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Cairo ContestedGovernance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity$

Diane Singerman

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789774162886

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774162886.001.0001

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Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

(p.83) 3 Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1
Cairo Contested

Diane Singerman

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the dynamics between disorder, chaos, and the control of public space, which describes the transformation of the government's relationship to, and policies toward, the very popular mulids, or saints' festivals, which are held annually in Cairo and other areas of Egypt. It also discusses how, in order to represent the power of the state in public spaces and civilize “festivity” projects of “beautification” (tagmil) and “development” (tatwir) are undertaken around almost all major pilgrimage sites in Egypt by the ministries of Awqaf and of Housing and Urban Development, as well as by the Cairo governorate. Mulids are among the few occasions when subaltern classes can exert a power of definition over the city. In July 2009, while this book was going to press, the governor of Cairo issued a ban on all mulid festivals in the Egyptian capital.

Keywords:   mulids, Cairo, disorder, chaos, public space, government, tagmil, tatwir, festivity

The Great Night

A mulid (plural, mawalid) is a saint's festival. It is illustrative of the various ways a festivity and a city come together, at times mingling and at times in conflict. This chapter looks more closely at the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa, one of Cairo's major festive events (See map I).2 The festivity takes place in and around the mosque of Sayyida Nafisa in a quarter named after its patron saint. Part of Khalifa district, the quarter of Sayyida Nafisa is a ‘popular area’ (hayy shẚbi) at the edge of the old city of Cairo and the southern cemetery, old and worn out in appearance but rich with shrines of Muslim saints. The quarter looks poor at first sight, but the alleys are filled by small workshops and industries that provide many of the inhabitants—carpenters, butchers, small businessmenwith a relatively comfortable income.

Nevertheless, the quarter of Sayyida Nafisa (like most parts of Khalifa district) suffers from a poor reputation mainly because of its lower-class appearance and its proximity to the cemetery (in fact, half of the quarter consists of partly inhabited cemeteries), but also because of its alleged association with drug trafficking and organized crime. A central landmark of the quarter (p.84)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

A map of the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa, 2002–2003 (map by Samuli Schielke).

and a visible exception to the district's general appearance is the mosque of Sayyida Nafisa, recently extended and renovated with government funding, which faces a wide square with a well-tended park.

Every year on the second Wednesday of the Islamic month Gumada al-Akhar, the week-long mulid reaches its peak in ‘the great night’ (al-layla (p.85)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

The procession on al-layla al-kabira (thegreat night) of the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

al-kabira), the biggest event of the year for inhabitants of the quarter. They spend weeks collecting funds and decorating carts to make the procession one of Cairo's finest-a source of great local pride. Until 2004 a Sufi sheikh and flag-bearers would lead the procession, followed by a truck carrying a large balloon and carts and cars representing the tomb of Sayyida Nafisa, a mosque, the Ka‘ba, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a ship, a fountain, a rocket, and a laser show, which was followed by a Sufi singer and a truck loaded with juice and candies that were distributed to bystanders.

The procession passes-or used to pass-through streets packed with families who have come to see the event. The atmosphere is full of joy. Young men in the procession dance, joke, and chant religious verses until it finally reaches the mosque of Sayyida Nafisa, where it dissolves into the crowds of the festivity. In and around the mosque, a different but equally overwhelming festive atmosphere prevails. Pilgrims pay their respects to the saint, and Sufi dhikrs (collective meditation in the tune of recitation or music) are celebrated in large, colorfully decorated and illuminated tents that share the crowded streets with cafes, stalls, shooting stands, and swings (for more detailed descriptions of mulids, see Madoeuf 2006; McPherson 1941; Mustafa 1981; Kassem 1989; Biegman 1990; Reeves 1990; Hoffman 1995; Abu-Zahra 1997; Chih 2000; Mayer-Jaouen 2004; Schielke 2006).

The state is strongly and visibly present in the mulid. A large police force armed with bamboo sticks is there to interrupt fights, arrest thieves, guard (p.86) public morality, and enforce a general closing time of 4 a.m., which is early for a mulid. Roadblocks control the movement of people. In a tent on the opposite side of the square, the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) has organized an official celebration, with respected scholars holding lectures on the life of the saint and the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt).The presence of the state has been inscribed into the very physical shape of the mulid. Until the mid-1990S, the square facing the mosque was full of tents and stalls, forming the most crowded and spectacular space of the festivity. Tents and stalls require permission, however, from the security directorate (mudiriyat al-amn) of Cairo province and the implementation is observed by the police force. Since a change of policy in handing out permissions at the end of the 1990S, no tents have been allowed in the square, save for the tent of awqaf In 2004, vendors' stalls also were refused permission, and the police force tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the procession from entering the square.

Since 2004, no procession has been held. In 2005, when the organizers of the procession applied for a permit at the security directorate, they were refused on the grounds of the proximity of the presidential elections. In 2006, they applied for permission again, only to be informed by the director of security (mudir al-amn) that the minister of the interior had personally denied the permit. This time, the organizers were told that the procession caused traffic disturbances and that because of the large amount of people participating and watching, the security forces could not guarantee the safety of the event against potential disturbances and Islamist attacks against it. (To my knowledge, there have not been any significant disturbances during the procession in the past years.) The organizers felt that these were mere excuses by an unjust administration wishing to indiscriminately suppress any kind of popular gathering without listening to the organizers arguments or considering the interests of the people for whom this was an important community event.

