Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Visiting Shrines an Everlasting Tradition

Rasha Mehyar and Yomna Kamel Middle East Times staff

Early every Friday morning, Nadia, who lives in a poor district of Helwan, goes to visit the shrines of Sayyeda Zeinab and Sayyeda Aisha. There she performs the Friday prayers and asks these two women saints to intercede on her behalf.

Like Nadia, many lower income women go to visit the shrines of female Muslim figures scattered across the country. Despite the fact that the practice is frowned upon by strict religious orthodoxy, women continue to believe in this long standing tradition.

"My mother always used to bring me and my sisters to visit the shrines. In addition, visiting the shrine and praying in front of the tombs is very comforting to the soul," Nadia explained.

Despite the fact that many of these shrines are for women known to have lived during the Prophet's era, the tradition remains controversial among theologians.

Shrines dedicated to these women have been visited for centuries. However, different schools of thought in Islam have radically divergent attitudes towards the practice. On one hand, the conservative Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia prohibit visits to shrines altogether, while the Ismailis (a Shiite sect found in Egypt, east Africa, and India) encourage pilgrimages and tend to decorate their shrines with gold and marble.

Cairo's most popular shrines for women are those of Sayyeda Zeinab, Sayyeda Aisha and Sayyeda Nafisa near Coptic Cairo. These women were known to be very close to the Prophet and had a great deal of influence on the development of Islamic thought.

Sayyeda Aisha, for instance, was the Prophet's most beloved wife. She was well respected and asked for advice from the caliphs long after the Prophet's death.

Sayyeda Zeinab, on the other hand, was one of the Prophet's daughters and reportedly he took special care of her.

Because these women were so close to the Prophet and full of faith and purity, it is commonly believed that God would not turn down their requests. As a result, many come to their shrines and ask for these holy women's intercession on their behalf.

"I see women visiting the shrines, praying there, giving money and food to the poor. People think that by doing so, God will give them his blessing," said Soad Ibrahim, a physiotherapist who has lived in the neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeinab for more than 20 years.

According to Ibrahim, these people are illiterate and did not learn Islam properly.

"I see people leaving food, papers with their requests and even gold by the tomb. With this they hope that they have done a good deed, and that God will answer their requests."

Such a scornful attitude by more educated Egyptians towards this tradition is quite common. In fact, for centuries representatives of orthodox Islam, such as the Azhar sheikhs, have been trying to discourage these visits.

"Visiting shrines is not an Islamic ritual. There is nothing in the Holy Quran or the Sunna that encourages people to visit shrines to get blessing. The people buried there were human beings and we can be as good as they were," Soad Saleh, professor of Jurisprudence at Al Azhar University said.

Since the enshrined saints are good examples for Muslims to follow and they were special people, people's visits to their shrines should only be for the purpose of praying for them. However, leaving money (nozoor), jewelry or paper with their wishes is not acceptable at all in Islam, Saleh explained.

However, those who go to shrines do not think that what they are doing is wrong or against Islam. Saleh thinks it is the role of the religious people to make people aware of the fact that such practices are not Islamic.

"Since I was brought up on the tradition of going to shrines, I do not think it is wrong. Several times I requested some wishes from Al Sayyeda Aisha and my wishes came true, so I keep on coming back," Nadia said.

Despite the weight of official disapproval, these visits continue as women go to ask for help in their daily lives. Requests to the saints vary from asking for forgiveness to personal wishes.

"I know women who cannot have a baby, [so they] visit the shrines, leave gold bracelets and necklaces and ask Sayyeda Aisha to help them," said Madiha Al Safty, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo.

Safty also explains that the tradition of visiting shrines is not limited to just the poor and needy, but cuts through all economic classes.

"I have seen very rich people visit these shrines. Some of whom are belly dancers and actresses," she said.

One of the problematic details of these shrines is that no one is actually positive that these figures are really buried there. The head of Hussein is supposedly buried in the Sayyedna Hussein mosque in Cairo, but some say it is in Damascus or even Iraq.

While Nadia is visiting the shrines of these holy women in Cairo, elsewhere in the region there are many women performing the same rituals and visiting tombs supposedly of the same women, but in Syria and Iraq.

Musical street glory fades away

No area in Egypt has been witness to generations of musicians, singers, actors and belly-dancers like Muhammad Ali Street. From Egyptian music pioneers, Said Darwish, Saleh Abdel Hay, Abdel Ghany Al Said, and Al Sonbaty to the Shaabi (popular) music stars, Adawiya and recently Abdel Baset Hamouda, the street has been a home for hundreds of them.

