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An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians$

Edward William Lane

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9789774165603

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774165603.001.0001

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Private Festivities, & c.

Private Festivities, & c.

(p.461) Chapter 27 Private Festivities, & c.
An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians

Edward William Lane

Jason Thompson

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter turns to private festivities and celebrations that take place within the family at home. These include marriage (discussed in detail in earlier chapters) and the days that follow, the birth of a child, circumcision of a boy, and the acceptance of a boy into a trade. This chapter looks at the types of entertainment employed—music, singers, and dancers, or Qur’an recitation and zikr—for men and women’s quarters, guests that visit the house or take part in processions, and the different foods and rituals that are observed.

Keywords:   Marriage, Birth, Circumcision, Celebrations, Music, Qur’an, Rituals

AS the modern Egyptian does not become a housekeeper until he is married (and not of necessity then, for he may live with his wife in the house of his or her parents), his first marriage is generally the first event which affords him and his wife an occasion of calling together their respective friends to a private entertainment. Whenever a great entertainment is given on any occasion of rejoicing, it is customary, for the persons invited, to send presents (such as I have mentioned in describing the ceremonies attendant upon a marriage), a day or two before. The husband always has his separate party, generally in the lower apartment or apartments of the house; and the wife entertains her female relations and friends in the hareem, or upper apartments. It is also the usual custom for the wife to entertain her guests (among whom no males are ever admitted, except very young boys,) during the six middle hours of the day; and for the husband to receive his guests afterwards; after sunset, or after the ’eshè prayers: but sometimes his guests assemble while the wife is engaged with her own party in the ḥareem.

On these occasions, the female singers who are called “’Awálim (or “’Ál'mehs”) are often hired to amuse the company. They sit in one of the apartments of the ḥareem; generally at a window looking into the court. The wooden lattice‐work of the window, though too close to allow them to be seen by persons without, is sufficiently open to let them be distinctly heard by the male guests sitting in the court or in one of the apartments which look into it. In many houses, (p.462) there is a small elevated apartment, or closet, for the ’Awálim, which I have before described, adjoining the apartment in which the male guests assemble (as well as another adjoining the principal saloon of the ḥareem), screened in front by wooden lattice‐work, to conceal these singers from the view of the men. —The dancing‐girls (“Ghawázee,” or “Gházeeyehs,”) are, or were, also frequently hired to attend on the occasions of private festivities. They dance (with unveiled face) before the men, in the court, so that they may be seen also by the women from the windows of the ḥareem; or perform in an apartment in which the men are assembled, or in the street, before the house, for the amusement only of the women. When they or the ’Awálim perform for the entertainment of a party, one of the friends of the host usually collects for them small sums of money upon the tambourine, or in a handkerchief, from the guests; but sometimes, the host will not allow this custom to be observed. The contributions are called “nuḳooṭ.” It is the general practice for the person who gives the entertainment to engage the Ghawázee for a certain sum: he receives the nuḳooṭ, which may fall short of, or exceed, the promised sum: in the former case, he pays the difference from his own purse: in the latter case he often pockets the surplus. Or he agrees that they shall receive all the nuḳooṭ, with, or without, an additional sum from himself. In some parties, where little decorum is observed, the guests dally and sport with these dancing‐girls in a very licentious manner. I have before mentioned (in a former chapter), that, on these occasions, they are usually indulged with brandy, or some other intoxicating liquor, which most of them drink to excess. It is a common custom for a man to wet, with his tongue, small gold coins, and stick them upon the forehead, cheeks, chin, and lips, of a Gházeeyeh. When money is collected for the ’Awálim, their servant, who is called “khalbooṣ,” and who often acts the part of a buffoon, generally calls out, at each contribution, “Shóbash ’aleyk yá ṣáḥeb el‐faraḥ!” that is, “A present is due from thee, O giver of the entertainment, [on a similar occasion, and in the same way,]”1 and adds, “Such a one has given so many maḥboobs,’ or kheyreeyehs’;” turning a few piasters into a much larger number of gold coins of considerably greater value; or, if gold be given, exaggerating the sum in the same manner. This he does to compliment the donor, and to stimulate the generosity of others. His mistress, or another of the ’Awálim, replies, “’Oḳbà le‐'anduh! (“May he have the like [rejoicing]!”2 or “May he have a (p.463) recompense!”)—The guests are also often entertained with a concert of instrumental and vocal music, by male performers(“Áláteeyeh”), who sit in the court, or in the apartment in which the guests are assembled. Two “dikkehs” (or high wooden sofas) are often put together, front to front, in the court, and furnished with cushions, &c., to form an orchestra for the musicians; and a lantern is usually placed in the middle. The Áláteeyeh generally receive contributions from the assembly for whose entertainment they perform, like the ’Awálim; their khalbooṣ calling out to them in the same manner after each gift.