At the Margin of the City

As result of these measures, the shape of the festival has changed dramatically. The square is now dominated by a lofty new mosque, a beautiful park permanently closed to the public, and a heavy police presence. In the absence of a procession, this state—dominated order now remains largely unchallenged by the popular festivities. Around the central square, roadblocks limit the movement of people and vehicles, at the same time forming a marked boundary between a spectacular and precisely ordered center and—invisible from the square-surrounding streets that are filled with tents, stalls, cafes, Sufi celebrations, amusements, pilgrims sleeping, and (p.87)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

Sayyida Nafisa Square during the 2002 mulid. The following year, most of the tents and stands were moved to the side streets (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

passing crowds. The police force is present in the side streets but to a much lower degree, and it makes little attempt to submit the margins of the festival to the same kind of order that prevails in the central square. Thus, two very different festive orders have come to face one another at the mulid, with the state increasingly dominating the center and the popular festivities increasingly dominating at the margin.

The coverage of mulids in the media shows a split even deeper than that which has emerged inside the festivity. Mulids can be represented as beautiful moments of fascinating and colorful folklore, or as backward irrationality and an un-Islamic innovation (bid‘a) (al-Sa‘id 1997; Samir 1998; Dunford 1998; Salim and Hal 1999). In either case, mulids often seem somehow removed from reality, as if they are taking place somewhere very far away, disconnected from modern urban life. This is not a coincidence. The political and intellectual elites of the country are often highly uncomfortable about the appearance of mulids in Cairo, and policies of public mediation, urban planning, and public order reflect this attitude. Mulids are removed from the public imagery of the city, either hidden or exoticized.

Very few other occasions in Cairo are able (or allowed) to gather such masses. Yet, the public image (both western and Egyptian) of mulids seems strangely dissociated from the imagery of ‘the Arab street,’ which is represented as highly politicized and radicalized, even though the Egyptian Arab street festivity appears tolerant and/or politically passive.

(p.88) Focusing on how the festive space of the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa is shaped and reshaped and what kind of social imagination and relationships are informing it, I argue that mulids are very much a part of the modern city, just as they are very much an informal political matter. Mulids are a way to organize urban space and time that conflicts with the dominant spaces and practices of the modern city as propagated by the official public sphere and public planning projects. Mulids represent a moment of alternative order that state actors try to contain through policies of ‘beautification’ and ‘development.’

Making an Ethnography of Mulids

This chapter is part of a wider study, conducted between 2002 and 2005, about mulid festivals as a subject of contestation in contemporary Egypt, of which Cairo is one part (Schielke 2006). Many of the social scientific studies on Egypt have the problem of a strongly Cairo-centrist perspective, mainly because of the centralizing political and economic structures of the country and the resulting split between the capital and the provinces. As far as saints' day festivals are concerned, Cairo is only one, albeit important, site among others. In the sacred geography of pilgrimage sites, cities such as Tanta, Disuq, al-Shuhada, Qena, Luxor, and Asyut, as well as remote desert locations like Humaythara, are not the periphery but important centers in their own right.

Another problem relevant for the study of mulids as a subject of contestations and transformations is that the problematic cannot be exhaustively studied by the means of either ethnography or historiography alone. The power of saintly places is based on the claim to authenticity and prophetic descent of the saints buried in them, the debates about the justification of mulids goes back to the Middle Ages, and old tractates from those times are still frequently consulted. Finally, the project of modernity that emerged in contestation with colonial hegemony has shaped the debate to a substantial extent. All this would be of little value, however, without a thorough observation of contemporary festive practice and its dynamics, and of even less value without the points of view and accounts of those who participate in mulids, as well as those who view them critically from a distance.

When attempting an ethnographic account of the festive culture of mulids, the debates concerning them, and the transformations contributing to their changing shape, one has to take the decentralized nature of the festivals, their historical dimension, and their current complexity equally into account. This, together with the attempt to account for different voices and points of view on mulids, rather than sticking to the discourses and practices of one, predefined social group, compelled me to opt for a research methodology (p.89) based on a multi-sited ethnography in combination with historical research. Much in the sense of grounded theory, my first aim was to map the various ways in which various people celebrated mulids and talked about them, constantly revising my own research hypotheses and testing them in dialogue with the people whom I interviewed. Some of them I have encountered several times in the course of the past years, but with many others I have only spoken once or twice.

This methodology led me to extensive fieldwork that covered pilgrimage sites in the Nile Delta region, Cairo, and, to a lesser extent, Upper Egypt. The variety of people interviewed has been equally wide: pilgrims, active Sufis who organize events at mulids, merchants who earn their livelihood in the festivals, villagers who travel to a festival, students going to the mulid for amusement's sake, children, inhabitants of old city districts celebrating the mulid of their patron saint, local politicians and state functionaries, and many others. This methodology, while lacking some of the depth of a traditional ethnography, has allowed me to grasp the complexity of the festivals in a way that would have been much more difficult to realize with other, more focused approaches.

