Just opposite the well-frequented Mosque of Sayeda Zeinab in central Cairo, Essam Al-Serrs is having a high-season business moment.
It is the time of the year when Egyptians — Muslims as well as Christians — mark the moulid, the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, by buying goods including sweets, dolls, or stuffed toys in the shape of horses.
Both during the holy month of Ramadan and for the moulid, Al-Serrs puts up a pavilion before his confectionary store to sell the sweets and ornaments for each holiday.
Over 40 years in the business, he has seen a change in the popular lanterns made in Ramadan from those made of steel and glass into those made of plastic and imported from China.
He has also seen the dolls and horses of the moulid transformed from being made in sugar moulds to being made-in-China plastic dolls.
“The artisans who knew how to make the sugar dolls are declining in number. There are still some people who prefer the traditional sugar dolls, like there are still some people who prefer the traditional lanterns for Ramadan, but the quality is declining as the old artisans are going out of business,” he said.
But “people still buy from the range of dolls we make available to keep up the tradition,” he said, adding that “in view of the economic constraints that many people are seeing, unlike a sugar doll that cannot be kept from year to year, a plastic doll is something that one can give to a little girl and then keep for the following year.”
Escorting her seven-year-old daughter Janna to the market earlier this week, Cairo mother Marwa decided to get her a sugar doll. “I am picking out a small one for LE25. This is her first doll, and I want her to have something like the doll I used to have when I was young,” she said.
Cairo mother Amal, meanwhile, was picking out a big plastic doll for the fiancée of Tarek, her son, and a small plastic doll for Menna, her granddaughter.
“It is the tradition to give a doll and a box of sweets to the fiancée. I haven’t got Menna a new moulid doll for the past three years, but this year I thought I’d get her one as I am buying something for my son’s fiancée,” she said, pointing out that “finances are a lot more constrained now than they were a few years back, but it is a very dear day for us and one on which we celebrate the prophet’s birth.”
Al-Serrs, her favourite store, she said, was providing “really special prices this year”, not just to encourage people to buy, but also “for the love of the prophet, who is being shamelessly mocked in some Western countries.”
Al-Serrs said he was “very hurt” to learn of the account of the magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet in France. While he was not fully aware of all the details of the story, for him it was simply inexcusable that “our prophet should be insulted.”
Al-Serrs planned to make the sweets and dolls available at affordable prices for a wide range of middle-class Cairo residents who come to Sayeda Zeinab to buy. He was making small boxes at around LE20 “to get people to buy a small quantity of sweets, if only to keep up the tradition.”
“Before, most people would buy at least 3kg to consume over a month or so. Now most people buy under 1kg,” Al-Serrs said.
Syrian innovations in sweet-making had helped his business to sell a wide variety at affordable prices.
“The Syrian presence in Egypt has revolutionised the making of moulid sweets. Instead of strictly observing the traditional recipes that required a considerable use of nuts and butter, the Syrians who have been making sweets here in Egypt have provided a really large variety that are really innovative and very nice and with fantastic mixes that are based on using more sugar than nuts,” he said.
“They might not be particularly healthy, but they are making things more affordable, and inevitably people now are buying much less than before, which means they consume much less too,” he added.
According to Al-Serrs, the range of inexpensive varieties is also helping “some people who still wish to give gifts to buy a few boxes to give to poorer relatives and neighbours so that everyone can keep up the tradition.”
Nahla Imam, a professor of folk traditions at the Academy of Art in Cairo, said that “keeping up traditions is something that often depends on the middle classes.
“People with tougher economic challenges are unlikely to maintain the tradition of buying sweets to celebrate the moulid, which has been established since the rule of the Fatimids in Egypt” in the Middle Ages, she said.
“Those at the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum are celebrating the traditional holidays in a way tainted by the Western holiday calendar,” she added.
Today, “children and men and women in their 20s in certain socio-economic segments are probably more interested in celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving, which are strictly American, than in celebrating the moulid.
“Without the middle classes being committed to the tradition and capable of sustaining it, a lot could get lost,” Imam argued, adding that holidays that are celebrated with traditional dishes are more likely to survive than those without particularly culinary associations.
This makes the beginning of the Islamic Hijri year less meaningful for some, because it has no particular dish to mark the occasion, she said.
The longest-observed traditional holiday in Egypt is Sham Al-Nessim, associated with a traditional brunch of salted fish and green salad. Some new grocery businesses have been offering traditional salted fish in fancy boxes using more fashionable recipes, allowing this tradition to pick up higher-end consumers who might otherwise have abandoned it, she said.
Imam said that some traditions could nevertheless either fall out of fashion or lose part of their authenticity.
“I don’t think we see home-made Eid kahk [biscuits] much outside the middle classes any more, and with time fewer families will make kahk for the Eid,” she noted. Some kitchenware specifically made for baking the biscuits could be abandoned.
“I think we need to observe the changes that are taking place, and from an anthropologist point of view we need to start documenting our heritage before it is too late to do so,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly