3emam-clad men peering into the parking lot, where a makeshift café had been set up.

Men and a few women sat around the perimeter of a small patch of scrubland within the parking lot, smoking, sheesha-ing and drinking tea. At one end a traditional band of Mezmar players stood behind the singer who alternated between modern pop classics, shout-outs and commentary on the dancers.

“Photograph el 7agg 7efnawy” the man on the left said. “OK” I said.

Needless to say, the dancing was A1, exuberant, carefree and best of all involved props (the inevitable sticks but also scarves – coquettishly tied round waists – and chairs – hoisted above heads). The Michael Flatley of this Riverdance was the gentleman to be seen here clasping a stick:

If it was up to me I would have stayed all night, but alas my companions were not seduced by the din, overpowering smells and suffocating crowds in quite the same way that I was. All showed forbearance, with their arms crossed and a tight expression on their faces. All except Amour who had arrived halfway through and whose first words to me were, “what the bloody hell is this nonsense you’ve dragged me to?”

Happy (me) and feeling slightly homicidal (everyone else) we retired to Gad, where Amour cheered himself up by indulging in a discussion of his two specialist subjects, Hashish and street-fighting. He taught us all a new word when he said on the phone to someone picking up a supply for him, “ha7ezak b3dayn” which apparently means “I shall reimburse you later.”

We were then regaled with tales of encounters between the police and the hardmen in the area where Amour lives and which were essentially an unwritten Human Rights Watch report involving the cops knocking people about in public. Amour regards it all as very normal. “law nezelto 3andy delw2ty mesh hatla2oo 7ad faye2. Kolo dareb.” [If you came to my area now you wouldn’t find a single sober person. Everyone’s stoned.]

“Yes but the police don’t have the right to beat people up”, I reminded everyone, thinking that I was stating the obvious.

“No but the area in which Amour lives is really rough, they’re vile, and nothing else works with them,” Umm Nakad the human rights lawyer informed me.

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