At the moment, however, I am concerned with one particular aspect of the larger project: the structure and transformation of public space at one mulid festival in Cairo. Doing so, I draw upon a much wider body of fieldwork data. Much of what I am able to say about the accounts of pilgrims and participants in the festivals or about the role of the state in the organization and reorganization of mulids is therefore not based on the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa alone. Some of the voices cited in the following originate from interviews conducted at other mulids around the country. Nevertheless, their comments could have been said at and about the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa, just as Sayyida Nafisa stands as a case in point for something that is taking place on a wider scale and in recognizably similar forms across the country.

Order in Chaos

The initial appearance of any mulid is utterly chaotic. It is characterized by a colorful mixture of light-hearted celebration, ecstatic piety, and solemn commemoration, all framed by colorful lights and very loud Sufi music. It is no coincidence that in the Egyptian idiom, “a mulid in the absence of its master,” or the saint (mulid wi-sahbu ghayib), stands for a state of total disorder. The mulid chaos is an organized one, however. As the idiom reminds us, only in the absence of a focal point—the master of the mulid—would the mulid turn into total disorder. The mulid has its order, but of a flexible and ambiguous kind. Different elements of festivity all center around the shrine of the saint, (p.90)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

A public Sufi dhikr in front of the mosque in the mulid of Sayyida Fatima al-Nabawiya, June 2003 (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

a source of holiness and blessing (baraka) that radiates allover the festivity, encompassing everything and everyone. Even the most profane parts of the festivity are neither separate from nor opposed to the sacred center; on the contrary, they become part of the sacred-profane festivity (Abu-Zahra 1997, 145; Madoeuf 2001, 2006).

Mulids stand in a close relationship to the urban structure of the old city quarters. The shrines and the mulids held around them form central public spaces. Public space, as defined in this context, however, has a meaning quite different from the liberal concept of public versus private (Kaviraj 1997). Mulids represent a way to structure the open space that once was dominant in the cities of Egypt but since has become either exoticized as traditional or rejected as backward by the discourses and imageries of modernity. The saha, the open space around the shrine, is a contingent and ambivalent form of space that is traditionally defined by its being open for all people and multiple uses (market, bus stop, mulid, and so forth). In the saha, the sacred is not protected against the profane world, because it is not in need of such protection; on the contrary, the holy shrine is a source of power and protection that extends to the surrounding profane area. The saha facing the shrine is an intersection, a particular form of open yet protected space where the aura of sanctity allows the blending of different spheres of life (Gilsenan 2000, 175; Elsheshtawy 2006).

(p.91) This spatial order of festivity is interwoven with a festive time that makes it possible to temporarily relativize, invert, or suspend boundaries of daily life. In the atmosphere of cheerful piety, the sacred and the profane do not appear as strictly separate, religion becomes fun, and entertainment and traders enjoy their share of the baraka of the noble celebration. Gender boundaries are eased as young women from the district dress up and go for a legitimate outing, and in Sufi tents space and rituals are often shared by men and women. With families sitting on the sidewalks and celebrations extending to the side alleys, the distinctions between house, alley, and open street lose significance. The city is invaded (or that is how many urban citizens experience it) by the countryside when pilgrims from Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta crowd the streets. Night becomes day, as the mulid sleeps in the daytime and festivities only begin with sunset, to continue until dawn prayer (Madoeuf 2006; Pagés-el-Karoui 2002). On an imaginary level, the temporal boundaries of history collapse, giving way to a mythological temporality characterized by the barzakh, the state between death and Judgment Day, in which the believer, the grand saints, and the Prophet and his family coexist and can communicate. Thus, even the boundary between the living and the dead is far from clear in the time of the mulid. The buried saint, it is believed, is not really dead, but conscious and perceiving, even capable of action. Further, many mulids, notably that of Sayyida Nafisa, take place in the middle of graveyards, where the dwellings of the dead host celebrations of the living.

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

The mulid of Sidi Yusuf al-Άgami, June 2003, with the saint's shrine top right. (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

This contrast to everyday life is strongly present in the accounts of participants. They describe the festivity as a temporary better world of joy, love, and community far away from daily worries and constraints. In the mulid, you can “get a breath of fresh air” and “see strange, new things.” For young men and (p.92) women, the mulid is a chance to “empty your head and enjoy, to forget all your worries and live in the moment.” For Sufi pilgrims, the mulid is a world ruled by spiritual and altruistic principles: “It's a congregation of love, without any material interests, higher than any form of worship.” For many inhabitants of the old city districts, it is the time when the community rejoices in celebration: “For me it's a moment of joy! People come from other places if they are originally from here. It's beautiful, a good day, people all gather together.”

Faithful to its festive nature, the mulid is open for everyone. In fact this all-inclusive moment is a central element of the festive utopia as reflected by the participants:

All people, all societies comehere: the respectable, the mystic, the criminal—the [whole] society!

To those for whom all otherdoors areclosed, the doorof ahl al-bayt remains open.

In a khidma (a Sufi service offree food and refreshments), you'll find a famous actress eating next to a poor beggar, and there is no difference between them.

