While scientists are often good people working for the cause of humanity, they can at other times be working as a disservice to their cause. One of their frequent targets is the “intangible heritage” area, where they take aim for old traditions.
One of such areas is that of the beautiful folkloric "Arouset El-Moulid,” the doll that has come to embody the celebration of the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday. The commemoration has changed over the years though, with many of its dimensions being cheapened or eradicated as a result of attacks from scientists and religious fanatics alike.
The story behind the occasion of ‘Arouset El-Moulid is believed to have begun during the Fatimid period. It is said that in observance of the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday, the sultan would march through the streets on his horse with one of his wives, who was wearing a white dress and an ornately decorated crown.
Everyone admired the two, with sweet shops creating miniature brides and knights to emulate the couple. Over time however, and as a result of much controversy and criticism, the tradition began to change; ingredients used to create the brides were deemed unhealthy, the knights nearly disappeared and much of production was outsourced outside of Egypt as handmade mould’s were replaced by plastic replicas.
As the Prophet’s birth once again approached this year, I decided to visit an alley known as “Bab El-Bahr,” where the sweets are traditionally manufactured. As I walked in, I felt a kind of heartbreak as I noted the plastic, Chinese-made dolls which had replaced our Egyptian-made brides and the empty space that had replaced the knights.
I asked merchants if there was still any sign of the traditional brides and was led to a place known as “the alley between the alleys,” where Egyptian carving of the legendary couple survives at a shop owned by a man named “Farag El-Araby.”
His son Ashraf corrected me, stating that the employees are the sons of the late El-Hag Farag. He assured me that no one remains within the realm of this traditional craft besides him and his brother Aly, as they are the only ones who decorate their dolls with special paper and silver.
It all depends on the doll’s mould, he says, which is made exclusively in the northern city of Tanta. He believes we inherited this mould from our ancestors, who inherited it from their ancestors. When you watch him work, you get the sense that much of what he is doing is strange and useless, but the finished product unveils great beauty.
The first step is to make a ferment from sugar, which is then added to sugar and water and boiled for few minutes until it thickens, this allows the bride or knight to be able to stand.
The next step is to unfasten it from the mould, a very critical step. The “Fakaak” also has to hold the product in a very specific way, to prevent it from breaking.
After this, the “Bastelagy” takes the mould to be prepared for decoration. If the mould is a bride, three workers collaborate to dress and decorate her, some of the decorations are glued using sugar mixed with gelatin. Both the bride and the knight are edible, with the silver paper doubling as foil for cooking purposes.
Ashraf made a case for the doll’s healthy qualities, stating that the colours used to paint the features are food colouring purchased from food shops and that all of their products are examined by health inspectors. He dedicated his words to the scientists who appear on television every year to attack the dolls as hazardous to health without coming to see for themselves.
Ashraf El-Araby added that he and his brother own a big sweets factory and they produce different kinds of sweets all year, yet they make a point to produce these specific sweets in commemoration of the Prophet’s birth, seeing themselves the last guardians of the tradition. Workers at El-Araby’s shop all hold a sincere interest in their work, saying they left other jobs to take part in keeping the tradition alive.
Ashraf said that they train workers for this specific occasion, and added that although he wants his children to become doctors and engineers, he hopes to work with them to keep things up.
Ashraf surprised me when he told me that this was a great year for business thanks to elections, as parliamentary candidates distribute the sweets nationwide.
He also told me a story about a university professor who came to the office five days after the Prophet’s birthday asking for the traditional dolls. Ashraf’s shop was out and the professor said his mother was no longer speaking to him since he bought her the cheap plastic version. Ashraf worked with him to call all of his clients until he found one remaining doll in Helwan, the professor gladly undertook the hour-long drive to go get it.
I had the opportunity to get a deepened sense for Ashraf’s diverse team, each of member of which is personally dedicated to the overall cause of preserving tradition.
Sabra works in Ashraf’s shop gluing the foil to the bride’s chest, something she learned by observation. To her, the new plastic dolls are fake, and her shop’s dolls represent God’s ability to replicate the human body’s inimitable features.
Mohamed Sayed Ahmed is an interior technician who comes every year from Fayoum to decorate the brides while Hassan the Sabaab is a 60 year-old plumber who also takes annual leave from work to take part in the decoration process.
When I asked him if he does it for the opportunity to make more money he smiled, saying that nothing makes more or less, it is all God’s will. Ramy the Fakaak told me that he started work at the shop when he was eight, learning his trade from an elderly man named Shabaan El-Abyad. He leaves his job in Alexandria every year to return to the shop to continue his work, he also trains a young man in carrying the empty moulds.
Sabry El-Mezaawaty gives the bride a beautiful look. He told me that in the old days, brides were made of dates (perhaps debatable by historians), and also confirmed that eating the bride is not hazardous to one’s health, explaining that if it breaks during decoration, he eats it.