The Celebration of Sayeda Zeinab

My friend Amru called me in the evening telling me to get downtown for a celebration. i had exams to grade, but the sound of the celebration seemed too good. Here's the result.

Cairo, Egypt As traditional songs intermingled with prayers blared over loudspeakers, thousands of Cairenes took to the streets the evening of June 4th to celebrate the birth of Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed.

While Cairo is the site for Sunni pilgrimage, Shi'a Muslims believe that her tomb is located in Syrian town of Set Zaynab. This difference in belief accurately captures the dogmatic divide between the two sects.

The tomb of Sayeda Zeinab is nestled in the heart of Cairo and boasts a stunning mosque enveloping the holy site. The celebration, which draws people from all walks of life in Cairo, is a decadent mix of carnival and piety. Sellers hawk plastic children’s toys beside merry-go-rounds, while the devoted flow in and out of the mosque.

Typical of Sufi mysticism, the men will twirl for as long as they can, with many succumbing to the inevitable dizziness that follows. The devout writhe and spin to the music, eyes often glossed over as they transcend the music in an attempt to make a spiritual connection.

Exhausted from both the stifling heat and the journey, hundreds of the pious Muslims lay asleep on the carpets inside the mosque. Many have taken the traditional pilgrimage of 7 days from villages in Upper Egypt to visit the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab. Beside the tomb as the hundreds clamour to touch it, perfumes are sprayed in the air and camera phones waved about in an attempt to photograph the holy site. The room holding the tomb is packed with people and sweat drips from the brows of every individual. Much of the practices during the celebration of Sayeda Zeinab’s birthday, like the perfumes and the goods for sale, are more cultural traditions than Islamic prescriptions.

The tens of thousands that flock to the street may seem standard to Cairo's image (forged through conflict and civil unrest) but the sense of revelry and celebration is a breath of fresh air to the stagnant summer heat of Egypt's political situation.

 Sufi dancers twirl to the beat of the drums.

Sufi dancers twirl to the beat of the drums.

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 A man taunts young men to shoot the blasting rocks from his hand with air rifles in a carnival game.

A man taunts young men to shoot the blasting rocks from his hand with air rifles in a carnival game.

 Thousands try to file through the overwhelmed entrances of the Sayeda Zeinab mosque.

Thousands try to file through the overwhelmed entrances of the Sayeda Zeinab mosque.

 The last leg of the journey to the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab.

The last leg of the journey to the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab.

 Pilgrims rest from their journey and the heat of the evening.

Pilgrims rest from their journey and the heat of the evening.

 Worshippers clamour to touch the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab.

Worshippers clamour to touch the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab.

 A child tries to to photograph the tomb of Sayeda Zenab amidst the crowds of pilgrims.

A child tries to to photograph the tomb of Sayeda Zenab amidst the crowds of pilgrims.

 Thousands pack the area outside of the mosque, where impromptu dancing and music begin to alleviate the wait to enter.

Thousands pack the area outside of the mosque, where impromptu dancing and music begin to alleviate the wait to enter.