Constructed by Muhammad Ali over a century ago to be the route from his royal palace near the citadel to downtown where Al Azbekiyya park was, Mohammed Ali Street became one of the most famous spots for music in the Arab world.

Over the years however the street has been slowly losing its allure for the rich and famous musicians who once frequented its coffee shops, shopped in its musical instrument stores and lived in the buildings overlooking the street.

"Muhammad Ali street was just few steps from Emad Al Din street's theaters and nightclubs. Belly dancers, singers, and musicians liked residing in a street close to their work places," says George Jamil Georgy, owner of a workshop for oud (lute) manufacturing.

Georgy says his father left Syria for Egypt in 1906 and established his shop on the street which even back then was well known across the Arab world as a center for musicians, singers and belly dancers.

Today a variety of other stores, namely nameplate and stamp manufacturers have made their mark on the street while the musical atmosphere of the street recedes in their wake. Georgy's shop was one of dozens of workshops that manufactured the oud and currently only a few remain.

"It is the oldest shop in Muhammad Ali that manufactures and sells ouds.

Said Darwish, Saleh Abdel Hay, and Al Hefnawy were among my father's clients," he says. In addition to these musical greats, the street was frequented by Umm Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab.

"The number of shops has been dwindling since the late 1960s with new Western musical instruments competing with the oud," says Georgy. "The guitar was first used in Umm Kulthoum's song, "Inta Omri" (You Are My Life), composed by Abdel Wahab in 1967, and then it started competing with the oud," explains Georgy.

It was more than the introduction of Western music which began to alter the street's atmosphere and importance in the music scene. Numerous economic and social changes had a deep impact on the street's character as well.

The atmosphere of the area, including being known as a place that produces famous belly dancers like Fifi Abdou, began to change dramatically in the 1980s.

"Everything was going well before the 1980s. Belly dancers were not embarrassed to sit in public waiting for clients because Muhammad Ali's residents knew each other and strangers were afraid to bother anyone for the way they dressed or behaved," says Said Khalil, owner of Kawkab Al Sharq Cafe.

Known as Sharia Al Fan (The Street of Art), Muhammad Ali had been a destination for most young singers, musicians and belly-dancers. They used to move to the street, sometimes along with their families, from different parts of Egypt.

According to Khalil, it is the way society looks at Muhammad Ali's artists that pushed most of them to leave the area or simply quit their professions.

Al haram Street's nightclubs in Giza have also hurt the area as it has drawn much of the talent away. No longer found are the young aspiring actress/dancers like Sabrine and Lucy who were raised in the neighborhood.

Young belly dancers and musicians have left for the most part to work in Al haram's nightclubs where they earn money and notoriety quickly.

"Negotiations over the cost of wedding parties where singers and dancers would perform were conducted and deals were made in the cafes. I used to open my cafe for 24 hours, seven days a week," says Khalil.

Despite the damage done to the street by social and economic transformations, the street is still remembered by some of those who made it big here.

"Said Darwish, among dozens of other musicians, left Alexandria and stayed in Muhammad Ali Street for some time. After becoming famous they moved to the new areas and changed their lifestyle, but never forgot the place which helped them to be successful," says Georgy.

Still, there are some stars of today who keep the atmosphere charged with their presence. They may have a different level of fame than those of the past and are considered a bit outside the mainstream, but the fact they chose this area instead of Al haram is testimony to its past greatness.

"Every day by 6pm, musicians, singers and belly dancers used to sit in Muhammad Ali's cafes waiting for people who wanted them to perform at their wedding parties," says Khalil.

Currently, there is a mutahed (party agent), who acts as a middle man between people who want to throw parties, and belly-dancers and singers.

The mutahed usually sits in one of Muhammad Ali's cafes and negotiate with clients. Very few are still using the old system. Among them is the popular singer Abdel Baset Hamouda who sits with his band in Kawkab Al Sharq cafe waiting for clients calling him for wedding parties.

Egyptian women living with osteoporosis

Yomna Kamel Special to the Middle East Times

Fatma, like a number of Egyptian women, leads a busy life. Her day starts with a cup of coffee or tea. As time flies by rather slowly at work, she often grabs another cup of java. And she doesn't exercise like she used to since she's now too busy with cooking, cleaning the house or helping her children with their studies.

Today, Fatma is 50 years old. She's had two bone fractures in the last three years. She didn't realize until now that what was slowly eating away at her bones is nothing else than osteoporosis. She had never heard about the disease before.

At least half of Egyptian women over the age of 45 will likely develop osteoporosis, a bone disease caused by lack of calcium and exercise. "The problem is not only in Egypt but all over the world," say medical specialists.

"The World Health Organization (WHO) believes health awareness plays a very important role in reducing the percentage of women with the disease," says Dr. Omar Hussein Omar, osteoporosis specialist and assistant professor of radiology diagnosis at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

He adds post-menopausal women are at higher risk. Family history, smoking, low calcium intake, excessive caffeine as well as chronic and renal disease are other risk factors for osteoporosis.

Doctors say there has been a noticeable increase in the number of women afflicted with osteoporosis due mainly to lack of health awareness in Egypt and in many Middle East countries. The peak bone mass which osteoporosis slowly destroys is built up between the ages of 15 to 25. But young women are often unaware of the importance of a proper diet and regular exercise, doctors say.

They add female adolescents don't often drink milk, preferring soft drinks. "A poor diet may cause calcium deficiency and in later years create weak bones," Omar says.

Surprisingly, the disease is more prevalent in Egyptian urban areas. "It is a health problem generated by bad social habits. Village women, unlike women living in cities and in urban areas, do not suffer as much from the disease since they do not drink coffee, do not smoke and they exercise by working in the fields," says Omar.

As a result, Omar is thinking of establishing an osteoporosis prevention association that will give information to young women on the prevention and treatment for osteoporosis.

Unfortunately, a fourth to half of women afflicted with osteoporosis over the age of 45 will die within the first year of diagnosis. Osteoporosis is preventable and treatable if bone loss is detected early. WHO recommendations suggest bone density screening, particularly for post-menopausal woman. This may indicate a need for drug therapy, which will reduce the risk of life-threatening hip and spine fractures, the specialists add.

Osteoporosis is more common in northern countries, partly because of colder weather.
  Violent crimes on the rise within the family

Yomna Kamel Middle East Times Staff
A man murders his brother in a fight over land they inherited from their father. A young college student stabs his mother to death because she refused to give him money to buy drugs. Dozens of cases of crimes like these that take place within the family are reported weekly which raises the question: why are these kinds of crimes on the rise?

About 65 murders or attempted murders took place in Giza over the past three months. Twelve of them were matricides. Imbaba, a poor area of Giza, has the highest rate of family crime, Rose Al Youssef magazine reported on August 28.

"The picture is not that dark, but it is alarming. There are many broken families and we should think about the causes," says Sawsan Osman, professor of community organization at the Higher School of Social Work, and board-director of the Egyptian Society for Family Support.

Osman says that the family is a "God given organization" where both men and women make sacrifices for the sake of their children. Egyptian families are exposed to external and internal factors weakening their structure and causing the staggering increase in family crimes.

In the 20th century, the family has changed due to concepts of 'absolute freedom' and individualism prevailing in many Western societies.

"When turning sixteen or seventeen, children leave their families and independently live away from their parents. This has negative implications for family relations. Currently, countries experiencing difficult social problems are working towards strengthening family relations and explaining its importance as the ideal social unit," she says.

According to Osman, Egyptian society has been exposed to a kind of 'cultural intrusion' where new socio-economic values have been absorbed. A wave of movies and programs, full of sex and violence, have reached Egyptian families at home with the spread of satellite television.

Sociologists think that the Egyptian family has been adversely affected by this wave. They trace the increase in crime rates to such cultural influences transmitted by the international media.

"The American television series 'The Bold and the Beautiful' is a clear example of the weird values that are brought into our societies by the media," she says. "Family principles are not there anymore; two brothers are fighting over a girl and a woman gets pregnant by her husband's father?" she asks noting that youth are affected by such values.

Regarding internal variables that have impacted on Egyptian society, she notes Egypt's experience with a failed socialist economic system and then a subsequent move to a free market economy. This situation helped to generate several economic problems that people suffer from which have a deep impact on familial relations.

Housing shortages and unemployment are among the problems that cause stress within families. Most young men cannot afford marriage expenses and a house to live in and their parents cannot help.

"Under such social and economic stress, a young person might be driven to kill their parents in order to take possession of their house. Some have kicked their fathers and mothers out of the house when the parents got old," she says.

She goes on to suggest that notions of individualism and self-interest, which became prevalent in Egypt due to outside cultural influences, are among the causes of these incidents. These values have become more important than traditional family ties, she explains.

The rate of family crime is higher poor areas like Imbaba. Difficult socio- economic conditions have been cited as factors contributing to the prevalence of crime in this area.

"Drug addiction, definitely, is the major cause of family crimes. The need for drugs might push a man to murder his father, mother or brother and steal their money," Osman explains.

