A couple days ago an Egyptian friend told me the infamous Moulid at Saayida Zeinab mosque was cancelled because of the hoorah over swine flu.
They don’t want big crowds, he said.
Camping out, as hundreds of thousands supposedly do in the weeks leading up to the big day, was declared illegal by the Egyptian authorities.
Moulids, meaning birthdays, are Suffi traditions celebrated all over Egypt.
Not specified in the Koran many Muslims do not know, partake or condone the practice.
This one in particular celebrates Saayida Zeinab, who is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammed, and therefore must occur only at her mosque.
When my roommate AJ announced it was today and he was covering it (he’s a journalist), I repeated what my friend said and stared out the window, wondering where all the people were.
While the huge crowds might have stayed home, Saayida’s birthday, was not a total bust.
Standing in front of the mosque, with an Egyptian friend, Amr, crowds swarmed around us.
He pointed out the frequency of galabyias–the long loose dresses men wear. It’s a different style than how we dress in Cairo, he said, explaining most of the worshippers are from rural regions of upper and lower Egypt.
A guy wearing a shirt reading, “I’m Noisy” with Elmo and white girl bearing arms, we drew attention from the crowd and the interest of a cop.
Do you want to go in the mosque? Amr asked me. The women go in that way–he pointed to an entrance where a mob of women fought to descend a couple steps into the mosque.
Yeah definitely! Can I…I asked? Our new buddy, the cop, said I could if I covered my arms and hair.
Putting on my veil, I spotted a women, standing with two friends, snapping my picture.
One of the friends came over.
Are you here to see this? She asked in Arabic, which Amr translated.
I live down the street, I told her. But yeah, I’m here now to check it out.
Are you scared of getting swine flu because of the big crowd.
Everywhere in Cairo is crowded, I answered. Plus I’m American, don’t you think I already have it? (Swine flu has been a huge deal here, especially since cases were found among American University students. Co-workers say people have moved away from them on subways out of fear of catching the bug.)
As she began to ask another questions, I became suspicious.
Her questions were well thought out, targeted for a specific angle…her friend snapped another picture and she held, what I’d thought was an iPod in her hand.
She was dressed differently, looked better kept and more focused than the many milling around the area.
Are you a journalist? I asked her in Arabic.
Are you recording this?
She said she wasn’t.
She asked if I was going to go in. I said I was, half hoping she’d join.
She didn’t seem to have any intention.
Her friend snapped another picture as I put on my headscarf and Amr and I headed to the entrance.
I relinquished my shoes to a guy at the door was pushed forward by the masses of woman vying to enter.
Think of the most crowded concert you’ve attended and those lines of people forcibly pushing their way to the front or out. Now imagine there is not one destination, people are sitting on the floor, praying begging for money, eating, holding babies, yelling and grabbing your clothes.
From all sides I was shoved deeper into the congregation.
Eyes ahead, overwhelmed by the masses of praying before me, I felt a slap on my shoulder. An elderly woman was whacking me with some clothe.
Apparently she didn’t approve of my dress. Khalas–”enough” I yelled at her. Another woman tried to help by forcefully rearranging my shawl.
In the deepest room women touched and prayed toward a wall and snapped pictures with their cell phone.
All the incentive I needed, I pulled out my camera and snatched a couple shots.
Out in the street, Cairo air never felt so fresh and clear.
“Nice car Karim,” I said sliding into the back seat with two other American friends. Before I was fully seated I caught my error. “Whoops, I forgot we’re not supposed to compliment people’s possessions.”
Despite one past trip to Cairo on my record, living in Cairo often feels like learning an entirely new system of human interaction. The other day on our way to Abdu and Hayam’s (good friends of Professor Sullivans) house, Carlene warned us not to compliment people things. They’ll think you covert it,” she warned. Complimenting houses and children are especially treacherous errors, believed to bring bad luck.
These episodes pop up all the time.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure them out at all. Did the chef at the shawrma stand Baraka tell us too many students come here to learn Arabic? What did he mean by that?
Last night a group Northeastern students and I ate dinner and enjoyed (some less than others) some funky music at the Cairo Jazz Club–a restaurant, lounge and bar primarily aimed at a western crowd. I was eager for my new American friends to meet my favorite Egyptians from last year and vice-versa.
At one point I popped my gum. Is that rude? I yelled through the music to my Egyptian friend sitting next to me. He told me to stop worrying about things like that. I tried to explain it’s not a questioned of “worried” rather wanting to be in tune with the culture.
After a while the girlfriends I came with grabbed cabs to our hotel Flamenco–blogging and beds called. The rest of us left for a quieter location where are jumble of “Arablish” had a chance of making sense.
”There aren’t any woman here,” I pointed out before taking a seat at the outdoor cafe we chose. The guys didn’t see a problem with it. While I don’t inherently, I want to experience the culture here–not live like I was in the United States.
Walking home at 2 a.m. with one American guy I was aware how taboo this would be if I were an Egyptian women.