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The Last Day of the Mulid

This article was edited and translated from the original Arabic by Samia Serageldin.


Being from Tanta[1] myself, I have vivid recollections of the Mulid Baddawi festival. A week of mounting excitement and enthusiasm leads up to the big night. The peasants from the villages surrounding Tanta wait impatiently for that day, and save up to spend their money during that week. A noted Egyptian sociologist observed that most of Egypt’s “saint days” have no relation to the date of the saint’s birthday, but are timed to coincide with the sale of the harvest when the peasant has money in his pocket. It’s an economic calculation, obviously, where religion plays no role; the big shopkeepers of Tanta depend on these festivals for nearly a year’s worthy of income.

The peasant goes to the festival to spend the night of his dreams, as if he were going to Disneyland. Winning a prize . . . gobbling up a plateful of colorful, unidentifiable food . . . sucking sugar cane . . . watching belly dancing . . . eating what he believes to be fried fish but is really watermelon rind expertly treated to fool everyone . . . having his son circumcised . . . eating boiled chick peas . . . all of that in an ambient feeling of a blessed occasion. There are the familiar green tents, and the recital by the popular sheikh, and unknown people who seem to have nothing to do but are called “devotees.” This is a parallel religion with its rituals and devotions, so don’t be surprised. In the south of Egypt there is a shrine for a saint whose followers believe that circling his shrine is the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca and dispenses with that requirement!

Then the apogee is reached on Friday when the “caliph’s parade” passes, and the drums beat to that particular rhythm while the women ululate. I used to live at the time in a house overlooking the Main Street where the parade passed, and one of my childhood rituals was to stand at the window to throw sweets down on the parade, and I attached great religious importance to this ritual. It took me a long time to learn that this was just silliness that had nothing to do with religion, and it was my first disillusionment.

My father and I used to pray the Friday prayers then go to the festival, and after that we used to hurry home, as by a strange coincidence it always rained after the parade passed. No miracle there, I think it had to do with the vast quantity of dust that rose to heaven. And as we walked past the Baddawi Square, the crowds would be thinning and the tents would begin to be dismantled, that sad moment so familiar to every native of Tanta: the town empties out, dust fills the air, rain pelts down, and night falls dark and silent. And the prospect of back to school next morning!

Except that one such Mulid evening, I was surprised to see a tent that had not yet been dismantled. There was a podium, with a man in a shiny faux snakeskin jacket, holding a microphone, standing next to a giant, coarse poster of a magician, a headless girl and a roaring lion. The man was shouting: “One piastre! Come see the world class circus of the Lip Man!” At that time a piastre was a huge sum that required thinking before spending; it went into your pocket with difficulty and was taken out of it with difficulty.

“The girl of fire and electricity! Put a light bulb on her leg it lights up, put it on her chest it lights up!”

Behind him a girl appeared, bushy-haired and ugly as the devil, trying to move seductively like a showgirl.

“Come see Charlie Chaplin!” A man in dirty clothes, looking like a traffic policeman with a thin mustache, appeared.

“Come see the lion and the tiger!” “See everything for a pound!”

My father’s reaction was to grab my hand to get away, but I planted my feet in the ground. I knew I would die if I didn’t see that show—drag me away and you might as well dig my grave.

My poor father looked in his pocket for two piasters and bought two tickets to my world of dreams. My father was the director of a company, an elegant, dignified man who went nowhere without a three-piece suit and a tie. The first surprise on entering the tent was that the spectators were of the sort that came in pajamas[2] and sat on a ramshackle wooden bench. The second surprise was that there were fleas. The third surprise was that the spectators were mostly seven year old boys smoking cigarettes and trading insults.

My poor father buried his head in a newspaper hoping it would be over quickly, like a man standing on the gallows waiting for the guillotine to come down. Terrible moments but they would soon be over, ladies and gentlemen.

There appeared on stage the man called the Lip Man and said with a flourish: “We now present the Libyan magician!” From somewhere rose the sound of a beat up accordion and a drum of the kind placed between the knees of the drummer. The Libyan Magician turned out to be none other than the Lip Man himself, still wearing his same clothes, but speaking in what he thought was a Libyan accent. He started on tricks of the sort where he swallows five balls and six come out of his mouth. What was even worse was that he asked a boy from the audience to come up and be his assistant and gave him to swallow the same balls that had been in his own mouth! I thanked God that he had not chosen me for that honor.

There followed the usual magic tricks with interlocking chains, hot water poured on people, etc., it was a very full show. Then the Lip Man dropped his fake Libyan accent and announced, in his own Egyptian accent, the part of the program where the girl puts the light bulb on her chest and it lights up, then she puts it on her thigh, and so on.

I glanced at my father, he was tomato-red and too embarrassed to raise his head for a second.

The next performance was by one of those wedding singers with an ambulance siren in her throat, but the audience seemed appreciative, apparently she was quite the diva. Then Charlie Chaplin came onstage and did a complicated number involving swallowing lighted cigarettes and bringing them out again. But the highlight of the show was the headless Indian princess whose severed head, stuck in a vase, conversed with the Lip Man. I’d read about this trick, and that you have to throw a crumpled piece of paper beside the table to expose the fact that there was a mirror there behind which the girl hid. I thought of trying that but the look on the Lip Man’s face discouraged such experimentation.

Suddenly the man announced the end of the show. Nobody asked about the lion and the tiger that had been promised, everyone rushed out. I saw the circus hawker shouting that he didn’t want to see any of the same faces at the next show, and Charlie Chaplin, carrying his stick, went down the line roughly dispersing the audience. “Get going, boy! You too, son of a . . .”

At the door, a crowd of fresh faces stood hopefully while the Lip Man stood on the podium as nice as could be, urging them in. “Just one piaster! The international circus! The Lip Man’s Circus!”

A boy wearing pajamas that his mother had marked with his name and address asked my father: “Was it a good show, Sir?”

My father nodded his head gravely and hurried off with me in tow.

That was in 1972. No, I’m not the biblical Methuselah, just a man pushing fifty. Forty years have gone by in a flash. I’ve seen world-famous circuses since then, but none can compare in my memory to the sheer excitement of the Mulid circus.


[1] Tanta, in the north of Egypt, is the town where the Mulid Baddawi, a festival in honor of the saint, is held. Some two million people attend the festival every year.

[2] In the seventies, poor rural children wore pajamas as day wear since it was the cheapest clothing available.