In agreement with Osman, Hussein Abdel Qader, editor of the accidents and crime page in the semi-official Akhbar Al Youm, says family values are deteriorating and religious principles are not respected. Moral deviation therefore is the expected outcome.

"Many young people are into drugs and (obtaining money for drugs) is one of the major motives for committing crimes. Among the crimes reported recently by Akhbar Al Youm was a father murdering his drug addicted son who stole from his father to pay for his fixes. The father said he murdered his son because he was bringing troubles to the family," says Abdel Qader.

Damietta residents suffer from Nile pollution

Yomna Kamel Middle East Times Staff
Muhammad, a 32-year-old father of three children, used to work for a furniture workshop in Damietta. Last year, he suffered kidney problems and was later diagnosed with kidney failure. Since then, he has been unable to work because of his deteriorating health condition.

Hospitalized twice a week, his children quit school to work in the furniture shops of Damietta, which are renowned for their craftsmanship.

Lately though, Damietta has taken on the more dubious distinction of being known for high rates of disease attributed to water pollution.

A victim of such contamination, Muhammad is one of tens of cases Damietta Specialized Hospital receives on a rotating basis.

"More than half of patients treated at the hospital's Internal Medicine Unit suffer liver and kidney diseases and infections. It is all because of the polluted water they drink," said Dr. Abdel Rahman Al Refaai, head of Internal Medicine Unit at Damietta Specialized Hospital.

Chronic active hepatitis, bilharzial hepatic fibrosis, malignant liver tumors, infectious hepatitis and chronic renal failure are common diseases and infections among Damietta's residents. Water pollution and bilharzia are the main causes of these illnesses, explains Refaai.

Research on liver diseases carried out ten years ago by Dr. Shella Sharlouk showed that around 25 percent of Egyptians suffer from liver ailments.

According to Sayed Higazy in his article in the semi-official Al Akhbar newspaper, this is mostly due to water pollution. This pollution is worse at the mouths of rivers like in the Damietta and Daqaliya governorates, where it accumulates from various dumping sites.

River pollution includes municipal waste water, industrial 'black spots', and household rubbish that find their way directly to the 120 kilometer area (the river's length from Daqaliya to the sea) where the Nile ends its journey and meets the Mediterranean. Damietta's population of over 914,614 depends on the heavily polluted stretch of river as its only source of water.

"Not less than 50 percent of these governorates' population have developed kidney and liver problems. I am calling upon all local and international NGOs to intervene and give a helping hand. Blood test campaigns should be launched to accurately know the percentage of liver and kidney infections," Higazy says.

Despite the apparent need for help with this problem, it seems NGOs' efforts are focused more on the capital and surrounding areas.

"Our activities are carried out in Cairo, Giza and Qalyoubiya. Due to financial shortages we still cannot extend our projects to other governorates like Damietta and Daqaliya. We hope one day we willbe able to cover the whole country and contribute in solving their problems," says Ahmed Samy, an employee at a Cairo-based NGO.

Using filters or drinking bottled mineral water may seem like good alternatives but they are not feasible in this situation.

"I don't drink water directly from the tap and I advise people either to drink mineral water or use a water purifier. Unfortunately, most people cannot afford to buy water filters and purifiers. They are villagers and laborers working for furniture workshops," Refaai adds.

He thinks that fish farms in the Nile are a major source of water pollution in Damietta. They form a good environment for insects and develop a putrid smell. Additionally, Damietta lacks a developed sewage system and sewage water is drained into the Nile.

Fishing, considered one of Damietta's staple industries, seems to be badly affected by Nile pollution. Nile fish prices have plummeted and fishermen in turn have suffered financial, as well as health setbacks.

"We stopped eating Nile fish like catfish and bolti. Although bolti, locally known as the shabar, is our popular dish, we cannot eat it anymore. A kind of worm lives in shabar's gills and cooking does not kill them," Omayma Ahmed, a housewife, says.

The shabar's price went down from 15 pounds to three pounds per kilo.

"Only visitors and poor people eat the shabar these days simply because they do not know it is polluted," she adds.

While Cairo and major cities are the target of NGOs' activities and projects due to limited financial resources, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, which covers the entire country with its activities, is undertaking activities that may provide long-term relief.

The agency's efforts to decrease Nile pollution that include controlling industrial waste dumped into the river seem be showing some signs of success.

According to Amer Osama, New Industrial Cities Coordinator at the Unit of Environmental Surveillance, last year the agency stopped 34 industrial firms located along the Nile from dumping their industrial waste.

Such a procedure helped in decreasing pollution rates in the river and it comes within a framework of a series of measures to be taken by the agency directed towards solving the problem, according to Osama.

Monday, June 28, 2004

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