This moment of seeming equality does not mean that there are no hierarchies and power relations at work in the mulid. When the workers and workshop owners of the district collaborate to build a beautiful procession, when a Sufi sheikh or local politician invests his money in a khidma, or when a member of the National Assembly puts on a gallabiya (a long loose gown worn by men and associated with rural and lower-class lifestyle) and shares tea and domestic cigarettes with workers and dervishes in a modest Sufi tent, power is exercised in a subtle and effective way:

A successful mulid is organized through networks of clientelism based on personal relations of patronage and friendship among Sufi sheikhs and disciples, politicians and their constituency, the master craftsmen and workshop owners (mẚallimin), and their workers and dependents. These networks are renewed through religious legitimization, sponsorship, charity, and the symbolic suspension of the very hierarchical relationships that make this festive utopia possible. Although it may seem paradoxical, festive utopia and clientelistic networks go hand in hand. During the mulid, class and other boundaries are suspended and inverted. It is also the occasion when patrons have to prove their moral and communal qualities and act like “one of us” (Reeves 1990, 167–80).

The festive procession displays this (temporarily) reciprocal relationship of power par excellence, as Zaynhum, an up-scale house painter and crafst-man participating in the procession explains:

(p.93) The procession costs a lot of money and effort. There is a trusted guy who, accompanied by others, collects money from the people. The big ma‘allimin contribute by donating money. The craftsmen contribute by assistance in their field of expertise: the electrician in installing the lights, the carpenter in building the carts, and so on. It's a big common effort and an expression of a lot of solidarity.

Without the money of the “big m꺚allimin,” there would be no procession. By paying, they are able to demonstrate their commitment to the local community. The procession does not represent them alone, however; it stands for the common effort and collective solidarity of the district, masters and clients alike. In a way, the masters become subordinates during the festivity and for one evening, young workers and craftsmen represent the collective pride of this otherwise ill-famed district joined in celebration of its patron saint.

One is easily tempted to stamp this festive time either as a popular form of resistance to hegemonic norms or as mere ‘bread and circuses’ to keep the people happy and passive. Both views overlook the fact that mulids are embedded in a social order that allows for ambivalence and temporary reversal of boundaries. In this order, everything has its time, and there is a time to let go and to forget, even to question, some of the otherwise unquestioned boundaries of life (Elias 1985; Eliade 1969). Hence, what may be viewed normally as a transgression is seen during the mulid as a legitimate expression of festive joy. In this sense, the mulid is utopian in character; a vision of a better and more beautiful life. As such, it is always in some ways opposed to the daily order of things, but this opposition does not imply that either of the two, festivity or daily life, should be abolished for good. Unlike the political utopias of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the mulid utopia is not located in the future, it is actually lived, over and again, thus both helping people to endure the hardship, morality, and boredom of daily life and reminding them that a different life is not only imaginable but also possible (Bakhtin 1968; Turner 1974; Schielke 2003).

There is not just one festive utopia, however, but many, as the often highly diverging accounts of participants show. From the point of view of men gathering in the front of a house in an old city district, the mulid is the national day of an idealized community, an expression of local pride and identity:

Many of us live elsewhere in Cairo, but for the mulid of Sayyida Fatima al-Nabawiya we all come here. You can consider this the National Day of [the district] Darbal-Ahmar! And it's a celebration in memory of the family of the Prophet. It's an ancient celebration; it goes back to the days of the Fatimids. We gather here every year; it's a heritage that goes from father to son, you see.

(p.94) From the point of view of the imam of a mosque, the mulid is an altruistic community in which material interests are absent:

People only think about materialistic things these days-work, marriage, and so on-but here, this is a different moment because people are not interested in material things but in love (mahabba), The people here don't take, they give, which is difficult for the lower self (nafs), which is greedy. But the people of God are distinguished by love and giving. Who gives, God loves him, and he can live with all people, and he won't get sick from bad food. The people with love are few, but they can go through life and are treated well by people. They may not work at all-they don't need to. Did any of the prophets work?

This ideal of a spiritual community does draw much criticism from people not committed to Sufism, but it also draws admiration, as expressed by a group of students for whom the Sufis present the main attraction of the festival:

We go to see the mulid every night. The most interesting thing about it are the Sufis, the dervishes who put up tents and do dhikr. They live in a way that we don't. You know, all the youths are busy with material things: work, marriage, and so on. But those people don't perceive anything of the world, they do their spiritual thing. They don't worry where to eat, where to live; they live for religion and spiritual things.

Finally, from the point of view of a young man who has come to the mulid for a time off, the mulid is an escapist release from the boredom and restrictions of daily life:

It's nice like this only once a year. The rest of the year the place is a ruin. Just one day it's passion; it's something we look forward to with desire. In the noise you can't think, you just go with it and forget all your worries and sorrows. There are people who come to the mulid for knowledge. You can also come to the mulid to learn, but not me.

“So, you come just for the fun?”

Yes, that's it. We sit here in this place, most importantly to listen to [the Sufi singer] Hagga Wafẚ, who will sing here. Do you want to smoke some grass?