But performances of a different kind from those above mentioned are more common, and are considered more proper, on the occasions of private festivities. These are the recitations of a “khatmeh” (or of the whole of the Ḳur‐án), by three or more fiḳees, who are hired for the purpose; or of a “zikr,” by a small party of faḳeers.3 That the khatmeh may not be too fatiguing to the performers, the fiḳees relieve one another by turns; one only chanting at a time; and each, usually, chanting a rubạ.4 They generally come to the house a little after the ’aṣr, and get through the greater part of their task before the guests assemble: one of them then chants more leisurely, and in a more musical manner: after him, in the same manner, another; and so on. Sometimes a khatmeh is performed in the daytime, and after it, in the evening, a zikr. It is a rule that the zikr should always be performed after sunset.

In Egypt, persons who habitually live with the utmost frugality prepare a great variety and profusion of dishes for the entertainment of their friends. But very little time is devoted to eating. The period of conviviality is mostly passed in smoking, sipping coffee, drinking sherbet, and conversing: the Turks, however, generally abstain from smoking during the recitation of the Ḳur‐án; and the honour which they pay to the sacred book on every occasion has given rise to a saying, that “God has exalted Ál‐’Osmán [i. e. the race of ’Osmán, or the ’Osmánlees,] above other Muslims, because they exalt the Ḳur‐án more than do others.” In these patties, none of the guests ever attempts to amuse his companions, except by facetious conversation, or sometimes by telling a story; though all of them take great delight in the performances of the hired dancers, musicians, and singers. The Egyptians seldom play at any game, unless when only two or three persons meet together, or in the privacy of their own families. They are a social people; and yet they but rarely give great entertainments. Festivities such as (p.464) I have described above are very unfrequent: they occur only on particular occasions which really call for rejoicing. Except on such occasions, it is considered improper to hire dancing‐girls to perform in a house.

The marriage‐festivities I have described in a former chapter: I therefore proceed to give an account of the festivities which follow a marriage; and shall do so in the order of their occurrence.

On the seventh day (“Yóm es‐Subooạ”5) after a marriage, the wife receives her female relations and friends during the morning and afternoon; and sometimes the husband entertains his own friends in the evening; generally hiring persons to perform a khatmeh or a zikr. It is a custom of husbands in Egypt to deny themselves their conjugal rights during the first week after the conclusion of the marriage with a virgin bride; and the termination of this period is a due cause for rejoicing.6 —On the fortieth day (“Yóm el‐Arba'een”) after the marriage, the wife goes, with a party of her female friends, to the bath. Her companions return with her to her house, about the ’aṣr; partake of a repast, and go away. The husband, also, sometimes receives visiters in the evening of this day, and again causes a khatmeh or zikr to be performed.

The next festivities in a family are generally those consequent on the birth of a child. —Two or three or more days before the expected time of delivery, the “dáyeh” (or midwife) conveys, to the house of the woman who requires her assistance, the “kursee el‐wiládeh,” a chair of a peculiar form, upon which the patient is to be seated during the birth.7 This chair is covered with a shawl, or an embroidered napkin; and some flowers of the ḥenná‐tree, or some roses, are tied, with an embroidered handkerchief, to each of the upper corners of the back. Thus ornamented, the chair (which is the property of the dáyeh) is conveyed before her to the house. —In the houses of the rich, and of those in easy circumstances, the mother, after delivery, is placed on a bed, and usually remains on it from three to six days:but poor women, in the same case, seldom take to a bed at all; and after a day or two resume their ordinary occupations, if not requiring great exertion. (p.465)

On the morning after the birth, two or three of the dancing‐men called Khäwals, or two or three Gházeeyehs, dance in front of the house, or in the court.—The festivities occasioned by the birth of a son are always greater than those on account of a daughter. The Arabs still shew relics of that feeling which often induced their ancient ancestors to destroy their female offspring.

