The Sayyeda Nefissa mosque is surrounded by chaos, chaos that laps at its walls and occasionally seeps inside its doors.
The woman’s section is entered via an alleyway running along one side of its walls, an obstacle course of ever decreasing human need. From beggars, supine and supplicating, to an insistent seller of single flowers wrapped in plastic and tied with a ribbon (a gift for Nefissa), to the relative self-sufficiency of a small stall selling religious bric-a-brac.
Inside, women lie prostrate or sit or pray in the shrine’s anteroom, buffeted by the voices of three rambunctious cleaners who are as much concerned with cleaning out the pockets of the faithful as the faithful are with cleansing their souls, busily sweeping/blocking the mosque exit as they extol the beauty of the “moons” in front of them.
At the shrine itself women touch its walls as they recite Quran while on the other side of a trellis-like structure dividing them men do the same. At the end of a room an officious man in his sixties oversees proceedings, occasionally barking out orders at the squawking cleaners and even the devotional themselves.
There is a constant stream of people on this Friday early evening. A small boy wanders through the supplicants, lost in his own reverie – of crisp eating. Another woman, dressed in a black baggy tunic reclines against a wall, cheek in palm staring into the middle distance. She interrupts this to suddenly and without warning prostrate herself in prayer, almost throwing herself flat onto the ground until her thin form is submerged in her clothes so that she resembles the wicked witch of the west met her comeuppance.
There was a drama inside the mosque this Friday evening. With great bluster a woman – still wearing her shoes – swept into the anteroom and declared that she had been robbed while at the shrine. One of the cleaners, a particularly active woman in her early 70s wearing a green khimar matched with a long necklace of prayer beads immediately launched into action and declared that she would find the thief. The doors to the shrine room were shut, to no clear end. The thief had gone. The officious man, armed with a long metal ruler began imperiously demanding that women at the shrine leave, and was mostly ignored. He focused his attention on a woman sat on the floor.
- Stop begging and get out, he said.
- Don’t push it, the woman replied.
The man declared that he would summon someone to remove her. The woman looked the other way and continued eating.
There is a donations box next to the shrine. A woman opened up her purse and moved the single note of LE 10 out of the way to get at a few coins, which she dropped in the box. Another woman gave guavas to the officious man and the cleaners and anyone else who crossed her path.
The cacophony of it all was pierced by the call to the 3isha prayer, beautiful but loud, pumped out on the mosque speakers. But even at top volume it could not drown out the sound of the fight coming from the alleyway outside. The cleaners took their brooms and immediately went to inspect it.
It was two robust matrons, eyeballing each other, screaming threats and invective. One of them worked on the stall they were standing at. A group of people watched. A young girl of around 16 sat on a stool at the stall and became increasingly agitated until suddenly a youth of around the same age or younger suddenly flung himself on her and viciously attacked her, dragging her out of her seat and along the ground. One of the matrons hit her on the back with both hands. She was punched and pulled across the narrow alley until one of the cleaners, a determined septugarian, intervened and led her into the mosque, sobbing and distraught, seeking refuge. It was impossible to tell how the fight had begun or what it was about.
The robust matron sat on a plastic chair and answered a mobile phone call as if nothing was happening, interrupting it only to entreat the young man not to follow the girl into the mosque as he took his shoes off. He went in briefly anyway.
The cleaner who had rescued the girl appeared.
- Come inside again and I’ll give you fucking hell, she promised the boy. He skulked away.
The fury lingered as the prayers began. A man had watched the violence impassively – he started reciting Quran halfway through while spectating. He left. The robust matron took up her sentry position at the stall again as the sound of the prayers floated out into the tormented night and disintegrated above a young woman who emerged from the mosque in tears and pressed her face into the wall, arms by her side, perfectly still apart from the sobs rippling her body. Opposite her, somebody had twice written in a strange curling font on the mosque wall, “I seek forgiveness from God”.