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Religious festival falls victim to swine flu

The Cairo governorate cancels the street festival to honour Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed's granddaughter, fearing the spread of swine flu.

An Egyptian man distributes shardap to poor people at a banned moulid near the downtown Sayyida Zeinab mosque.
An Egyptian man distributes shardap to poor people at a banned moulid near the downtown Sayyida Zeinab mosque.

CAIRO // Nearly three months after the Egyptian government announced that it would slaughter the country's entire population of pigs, swine flu fears appear to have claimed yet another casualty: the popular Sufi religious celebrations known as moulids. Moulid literally means "birthday", and while Muslims throughout the world celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, called Mawlidu Al Nabi, the observance of moulids throughout the year for Sufi saints and lesser religious figures is a tradition unique to Egypt's Islamic heritage.

Citing fears that swine flu might spread among the boisterous annual carnivals, the Cairo governorate cancelled the street festival to honour Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed's granddaughter, who is widely considered the patron saint of Cairo and the Egyptian people. But in a country where strict piety often appears to overlap with exuberant expressions of folk-faith and superstitious ritual, this year's muted festivities, which were scheduled to reach their climax last night, are a reminder of how ill at ease many Egyptians can be with their own religious traditions.

As Muslims here increasingly take their devotional cues from conservatives both at home and abroad, the raucous and sometimes bawdy moulids have come under criticism by those who consider them to be bid'ah, or religious innovation that lacks reference in holy texts. That the Sufi celebrations tend to venerate Shia saints has made their lingering popularity a source of suspicion among those who regard Shiism as a potential beachhead for powerful foreign influences, such as Shiite-majority Iran and Hizbollah, the Shiite militia and political party in Lebanon.

"The moulid was cancelled originally because of swine flu, but I think it has something to do with Hizbollah and Iran," said Sabr Moussa, who was lounging with friends in his neighbourhood in Cairo's Old City, in the shadow of the 12th-century Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, on Monday afternoon. "This is something that should have happened a long time ago. I think it was a wise decision." His views echo those of prominent Muslim figures, such as Mohammed Habib, the deputy general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed political group. While Mr Habib said nothing about the growing spectre of Shiite power in the Middle East, he said that his organisation maintains a principled opposition to the moulids while still respecting the celebrations as a component of Egypt's religious heritage.

"The situation should be placed in perspective. If people are trying to express their feelings, to express their love to Sayyida Zeinab by praying to her and by giving lectures and seminars about her history and the good deeds she did, this is very appropriate," Mr Habib told The National. "But for someone to imagine that Sayyida Zeinab would be able to act as a bridge between them and God, this is something that we refuse."

The moulids are a vestige of Egypt's brief experiment with Shiite Islam under the Fatimid Dynasty, which ruled Egypt and much of North Africa during the 10th century. The Fatimids, it is claimed, endeared themselves to their Egyptian subjects by throwing parties, distributing sweets and by creating a space for festivals and fun in Egypt's religious consciousness. On Monday afternoon, the merry legacy of the Fatimids could be seen throughout the neighbourhood of Sayyida Zeinab Mosque as if the moulid were about to proceed as planned.

Neighbours passed around cups of sweet strawberry syrup known as shardap, a traditional drink served on special occasions. A block away in the courtyard of the mosque, pilgrims, beggars and troubadours - and some who were engaged in all three activities - had already begun to congregate. Many had travelled for hours from Upper Egypt to sell trinkets and collect alms at the festival, which normally hosts thousands of revellers. Some pounded drums, banged on tambourines and wailed the Sufi zikr, a repeated, rhythmic intonation of God's name and quotations from the Quran that are sometimes accompanied by trance-like dancing.

"Whether the government wants it or not, you can see that it's still going on," said Nabil Abu Hussein, who said he has lived near the mosque his entire life. Most of the year, Mr Hussein makes his living renting bicycles, but for the past 15 years he has diverted his business for a few days each year to sell religious musical cassettes to Sayyida Zeinab devotees during the moulid. "They are saying it is because of swine flu and that they don't want the crowds. But just look inside the mosque now, there are crowds in there already."

Mr Hussein was careful to say that he understands and agrees with the government's decision. But he lashed out at conservative critics of moulid culture, who say that mystical celebrations of lesser figures such as Sayyida Zeinab can be tantamount to idolatry. "We don't cherish her. We don't think she's divine. We just find a better relationship with God through her," he said. "We've seen it on television. We know that people are dying in places like Japan, Mexico and America. But we Egyptians, our mentality is that if you tell us there's a fire in the mosque, we would still go in to celebrate the moulid."

It was unlikely that Mr Hussein had heard of a swine flu death that struck much closer to home. A 25-year-old woman recently became the first Egyptian casualty of swine flu after she returned from the Umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia last week. Despite extraordinary measures to avoid an outbreak, such as killing the country's nearly 300,000 pigs, Egypt has still recorded more than 130 swine flu cases.

That is enough to scare even those Egyptians whose loyalties lie closer to the mysticism of the moulid than the vagaries of medical science. But for Sufi leaders, cancelling the Sayyida Zeinab moulid still smacked of religious exclusion rather than legitimate health concerns. At a press conference yesterday at a Sufi mosque, some wondered aloud why Cairo authorities might cancel an outdoor moulid when weekly Friday prayers draw many, if not more, worshippers. The Cairo governor had also said he would allow for indoor celebrations in the mosque - an concession that some Sufis said was more of a health risk than the outdoor celebrations because of the mosque's confined indoor space. Al Husseini Abu al Hassan al Gohary, the leader of the Al Goharaya al Ahmedeyya Sufi Order, implied that the decision was a step toward the government cancelling regular Friday prayers and even the haj pilgrimage.

"I tell you, Mr Governor, and I declare it right here that when all of us will stand before God on judgment day and are asked why the people cancelled prayers, we will point to you as the cause," Mr Abu al Hassan al Gohary told reporters. mbradley@thenational.ae