A few days after the birth, generally on the fourth or fifth day, the women of the house, if the family be of the middle or wealthy classes, usually prepare dishes of “mufattaḳah,” “kishk,” “libábeh,” and “ḥilbeh,” which they send to the female relations and friends. The first of these consists of honey with a little clarified butter8 and oil of sesame,9 and a variety of aromatics and spices pounded together: roasted hazel‐nuts are also added to it.10 The kishk has been described in a former page.11 The libábeh is composed of broken or crumbled bread, honey, clarified butter, and a little rose‐water: the butter is first put into a saucepan over a fire; then, the broken bread; and next, the honey. The dish of ḥilbeh (or fenugreek) is prepared from the dry grain, boiled, and then sweetened with honey over the fire.

On the “Yóm es‐Subooạ” (or Seventh Day) after the birth of a child, the female friends of its mother pay her a visit. In the families of the higher classes, ’Awálim are hired to sing in the ḥareem, or Áláteeyeh perform, or fiḳees recite a khatmeh, below. The mother, attended by the dáyeh, sits on the kursee el‐wiládeh, in the hope that she may soon have occasion for it again; for her doing this is considered propitious. The child is brought, wrapped in a handsome shawl, or something costly; and, to accustom it to noise, that it may not be frightened afterwards by the music, and other sounds of mirth, one of the women takes a brass mortar,12 and strikes it repeatedly with the pestle, as if pounding. After this, the child is put into a sieve, and shaken; it being supposed that this operation is beneficial to its stomach. Next, it is carried through all the apartments of the ḥareem, accompanied by several women or girls, each of whom bears a number of wax candles, sometimes of various colours, cut in two, lighted, and stuck into small lumps of paste of ḥennà, upon a small round tray. At the same time, the dáyeh, or another female, sprinkles, upon the floor of each room, a mixture of salt (p.466) and seed of the fennel‐flower,13 or salt alone, which has been placed during the preceding night at the infant's head; saying, as she does this, “The salt be in the eye of the person who doth not bless the Prophet;”14 or, “The foul salt be in the eye of the envier.”15 This ceremony of the sprinkling of salt16 is considered a preservative, for the child and mother, from the evil eye: and each person present should say, “O God, bless our lord Moḥammad!” The child, wrapped up, and placed on a fine mattress, which is sometimes laid on a silver tray, is shewn to each of the women present, who looks at its face, says, “O God, bless our lord Moḥammad! God give thee long life,” &c., and usually puts an embroidered handkerchief, with a gold coin (if pretty or old, the more esteemed,) tied up in one of the corners, on the child's head, or by its side. This giving of handkerchiefs is considered as imposing a debt, to be repaid by the mother, if the donor should give her the same occasion; or as the discharge of a debt for a similar offering. The coins are generally used, for some years, to decorate the head‐dress of the child. After these nuḳooṭ, for the child, others are given for the dáyeh. During the night before the subooạ, a water‐bottle full of water (a dóraḳ in the case of a boy, or a ḳulleh in that of a girl), with an embroidered handkerchief tied round the neck, is placed at the child's head, while it sleeps. This, with the water it contains, the dáyeh takes, and puts upon a tray, and presents to each of the women; who put their nuḳooṭ for her (merely money) into the tray.—In the evening, the husband generally entertains a party of his friends, in the manner usual on other occasions of private festivity.

During a certain period after childbirth (in most cases, among the people of Cairo, forty days, but differing according to circumstances, and according to the doctrines of the different sects), the mother is regarded as religiously impure.17 The period here mentioned is called “Nifás.” At the expiration of it, the woman goes to the bath.

The ceremonies and festivities attendant upon the circumcision ofa boy are the next that I shall describe.—In most cases, the boy about to be circumcised (who is called “muṭṭáhir”) is paraded through the streets in the manner which has been related in a former chapter; that is, if his parents be of the middle or higher class (p.467) of citizens: but most of the learned, people of religious professions, fiḳees, and some rich men, in Cairo, prefer performing a ceremony called “Ṣiráfeh,” of which the following account will convey a sufficient notion.