Utopian as these visions are, albeit each in a different way, it would be a romantic exaggeration to depict them as expressions of “hidden transcripts” of subaltern classes, their otherwise unspoken views of world, religion, and the (p.95) city (1990 Scott. The visions of society expressed at mulids are not ‘hidden’ for the rest of the year. Mulids are public, but they have a very different status than some other sites of public debate and action, and it is these relationships of hegemony and exclusion among different public actions and actors that should draw our attention if we want to understand the potential of mulids for controversy. Rather than focusing on the dichotomy of ‘hidden’ versus ‘public,’ we have to problematize the construction of ‘the public’ and ask whether and under what conditions mulids may be included in or excluded from the field of hegemonic definitions of social order and the common good Gal 1995; Mah 2000). The trouble with mulids, I argue, lies in their open and ambivalent character, which makes it difficult to subject them to any specific grand project of development or reform. Precisely that, however, is a key condition of belonging to ‘the public’ in contemporary Egypt. Mulids consist of various, highly contradictory practices and visions of a temporary better world that do not follow an authoritative program of the kind that public festivities should from the point of view of state functionaries, members of the religious establishment, and many middle-class citizens. What we have here is therefore not simply a contestation of power between different classes but the contestation over different images and practices of social order and the modern city. In this contestation, the appearance and visible order of public space are equally important as, and intertwined with, attempts at physical control of the movement of the citizens and at civilizing control of their moral dispositions.

Ordering the Chaos

A source of great local pride for the creators of the procession, the mulid is a major annoyance for local authorities and many journalists and intellectuals. For many of the upper-and middle-class inhabitants of Cairo's modern districts, mulids radiate a lower-class habitus: weird, threatening, dirty, and dangerous. They may be fascinating from a safe distance, something one might like to see in the movies, but in real life they are among the many places offlimits for the upper-middle-class Cairene (De Koning 2003; 2006).

Mulids and their milieu are very shẚbi (meaning popular, but also carrying connotations of vulgar on one side and authentic on the other), with all the ambivalence of this social category. This is not just, as many people assume, because mulids are only attended by poor people. Some of the butchers, workshop owners, and businessmen of the quarter of Sayyida Zaynab are a good deal wealthier than the middle classes representing ‘modern’ professions, such as teachers and civil servants. Many of the Sufis participating in the mulid come from wealthy families, have well-paid jobs, and live in fancy neighborhoods. (p.96) The qualitative approach of my fieldwork does not allow for quantitative figures, but on the basis of my fieldwork experience, I have come to notice that a large proportion of the people who come to the mulid wearing a gallabiya and looking like farmers from a village far away actually study at a university or work in middle-class professions and wear trousers, a shirt, and a suit at other occasions. The mulid is a time of marked change in styles of clothing, eating, and socializing that often gives a misleading impression of an overwhelmingly lower-class participation. What makes mulids shẚbi is their place in the symbolic hierarchies of class, society, and urban space. They are closely connected to the old city districts, the informal networks, and the publicly marginalized forms of religiosity that all share specific forms of social and symbolic capital, highly valued in their own context but marginalized in the dominant fields of society (Bourdieu 1984, 106; Singerman 1995, II-IS; Schielke 2002).

From the perspective of the hegemonic standards of religiosity and civility, the festive joy of mulids turns into mockery and transgression. It is in this sense that a white-collar oil company employee commented on the procession of Sayyida Sakina, which takes place in the same district two weeks before the mulid of Sayyida Nafisa:

What is this? I mean what is this?! It's a state of mind, yeah, but what's the meaning?These are all backward people (mutakhallifin), there is not one intellectual (muthaqqaf) amongthem, nor anyonewith education (mutẚallim), nor anyone on a high level!I don't believe in this. This is against the shari'a, this is against religion, and against reason, and against logic!

Mulids express a form of ecstatic religiosity that contradicts the dominant ideal of rationalist, constrained piety that has been cultivated by reformist and modernist movements. Mulids are based on a civic order that undermines the ideal of the modern citizen who, in the dominant imagery, is expected to live in a modern city characterized by functional differentiation, clear boundaries, and a spatial and bodily discipline imposed by moral education and public planning (Mitchell 1988, 79; Starrett 1995; Johansen 1996, 134–68). For such an understanding of social order—which is not restricted to Islamist movements, with their strongly scripturalist and rationalist orientation, but shared by a wide array of secular discourses of modernity and nationalism-the temporary suspension of boundaries at mulids becomes a real threat to the discipline and morals that are needed to raise and maintain a modern, ‘civilized,’ and religious nation.

