Sideline: In Egypt, Imam Hussein's Maulid Celebrated with Joyful Devotion

….the Hussein moulid is an incredible and eye-poppingly chaotic experience of music and religious fervour. It’s definitely not for the weak, but something everyone should experience once.

Article by: Hadeel al Shalchi, published in The National, Abu Dhabi, UAE. See http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090425/WEEKENDER/704249863/1006/rss

Men, women and their children sleeping in alleyways, old men smoking shisha pipes on the kerb, young boys dancing to pop music on the rooftops of shops, children in tall shiny hats and fire crackers: my memories of the Hussein moulid are vivid a year after first experiencing it and were brought back this week as I passed people streaming into Cairo for this year’s celebration.

Moulid is the Arabic word for the observance of the birthday of a prophet or saint, and the celebrations for Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, is quite possibly the largest religious occasion in Egypt, even trumping the events surrounding the birthday celebrations of the Prophet.

Reverence in Egypt for Imam Hussein is only rivalled by that of the shias in Iraq and Lebanon. A mosque in his honour stands in the heart of Islamic Cairo, and is one of the capital’s holiest sites, built on the cemetery of the Fatimid caliphs.

The mausoleum said to hold the remains of Imam Hussein is the oldest part of the mosque and lies in a large room inside, enclosed with gold arabesque walls and perfumed air.

People normally flock to this shrine praying for good grades, better health and more children. They lean on the fence, crying, praying and begging.

The mosque is near the Khan el Khalili bazaar, a kitchy tourist trap that dates back to the Ottoman Empire.

During the moulid, the area is unrecognisable. The streets and bazaar are teeming with people – tens of thousands of bodies crawl past, each heading in a different direction. Out-of-towners who are too poor to afford hotels or who have no relatives in Cairo claim a street corner or a piece of the park near the Khan.

They bring blankets and pillows and a small gas cooker to make food and tea with, and spread their entire families in the most revered part of Cairo to them.

I met people who had travelled for days by car and bus from Upper Egypt to spend a week near the Imam’s tomb to pray for their ailing family members and ask for his blessings.

Colourful tents with the trademark Egyptian patterns in blue, yellow and red are pitched to house swaying worshippers, praying and singing the praises of God, the Prophet and Imam Hussein.

Wooden flute players and tabla drummers keep the rhythm going, as the dancers’ brown, white and grey galabeyas move in unison around their legs, their eyes closed in the ecstasy of getting closer to God.

Others take a break and catch up with friends and family at impromptu cafes selling tea, Turkish coffee and juice.

Outside the tents and between the alleyways, men sit perched on cushioned seats reciting verses of the Quran through deafening loud speakers.

Every corner is a surprise, with narrow walkways created by the closeness of the tents bursting out into huge areas crammed with worshippers.

Besides the prayers and recitations, the air is one of a big birthday party. Rickety metal swings, slides and Ferris wheels adorned with colourful, blinking lights are scattered throughout the bazaar for kids to ride and teenage boys to dance on. The music competes with the Quran blaring from the loudspeakers and the whine of children as they force their parents to buy them shiny hats, sparklers and other cheap favours.

The air is filled with the smell of people, falafel, cooking oil, sweets and apple-flavoured shisha.

With the fervour, the thick air, the heat and the chaos, fights break out between young men high on testosterone.

There are dozens of moulids in Egypt that are smaller in scale but just as beautiful. All serve the same purpose, celebrating a saint or prophet who people believe can help make their lives on Earth better and who can intercede for them with God.

But the Hussein moulid is an incredible and eye-poppingly chaotic experience of music and religious fervour. It’s definitely not for the weak, but something everyone should experience once. Just hold on tight.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo

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