The schoolfellows of the muṭṭáhir, all dressed in their best clothes, or in borrowed clothes if they have none of their own good enough, which is generally the case, repair, a little before noon, to one of the principal mosques, as that of the Ḥasaneyn, or the Azhar, or that of the seyyideh Zeyneb. Thither also go the men and the women and many of the female friends of the family of the muṭṭáhir, with the muṭṭáhir himself, and sometimes about six sháweeshes (or sergeants) of the Naḳeeb el‐Ashráf. The barber who is to perform the operation also attends, with a servant bearing his “ḥeml” (or sign), which has been described in the account of the more common ceremonies of circumcision. All these persons, with some others who will presently be mentioned, having assembled in the mosque, wait there until after the noon‐prayers, and then depart in procession through the streets to the house of the muṭṭáhir's parents. The first person in the procession is the barber's servant, with his ḥeml. He is sometimes followed by five or six fiḳees, chanting a lyric ode (“muweshshaḥ”) in praise of the Prophet. Then follow the schoolboys, two, three, or four abreast. The foremost of these boys, or half their number, chant, as they pass along,—“O nights of pleasure! O nights of joy!”—The other boys then take up the strain, adding, —“Pleasure and desire, with friends assembled!”—Then, again, the former, —“Bless, O our Lord, the Perspicuous Light.”—Then, the latter, “Aḥmad,18 the Elect, the chief of Apostles.”—Thus the boys continue to chant the whole of the way. Behind them walk the male relations of the muṭṭáhir. These are followed by about six boys; three of them bearing each a silver scent‐bottle (“ḳumḳum”) full of rose‐water or orange‐flower‐water, which they occasionally sprinkle on some of the spectators; and each of the others bearing a silver perfuming‐vessel (“mibkharah”) in which benzoin, frankincense, or some other odoriferous substance, is burning. With these boys walks a saḳḳà, bearing, on his back, a skin of water covered with an embroidered napkin: he gives water, now and then, in brass cups, to passengers in the street. Next follow three servants: one of these carries a silver pot of coffee, in a silver “’áz’ḳee” (or chafing‐dish suspended by three chains): another bears a silver tray, with ten or eleven coffee‐cups, and “ẓarfs” of silver: the third carries nothing: it is his office, when the procession passes by a well‐dressed person (one sitting at a shop, for instance), to fill, and present to him, a cup of coffee; and (p.468) the person thus honoured gives the servant something in return: half a piaster is considered amply sufficient. The sháweeshes occupy the next place in the order of the procession. Sometimes they are followed by another group of boys with ḳumḳums and mibkharahs. Next follows a boy bearing the writing tablet of the muṭṭáhir, hung to his neck by a handkerchief: it is ornamented for the occasion by the schoolmaster. Behind the boy who bears it walks the muṭṭáhir, between two others. He is dressed either as in the zeffeh before described (that is, in girls’ clothes, with the exception of the turban, and decked with women's ornaments), or simply as a boy; and holds a folded embroidered handkerchief to his mouth. The women follow him, raising their shrill cries of joy (the “zagháreeṭ”); and one of them is constantly employed in sprinkling salt behind him, to prevent any ill effects from an evil eye, which, it is thought, some person may cast at the lad from envy. In this order and manner, the procession arrives at the house.—On halting before the door, the foremost of the schoolboys sing, —” Thou art a sun. Thou art a moon. Thou art a light above light.”—The others add,—“O Moḥammad! O my friend! O thou with black eyes!”—They enter the house repeating this address to the Prophet; and repeat it again after entering. The young boys go up‐stairs: the others remain below. The former, as they go up, repeat, —“O thou his paternal aunt! O thou his maternal aunt! Come: prepare his ṣiráfeh.”—On entering the “ḳá’ah,” or principal apartment of the ḥareem, a Kashmeer shawl is given them to hold: they hold it all round; and the ornamented writing‐tablet is placed in the middle of it. The “'areef,” or head boy of the school, who (together with the muṭṭáhir and the women) stands by while they do this, then recites what is termed “khuṭbet eṣ‐ṣiráfeh:” each clause of this is chanted by him first, and then repeated by the other boys. It is in unmeasured rhyme; and to the Following effect: —

