By Menan Khater
Moulids of Upper Egypt
Perched atop the cliff of Gebel Al-Teir, Deir Al-Adhra (Monastery of the Holy Virgin) draws tens of thousands of pilgrims for Moulid Al-Adhra, Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, which is celebrated on August 22nd. This is the largest Christian moulid of the year.
The city of Minya celebrates Moulid Al-Fouly in the middle of the seventh month of the Islamic calendar, honoring the birthday of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fouly. Known for his Asceticism and adherence to Shariah, Al-Fouly spent 51 years in Minya mentoring and teaching religion to its people and visitors from nearby cities, illustrating verses from Quran and writing manuscripts. Upon his death in 1067, an Andalusian-style masjid was built for him and his body was buried there. His moulid is marked by a parade that starts from his shrine and leads through the city.
The Moulid of Abu al-Hagga al-Uqsuri, held in Luxor during the Islamic month of Shaaban, celebrates the life of 12th-century Sheikh Abu El-Haggag. Abu El-Haggag’s mosque is the oldest in Luxor, built atop a section of the Luxor Temple. Held two weeks before Ramadan, the moulid includes horse racing, the traditional music and stick dancing, and a parade of boat-shaped floats, which many say is related to an Ancient Egyptian ceremony where priests carried statues of the gods from Karnak to Luxor temples.
Kishk for the Soul
While there are many ways to make kishk, the Upper Egyptians have their very own style. The basic dish is yogurt or soured milk whisked in with a savory broth and thickened with a variety of products like rice or flour. Kishk Saeedi uses dried wheat balls as the thickener, and it remains one of the most popular traditional dishes of this region.
In Minya, people often eat it for breakfast, while a different variation is used for lunch. Some Saeedis sing special songs while they make their kishk. In El-Manshiya, a village near Minya, people count the years according to the kishk season which starts from late June until early August. For example, “It’s been four kishks since I got married.”
The Life of a Palm-rib Craftsman
It’s commonly known that trimming dead palm fronds helps the tree grow and stay healthy. In Nile-side villages, the trimmed fronds help many people make a living.
Abdul Moneim Abdulsalam learned the craft of making palm-rib products from his family in Minya and with his sons is now one of the of the most prominent producers for custom-made palm products in Al Qaffaseen area. As he describes it, the process is rather easy and uses simple tools.
“First the fronds are cut and left to dry. In winter, we leave it for one month, during summer we leave it for one week,” Abdulsalam explains. “After it dries, we start collecting the pieces we will use for the product and clean it.”
The family tailors the products to the customers’ needs and according to the designs brought to them. The most commonly requested products are crates, chairs, trays and small tables, and the sturdy palm rib structures can last at least 10 years.
One person in Abdulsalam’s workshop can build a crate in about 15 minutes, with at least two people working at any given day. They sell the products in Minya and to traders who use them in marketing other products to individuals in other cities.
This simple craft has not only provided Abdulsalam a sustainable income for himself but a future for his 10 sons and daughters, who have all learned the craft from watching their father. He admits the business is not very secure in that they have no insurance or pensions, but despite that, Abdulsalam wants to pass his knowledge to his grandchildren, who will continue his journey in preserving the Egyptian heritage.
An Epic Tradition
The epic poem of Al-Sirah Al-Hilalyya is an entertainment staple in many rural Egyptian villages, and the singer or storyteller will regale audiences for hours with the exploits of the tribe of Beni Hillal. It is more than an evening’s diversion, however: This poetic tradition is inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Egypt’s only contribution to the list. Divided into four episodes — Al Mawaleed, Ra’eddah, Taghriba and El Aytam — Al Sirah recounts the migration of the Beni Hillal and their pilgrimage to Mecca, with narrators using prose, poetry and song. While performances have been documented in the governorates of Giza, Kafr el Sheikh, Menoufia and Gharbeya, the most famous versions are those sung in Upper Egypt by epic singers who perform their versified narrative at night accompanied by rababa, and tar players. These epic-singers perform at wedding ceremonies and other occasions in the areas of Quna, Assuit and Sohag. With most of the narrators elderly men, the tradition is at risk of dying out. But there is a tiny glimmer of hope: Egypt’s Archive of Folk Life and Folk Traditions has interviewed 60 Sirah narrators and found three young men under the age of 35.
T he hallmark of any Saeedi celebration is Raqs Al-Tahteeb or the stick dance. This folk tradition dates back to the Pharaonic era, when soldiers used long papyrus sticks in their combat training. Nowadays, especially at weddings, tahteeb dancers gather in a circle and, aompanied by the tabla and nay, they stage choreographed mock battles attacking and parrying with their sticks. The dance varies around the region. For instance, in some areas, the dancers do battle on horseback, rather than on foot. In Qena, the men dance with palm fronds.