From the perspective of state actors (governors, police officers, religious establishment, and so on), mulids represent a dilemma. As a form of public (p.97) festival and as a configuration of public space, they are a terrible embarrassment for the publicly proclaimed image of the modern city and nation as it can be found in tourist brochures, public-sector newspapers, government policies of urban planning, and on state television. People celebrating mulids express standards of public behavior that do not suit the standards put forward by state media and institutions of education. There is not, however, anything like a state-sponsored discourse against mulids. Instead, government functionaries, members of the religious establishment (such as al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments [Awqaf])and the state-controlled media generally either are completely silent on mulids, except when they can be represented as folklore, or emphasize the need to reform mulids. (It is worth noting that radical criticism of mulids is mostly produced and disseminated at the level of civil society)

Two reasons can be given for this cautious approach. One is that the social reality of Egypt is full of things that contradict the officially proclaimed image of the nation, and not speaking about them has proven an effective way to uphold the project of national development. Another, equally important, reason is that while the public image of mulids generally constitutes a problem for the state, on the level of clientelistic and electoral politics mulids are intertwined with the power structures of the state. From the point of view of the government, mulids can be useful because they historically have not been used as a site for political mobilization against the government, by the Islamists or other actors. In fact, mulids are part of the clientelistic relationships that are essential for the functioning of the Egyptian state. Established, officially registered Sufi orders generally make a point of their loyalty to the government, for which they historically have been rewarded with recognition and protection against competing new groups. Members of parliament and election candidates use mulids to offer services and demonstrate commitment to their constituencies. The structures of Sufi orders, informal local networks, and the clientelistic relations of local politicians often overlap, and outstanding members of the community may make use of all of them (Reeves 1990).

This does not mean that mulids would be simply an instrument of state control. Firstly, the political priorities of members of parliament and functionaries of the security apparatus may differ significantly, which I came to witness at the mulid of Sidi al-Tunsi in February 2005, when the representative of the Khalifa district in the National Assembly, Hasan al-Tunsi (of no known relation to the saint), unsuccessfully rallied participants against the police officers who were acting under orders to close down the mulid at midnight (the reason given for the early closure was secondary school examinations) (see also Peterson 2005). While the event guaranteed him the sympathies of (p.98) his electorate, it also demonstrated the asymmetry of power between the legislative and executive branches of the government.

Secondly, the dependence of local networks and Sufi orders on the state is always partial. Clientelist reciprocity notwithstanding, informal networks maintain a significant degree of autonomy. Clientelism is a notoriously unstable configuration of power, and what looks like a stable relationship today may be cancelled tomorrow when circumstances change. There are many more unregistered Sufi orders than registered ones, and there are many forms of local reciprocal power that are not related to electoral politics. Useful as they may be under the circumstances, these informal networks also are problematic because they remain to a significant degree beyond state control. The mulid is a public demonstration of informal structures of power, which, despite efforts to control them, have a significant degree of autonomy and practice a form of order that is very different from that of the state (Singerman 1995, 132–38). Although mulids were not sites of insurgency against the Egyptian state in the twentieth century, they always represent an unpredictable potential of disorder. Their openness means that while the administrative framework of the festival can be manipulated by the state, the content and meaning of the festival remain in the hands of the participants. The problem with mulids, from the perspective of the state, is not so much that they could turn against the government but that they are ungovernable, a parallel order beyond the control of the state.

If mulids do not constitute a direct threat to the state, in what way is their being out of control a problem from its point of view? The diverging interests of different branches of the state apparatus and the partial autonomy of local networks is only a part of the explanation. Another, perhaps more important, part has to do with the interdependence of public representation and control. Control of public space in present-day administrative practice is a complex form of power that extends not only to the movement of citizens but also to the meaning and the representative image of that space. It implies anti-insurgency planning designed to prevent the uncontrollable movement of crowds even at the cost of everyday functionality, but it also involves a more profound power over the use and appearance of space. This power of definition is conceived of in aesthetic terms, along oppositions such as cleanliness and filth, order and chaos, or calm and noise. (These are topics I encountered over and again in discussions with state functionaries in Cairo, Qena, Tanta, and Kafr al-Sheikh, For details, see Schielke 2006). A public place that falls short of these aesthetic criteria is out of control because it is not functional in the imagery and structure of the hegemonic modern city.

(p.99) The solution to this dilemma, practiced in state policies and proposed in public religious and cultural debates, is to ‘civilize’ mulids, that is, to remove the power to define the festival from the participants and place it in the exclusive possession of the state and the religious establishment; to subject the festivities to a spatial, temporal, and moral discipline that makes them less transgressing and more controllable. The administration of mulids provides various possibilities to do so. The actual celebrations are organized in a decentralized manner by numerous informal networks, but local authorities are responsible for the organizational framework. Large mulids usually have an administrative board comprising different branches of administration that participate in their organization. Except for the permission to hold the festivity, which is granted by the Ministry of the Interior, key decisions are usually made at the governorate level, and only in exceptional cases does the Ministry of the Interior interfere in the details of the organization directly. The governorate and the security directorate grant permissions and allocate space for the various elements of the festival (tents, stalls, cafes, processions), organize sanitary services and electricity, and maintain law and order. The Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) (or the province-level administration of awqaf, to be specific) is responsible for the administration and maintenance of the mosque and the organization of an official program. The security apparatus, represented in various mulids by various branches of the security forces, has the final say on any concrete measures during the festivity.

The influence of the state is most visible in projects of ‘beautification’ (tagmil) and ‘development’ (tatwir) that have recently been undertaken at almost all major pilgrimage sites in Egypt. The concrete measures taken in different provinces vary greatly, but they all share a sense of ‘civilizing’ the festivity. In Cairo, the measures are mainly concerned with the central, visible spaces of the mulid. In the past ten years, almost all major pilgrimage sites have been reorganized to some degree, mostly with the sponsorship of the ministries of Religious Endowments and Housing and Urban Development, as well as of Cairo Province. Mosques have been enlarged, or demolished and replaced by new ones. Surrounding open spaces have been restructured, typically by creating parks and open spaces separated by iron fences (for other examples, see Elsheshtawy 2006; Williams 2006).