“Praise be to God, the Mighty Creator,—the Sole, the Forgiver, the Conservator: —He knoweth the past and futurity, —and veileth things in obscurity.— He knoweth the tread of the black ant,—and its work when in darkness vigilant. —He formed and exalted heaven's vault,—and spread the earth o'er the ocean salt.—May He grant this boy long life and happiness, —to read the Ḳur‐án with attentiveness; —to read the Ḳur‐án, and history's pages, —the stories of ancient and modern ages.—This youth has learned to write and read,—to spell, and cast up accounts with speed:—his father, therefore, should not withhold—a reward of money, silver and gold. —Of my learning, O father, thou hast paid the price: —God give thee a place in Paradise:—and thou, my mother, my thanks receive —for thine anxious care of me, morn and eve: —God grant I may see thee (p.469) in Paradise seated,—and by Maryam19 and Zeyneb20 and Fáṭimeh21 greeted. — Our faḳeeh22 has taught us the alphabet:—may he have every grateful epithet. — Our faḳeeh has taught us as far as The News:’23 —may he never his present blessings lose. —Our faḳeeh has taught us as far as The Dominion:’—may he ever be blest with the world's good opinion. —Our faḳeeh has taught us as far as The Compassionate:’—may he ever enjoy rewards proportionate.—Our faḳeeh has taught us as far as Yá‐Seen:’—may his days and years be ever serene.—Our faḳeeh has taught as far as The Cave:’—may he ever the blessings of Providence have.—Our faḳeeh has taught as far as The Cattle:’—may he ne'er be the subject of scandalous tattle. —Our faḳeeh has taught us as far as The Cow:’—may he ever be honoured, in future and now.—Our faḳeeh amply merits of you —a coat of green, and a turban too. —O ye surrounding virgin lasses! —I commend you to God's care by the eye‐paint and the glasses.24 —O ye married ladies here collected 1—I pray, by the Chapter of The Ranks,’25 that ye be protected. —O ye old women standing about!—ye ought to be beaten with old shoes, and turned out. —To old women, however, we should rather say, —Take the basin and ewer; wash and pray.”

During the chanting of these absurd expressions, the women drop, upon the ornamented writing‐tablet, their nuḳooṭ which are afterwards collected in a handkerchief. The boys then go down, and give the nuḳooṭ to the fiḳee below.26 — Here, the muṭṭáhir is now placed on a seat. The barber stands on one side of him, and the servant who holds the ḥeml on the other. The ḥeml is rested on the floor; and on the top of it is placed a cup, into which the guests put their nuḳooṭ for the barber.—The female visiters dine in the ḥareem, and then leave the house. The boys dine below, and go to their homes. The men also dine; and all of them, except those of the family, and the barber and his servant, take their leave. The barber then conducts the muṭṭáhir, with one or two of his male relations, to a (p.470) private apartment, and there performs the operation; or sometimes this is done on the following day. About a week after, he takes the boy to the bath.

The next occasion of festivity in a family (if not the marriage of a son or daughter) is generally when a son is admitted a member of some body of tradesmen or artizans. On this occasion, a ceremony which I am about to describe is performed in certain cases, but not on admission into every trade: it is customary only among carpenters, turners, barbers, tailors, book‐binders, and a few others. The young man having become an adept in the business of his intended trade, his father goes to the Sheykh of that trade, and signifies his wish that his son should be admitted a member. The Sheykh sends an officer, called the “Naḳeeb,” to invite the masters of the trade, and sometimes a few friends of the candidate, to be present at the admission. The Naḳeeb, taking in his hand a bunch of sprigs of any green herb, or flowers, goes to each of these persons, hands to him a sprig or little piece of green,27 or a flower, or leaf, and says, “For the Prophet, the Fát’ḥah:” that is “Repeat the Fát’ḥah for the Prophet.” Both having done this together, the Naḳeeb adds, “On such a day and hour, come to such a house or place, and drink a cup of coffee.” The guests thus invited meet (generally at the house of the father of the young man, but sometimes in the country), take coffee, and dine. After this, the Naḳeeb leads the young man before the Sheykh, states his qualifications, and then desires the persons present to recite the Fát’ḥah for the Prophet; which done, be girds the young man with a shawl over his outer coat, and ties a knot with the ends of this girdle. The Fát’ḥah is then recited again, generally for the seyyid El‐Bedawee, or some other great saint, and a second knot is tied. Then, a third time the Fát’ḥah is recited, and a bow is tied. The young man is thus completely admitted. He kisses the hand of the Sheykh, and that of each of his fellow tradesmen, and gives the Naḳeeb a small fee. —This ceremony is called “shedd el‐weled” (the binding of the youth); and the person thus admitted is termed “meshdood,” or bound.

