Tens of thousands of people have gathered in the small streets and alleyways surrounding Sayida Zeinab Square to celebrate the birth of Zeinab Bint Ali, better known as Sayida Zeinab.
Although Egyptians have long commemorated the birthdays of many holy figures, whether Muslim or Christian, these celebrations pale in comparison to the turnout for the moulid or birthday of Sayida Zeinab. Among the Prophet Mohamed’s family, Egyptians reserve special reverence for Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet and daughter of Ali. Many Egyptians hold that Zeinab sought refuge in Egypt in the wake of a bloody struggle between the family of the prophet and the Umayyads over the caliphate following Mohamed’s death, culminating in the killing of Hussein, Zeinab’s brother.
Last year, the event came as a disappointment to many after security forces took down tents and sent vendors packing in an effort to cancel the event due to fears of swine flu. This year, by contrast, locals are happy to see the celebration back on track.
“Only half these people were here last year,” explained one celebrant. “The festivities were nothing compared to what we’ll see tomorrow,” he added, one night ahead the final day of festivities, dubbed el-lela el-kebira (the big night).
Little girls ran around carrying dolls in tow, while women shop idly. Tents wereset up around the famous Sayida Zeinab Mosque, where members of different Sufi orders gather to meditate and dance to the voices of the morshideen, or chanters. Others danced in the street. Every time a new chanter hit the makeshift stage, a hundreds-strong crowd gathered alongside the mosque to watch the worshipers.
Meanwhile, the streets around the mosque were packed with vendors, some of whom live in the area. Others, who have come all the way from the provinces, hawked goods for sale. “The vendors in the alleyways are here all the time,” explained one young woman. “But the ones on the main street by the mosque are here specifically for the moulid.”
“We came all the way from Damietta,” said the seller of mishabik (a waffle-like desert associated with moulid celebrations). “We come every year.”
Families camped out on mats around the wall of the mosque, many of whom travel moulid-to-moulid throughout the year.
Popular tradition has it that thousands of Egyptians gathered in the city of Blbis in what is now the Sharqiya Governorate to greet Zeinab on her arrival to Egypt, and that she stayed in the city for several days to meet her well-wishers.
Egyptians until this very day celebrate the fact that Zeinab chose Egypt as her home and sanctuary. But they do not only venerate her on her birthday. Egyptians visit her tomb at the Sayida Zeinab Mosque in droves throughout the year, seeking solutions to their troubles through intercession from the “lady”. The standard two prostrations in prayer are not enough for Zeinab’s true devotees, however. Many of her followers pledge to feed the “lady’s poor,” meaning the impoverished masses gathered year-round near the mosque, in exchange for her intercession.