The mulid of Sayyida Nafisa is not the only one affected by these measures. Similar developments can be observed in most large mulids of Cairo. In the mulid of Sidna al-Husayn, tents have been banned from the central square, save for a small fenced enclosure next to the mosque. The mosque of (p.100)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

A map of the mulid of Sidna al-Husayn, 1994–96 (map by Anna Madoeuf).

Sayyida Zaynab has been vastly enlarged and the surrounding square has been fragmented by numerous fences. Again, the Sufi tents have been confined to a small fenced enclosure and side streets during the mulid. The mulid of Sidi Ahmad al-Rifẚi has suffered the severest changes: it is practically cut into three isolated parts since the entire mosque was surrounded by fences and the provincial administration banned both tents and stalls from the street and square facing the mosque.

In all cases, these measures have eased the pressure of the crowds in the central squares and made them more controllable, which, according to a high ranking police officer whom I interviewed in 2003 about measures taken by (p.101)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

A map of the mulid of Sidna al-Husayn, 2002–2003, which shows the increasing spatial marginalization of the mulid (mapby Samuli Schielke).

the provincial administration at the mulid of Sidi Ibrahim al-Disuqi in the city of Disuq, is their declared aim:

The mulid was organized this way so that there will be less crowds in the center, in the square in front of the mosque, and in the main streets, and it was very successful. In previous years, the square was very full and so were all streets. Now the center was closed for traffic, cars had to pass by the ring road, and the crowds were moved to the side streets. So there is now much more space and a beautiful view.

“But the crowds are still very bad in the side streets. What about them?” (p.102)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

The new extension of the mosque of Sayyida Zaynab completed in 2001 (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

That's intended. The point is to reduce the pressure in the places of vital importance: main streets and the square in front of the mosque by moving the crowds into the side streets.

As a result, the appearance of the festivity has shifted from a street festivity toward a public spectacle, which in the eyes of many participants has made it less attractive. Thanẚullah, a Pakistani PhD student at al-Azhar University and a devout Sufi since the early nineties, looks nostalgically to earlier times:

When I first came to the mosque of Sayyida Nafisa [in 1995], the new extension wasn't yet built, there was a fountain, a low fence, and a cafe nearby, and from the cafe they would serve tea to the mosque. We(the Sufis) would always sit at the fountain. [During the mulid] there were tents in the square those days, the mulid was nicer; there was more space. Now there are so many hindrances. When you enter the mulid you hear no sound, because the munshidin (Sufi singers) are spread around the alleys. In the past you could hear the mulid clearly when arriving, and also inside the mosque. It was much more beautiful. The shape of the mulid has changed now: all tents are in the alleys. One can't find them, know whether this is the celebration of the mulid or someone's private party. Due to increasing traffic and population, the government has to take measures to keep life moving, but there should be some available place for the participants to be able to enjoy their festivity; after all, it's only once a year.

This account, stressing the loss of open space, stands in striking contrast to the fact that the squares around the main pilgrimage sites of Cairo were, in purely quantitative terms, vastly expanded during the twentieth century. The use of this space has become increasingly restricted, however. The contingent space of the saha has been replaced by the exclusive and presentable space of the public square, dominated (both symbolically and physically) by the state, most visibly so through the empty spaces of the central squares.

This control is not only about the movement of people and the form of space, it is also about controlling the meaning of festivity and social order. It (p.103) is no coincidence that the projects to “beautify and develop” the space of pilgrimage sites go hand in hand with forms of festivity that emphasize official representation and moral discipline (this is a tendency strongly advocated by the government-controlled Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, which argues that the true Sufi mulid should be an occasion of remembrance and learning, not profane entertainment) (Abu l-‘Aza’im 1991; Ibrahim 1996; al-Shinnawi 2003). The Sufi establishment, that is, the leadership of registered Sufi orders and the Supreme Council of the Sufi Orders, has close relations with al-Azhar, which, contrary to common assumptions, has a strong Sufi element and does not condemn Sufism and mulids, although many individual scholars at al-Azhar do. The Sufi Council and the Sufi wing of al-Azhar participate in a reformist Sufi discourse that highlights the ascetic and philosophical dimensions of Sufism, distancing themselves from ecstatic rituals and antinomian tendencies. Together with state functionaries, parts of al-Azhar and the Sufi establishment are trying to turn mulids from a source of chaos-or alternative order, depending on the point of view—into vehicles of ideological hegemony (Luizard 1991; Frishkopf 1999; Schielke 2004).

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

The mosque of Sayyida Nafisa seen from the west between 1930 and 1936 (photograph by Rudolf Franz Lehnert. 1930–36. © Lehnert and Landrock)

The chaotic order of mulids is not removed, however; it is merely moved out of sight, to the side streets. By symbolically occupying the centers of prominent, visible festivals, the state demonstrates its version of civic order, while simultaneously allowing the margins of the festivities to follow an order of their own.