There remain only to be described the ceremonies occasioned by a death. These will be the subject of a separate chapter, here following, and concluding my account of the manners and customs of the Muslims of Egypt. (p.471)


(1) . “Shóbash” is synonymous with “nuḳooṭ,” being an Arabic corruption of the Persian “shábásh,” which also signifies “well done!” “excellent!”

(2) . The phrase was thus written and explained to me by a sheykh; but I suspect it should be, “Iḳbál le‐'anduh,” which is an expression vulgarly used to signify, “access to him;” and would mean, in this case, “½May we have] access to him:” and “Good fortune to him!”

(3) . These customs remind us of St. Paul's advice to the Ephesians, ch. 4. v. 19; which shews the antiquity of social pastimes of this kind. The Egyptians highly enjoy the religious love‐songs of the munshids at zikrs.

(4) . A quarter of a “ḥezb,” which latter is a sixtieth part of the Ḳur‐án.

(5) . The Subooạ after the birth of a child is celebrated with more rejoicing; and therefore, in speaking of the Yóm es‐Subooạ, the seventh day after childbirth is generally understood.

(6) . It was not such a festival as this alone that is alluded to in Genesis, xxix. 27, and in Judges, xiv. 12. It was, and I believe is still, the custom of the wealthy Bedawee (and such was Laban) to feast his friends seven days after marriage (as also after the birth of a male child); and every respectable Muslim, after marriage, if disappointed in the expectations he has been led to form of his wife, abstains from putting her away for about a week, that she may not be disgraced by suspicion; particularly if it be her first marriage.

(7) . See Exodus, i. 16.

(8) . “Semn.”

(9) . “Seereg.”

(10) . Some women add another ingredient; not when it is to be sent to friends, but for a particular purpose, which is, to make them fat: they broil and mash up a number of beetles in the butter, and then add the honey, &c. This has been alluded to in the chapter on the Domestic Life of the Women.

(11) . In a note to the second paragraph of the preceding chapter.

(12) . “Hón.”

(13) . “Ḥabbeh sódà.”

(14) . “El‐milḥ fee 'eyn ellee má yeṣallee 'a‐n‐nebee.” “Yeṣallee” is for “yuṣallee; and “'a‐n‐nebee,” for “'ala‐n‐nebee.”

(15) . “El‐milḥ el‐fásid fee 'eyn el‐ḥásid.”

(16) . “Rashsh el‐milḥ.”

(17) . In like manner, the Jewish law pronounces a women unclean during forty days after the birth of a male child; but double that time after bearing a female child. See Leviticus, xii. 2, 4, 5.

(18) . A name of the Arabian Prophet

(19) . The virgin Mary.

(20) . The daughter of the Imám ‘Alee.

(21) . The daughter of the Prophet.

(22) . Vulg. “fiḳee.”

(23) . This and the following words distinguished by inverted commas are the titles of chapters of the Ḳur‐án, which the boys, as I have mentioned on a former occasion, learn in the reverse order of their arrangement, after having learned the first chapter. The chapter of “The News” is the 78th: the others, afterwards names, are the 67th, 57th, 36th, 18th, 6th, and 2nd.

(24) . The looking‐glasses. This is said to amuse the ladies.

(25) . The 37th chapter of the ḳur‐án.

(26) . What follows this describes the ceremonies which are performed both after the ṣiráfeh and after the more common zeffeh, of which I have given an account in a former chapter.

(27) . “’Ood niyáẓ.’