The biggest birthday party in Cairo

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You can get in a taxi anywhere in Cairo and tell the driver “Sayyida” and not only will he understand the abbreviated location, he will likely respond with a common supplication “All hail Sayyida!” The neighbourhood of Sayyida Zaynab is famous for the mosque that bears the same name, and is commonly thought to be the resting place of one of Islam’s most luminary figures, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed, Zaynab bint Ali, or Zaynab, daughter of Ali.

Men selling hats and sweets (photo: TNN)

Once a year, the Cairene district hosts traditional festivities to celebrate Zaynab’s birthday that last over a period of three weeks, culminating in a final crescendo, or “Great Night,” as put by the late great Egyptian vernacular poet, Salah Gaheen. The birthday celebration, or Mawlid, is a long-standing tradition in Egypt that incorporates both deep Islamic sentiments and distinctive Egyptian customs and culture.

Crowds dancing and celebrating (photo: TNN)

The origins of the celebration are thought by scholars to be an active way for believers to express religious devotion and be in a state of dhikr, or remembrance of God. Religious holidays also manifest in the Egyptian Christian tradition, where saints such as St. Theresa and St. Demiana are venerated in similar celebrations, demonstrating the Egyptian quality of these events that are not strictly confined to orthodox religious tradition.

A female dervish, or Islamic mystic, from Mawlid Zaynab, 2013 (photo: TNN)

During these few weeks, the district comes alive, filled with light, prayers, music, and a communal spirit that permeates all the senses. Chickpeas and peanuts are the staple foods along with other festive treats, and prayer beads for sale decorate the streets that are humming with finely-dressed party-goers.

Women purchasing chickpeas, beans, fried dough and other treats (photo: TNN)

Peasant woman selling chickpeas (photo: TNN)

Peasant man shopping for prayer beads, a common gift for family members who stay behind and don’t make the trip to Cairo (photo: TNN)

Upon arrival for the final night of the Mawlid, one is instantly immersed in a sea of a palpably warm and generous energy. Everywhere are trinkets for sale and traditional foods, carnival games and rides enjoyed by men, women and children alike.

Young boys enjoying the rides (photo: TNN)

Erected tents line the sidewalks where more affluent Cairenes host pilgrims who come to Cairo solely for the holiday, giving them places to sleep and food to eat. Other attendees are scattered throughout the streets, handing out free food to the crowds and offering cool water and delectable juices.

Nearing the mosque, people increasingly overflow with kindness and smiles, offering prayers for complete strangers and their families.

Three “fellaheen” men (photo: TNN)

The Mawlid is a major national event, drawing in crowds from all over Egypt. It would actually appear that most of the congregants are from outside of Cairo, as they are often the custodians of older and traditional Egyptian culture. Peasants coming in from rural areas in the country, called the fellaheen, can be identified as such by Egyptian natives; their dress, their mannerisms and even their general disposition tip off onlookers that they come from provincial areas as far away as 500 kilometres.

Man selling salted fish, called “feseekh” (photo: TNN)

During these weeks, fellaheen descend upon the southern Cairo district, and imbue the streets with traditions that date back to Egypt’s earliest civilisations. Their presence juxtaposes the modernity that otherwise characterises the neighbourhood, and allows for a brief time a glimpse into the past.

Scene of a man selling sweets while young girls play on rides (photo: TNN)

The events are enchanting and heartfelt. Many Egyptians anxiously await the upcoming year, when they can take yet another journey into the Mawlid of Sayyida Zaynab.