Imaginaries of Unity and Otherness

Like so many other things in Cairo, mulids may not fit into the imagery of the modern city, yet they are a part of it. The exotic character or even absence of mulids in the dominant imagery of Cairo is not given but produced through (p.104)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

Azhari scholars giving a lecture at an official celebration organized by the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders at the mulid of Sidna al-Husayn in 2003 (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

The mosque of Sayyida Nafisa seen from the west in January 2003. The minaret to the left belongs to the old mosque, which is shown in the image by Lehnert and Landrock (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

the binary dissociation s that are employed to construct progressive modernity, orthodox Islam, and hegemonic metanarratives of the city (Sassen 1999).

After all, the world of mulids is not so faraway from the world of the global city. The people who gather to celebrate the great night once a year are the people who crowd the buses, schools, offices, and factories of the city day by (p.105)

Policing Mulids and Their Meaning1

Cart representing the Dome of the Rock in the procession of Sayyida Nafisa, August 2003 (photograph by Samuli Schielke).

day. Not only are the lives of the mulid-goers well connected to the city at large but also the imagined space of the mulid extends far beyond the popular districts. The numerous shrines in Cairo and the provinces form a complex sacred landscape that encompasses all of Egypt and, in the final instance, the Islamic world. The mulid provides a moment to share in this unity and display it in religious as well as political terms, as is done in the procession of Sayyida Nafisa, in which an imagined political geography of the whole Islamic world is presented: the local shrine, the all-Islamic Kẚba, and the occupied and contested Dome of the Rock (which in 2003 was redecorated to refer to Iraq as well).The ‘Arab street’ does gather at the mulid, only it behaves contrary to the dominant imagery of ‘the’ radicalized and galvanized ‘Arab street’ and hence remains invisible for the metanarratives of Middle Eastern politics, in which ‘the street’ has long since been dissociated from the streets of Arab cities.

Mulids are among the few occasions when subaltern classes can exert a power of definition over the city. A mulid is an alternative way to organize urban space and time, one in which anyone can have his or her share. For the duration of the festival, this utopian order is a reality standing in open competition with other urban realities.

The response of the state and hegemonic discourses of city and civility is to establish their power of definition by ‘civilizing’ mulids and their urban settings. This has increasingly taken place since the 1990S because of two factors: (p.106) the availability of international loans for infrastructure projects, including the restructuring of streets and squares; and the Egyptian state's redefinition of its role in society, as it moves from the Nasserist social contract toward providing spectacles of global modernity (pers. comm. with Anouk de Koning 2004). Neither the will nor the resources exist to subject mulids to full civilizing discipline. The same logic that conflates control and representation makes this control incomplete. Because it is so much conceived of in aesthetic terms of spectacular presence, it cannot be total. The margins, by definition, cannot and need not be subjected to the same order and discipline as the center. Instead, the distinctions of global and popular Cairo are reproduced and reinforced in the festive organization of the mulid.

Following the logic of the ‘global city,’ other definitions are not erased, they are pushed further to the margin as the state inscribes its presence in central public spaces in the form of spectacles. Among these is the new mosque of Sayyida Nafisa, with its clean facades and vast park, which stand in a striking contrast to the neighboring streets and alleys of Khalifa. Whether these distinctions hold remains to be seen. The responses of mulid-goers are manifold and differentiated, and it is not yet clear to what extent they will accommodate the new order and to what extent they will subvert it.


In July 2009, while this book was going to press, the governor of Cairo issued a ban on all mulid festivals in the Egyptian capital. The ban, which was announced to extend to all of Egypt, first hit the annual festival of Sayyida Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The festival was disbanded, and a number of people who tried to resist the ban were arrested. The official reason for the ban was the Mexican swine flu epidemic (later called the HiNi flu), which had already moved the Egyptian government to other drastic measures. But not all public gatherings in the capital have been banned, and not all crowded sites have been emptied of people. At the time of writing this, it is unclear whether the ban will be temporary or permanent. In either case, it is only a recent step in more than a century of contestation in which the joyful festive culture of mulids has come to appear as problematic and dangerous in the eyes of modernist middle classes and religious reformers. The cheerful crowds of a festival have something in them that deeply unsettles powerful ideas about the modern city and correct religious behavior—so much that the festivals now face possible destruction in the hands of a modernist state apparatus.

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(1) I am indebted to many people, only a few of whom can be mentioned here: the people of the quarter of Sayyida Nafisa, the Sufi pilgrims to the festival of Sayyida Nafisa, Esam Fawzi, Anouk de Koning, Carsten Schinko, Katharina Boehm, Bariş Ceyhan, Jürgen Schielke, Paul Amar, and the editor of this volume, all of whom provided me with valuable assistance and comments.

(2) Nafisa Bint Hasan al-Anwar Ibn Zayd al-Ablah Ibn al-Hasan ibn Άli Ibn Abi Talib, died ca. AH200 (Abu Άlam 1998; ‘Usfur 1996). Sayyida (Lady) and Sidi or Sidna (Lord) are honorary titles for Muslim saints (awliyẚ).