PROPHET MUHAMMAD PBUH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION IN EGYPT
Saturday December 10th was the start of the celebration of the last Prophet’s birthday. It is celebrated with sweets, time with family, prayer, reading Qu’ran, and sharing of songs (nasheeds), poems and stories about the nativity and life of Muhammad (PBUH, Peace Be Upon Him). As you can tell it is more about honoring his life and memory than a party or gift giving (unlike Eid).
If you are like many of my American Muslim friends you might not have heard of this celebration but most Sunni (depending on your country of origin), Sufi, and Shia Muslims honor Muhammad. The celebration is thought to date back more than 500 years but art of the birth is dated older so many historians think it was celebrated in more rural areas prior to the popular events in Iran, Asia, and Egypt. Here in Egypt, and much of the the world, we celebrate from sunset of the 11th day of the Islamic month Raabi Al Awaal (which is determined by the lunar calendar) through the 12th. In Iran and neighboring regions it is traditionally celebrated on the 17th- 18th day of Raabi Al Awaal. Due to the date confusion and the love, we as Muslim’s feel for Muhammad PBUH, the celebration can turn into a seasonal event much like that of Christmas.
People collect stories, songs, and poems and sing to share in Sufi circles or with family. This is done during the month leading up to the event through the few days following. Additionally buying sweets starts early in the month and the leftovers are shared well after the event. The most popular sweet in my current home country is that of the Arouset El-Moulid, which means sugar Bride or Doll for the prophet’s birthday.
THE SUGAR DOLL TALE
Many traditions in Egypt have a convoluted past and the sugar doll is no exception. It is part of the country’s intangible heritage that struggles to survive as plastic dolls from China replace the sugar ones, sugar shortages prevent people from affording the sweets, and conservative Muslims pushing to do away with the holiday all together. It’s becomes more important than ever to learn about this tradition and try to preserve it.
An version of the folklore is that soldiers returning from war were promised marriages to beautiful women as a reward from there bravery and the candy dolls made each year honor the soldiers and this concept. If you like this story then believe it, but there is no historical evidence to support it.
The main origin story that is believed is that the Shia Sultan of the Fatimid Era of Egypt, El Hakim Ba’amr Ellah started having birthday parades and gatherings among his family, friends, and elites in the region. The ruler was a bit of an eccentric who had a history of outlawing silly things, throwing lavish parties, and being paranoid. When he arrived at the head of the parade in what is now known as Islamic or Old Cairo the streets were packed and people were excited to see the strange man. They weren’t disappointed. He was a shorter man dressed up as a solider astride a horse. He was quite pompous and didn’t disappoint but he was out shined by one of his wives.
She came walking along his side with piles of makeup far more than a modest women would wear on a holy day. She also was in her traditional (what we think of Persian style) gown but in loud colors that clashed with each other. On her head as a crown of diamonds. She was so overly made up it was the talk of Cairo, many say that this is when the candy makers decided to crave molds to make dolls to sell the following year…here’s another version:
The crazy ruling class were either oblivious or liked the attention since it enhance their status some versions of the folklore say that the following year she did it again but this time with large fans on her dress sticking up like a peacock and a crown head, jasmine, and layers of thick braids. It is said that the second years is what inspired locals to mark the occasion with the candy dolls.
Confectioners took the joke (or memorial of the occasion depending on your view of the folklore) to the next level by making dolls of the Sultan and his wife in various sizes. They would paint on faces and add colors but the wrapper on the wife was one of elaborate paper folds, colors, and shiny materials.
Over the last 700 years the legend has changed or grown but that is the general story. Additionally there is the folklore about the molds. The wooden for the candy making are similar to European molds for cookies, speculaas, and ginger bread.
In fact, molds for this nature have been used for millennia in Egypt; it is even thought that the molds that were originally used were left over from an ivory and/or idol mold because wooden molds in Egypt were frequently used for those purposes. Historians and frankly I do not think this is possible since most of the mold discovered were in upper Egypt centuries after the sugar doll originated in Cairo, but the idea of using an old candy mold and simply reshaping it is a possibility.
The shape of a man on a horse and an overdress women are very common. Not only are these typical European sweet shapes or the era and beyond, but they hearken back to the Pharaonic and Coptic Egyptian idols, toys, and sculptures.
At the Candy SHop
The dolls and sultans on horses are simply a sugar candy similar to Maple Leaf candies but on a larger scale. These candy creations are made rather than fill the mold the roll the sugary solution around the mold to coat it in a 5 cm thick layer with roughly solid arms and a head (or solid horse head and tail if you purchased a Sultan).
Men still laugh at over made up girls by calling them Arouset El-Moulid. The candies are still made this way. The Candy shops still prepare for Moulid season like chocolatiers prepare Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in the USA. Yes, in Egypt, making the sugar dolls is a candy making season. The shops make sweets and the sultan on the horse too, but the wrappers or clothing of the days is a laborious task. One doll can take a whole day to make clothing for and dress (as I found out, see below) and each shop makes hundreds.
That’s right by 1920 all the candy shops in Egypt made hundreds of these dolls each year. There was an fairytale movie in 1955 about the “Mawlid Bride” starring Tahia Carioca.
She works in her family’s candy factory where the dolls come to life at night. This added to the folklore of the dolls.
They were cheap and affordable so they become something everyone wanted for the holiday. Even the poorest of Egyptians recall eating broken or leftover sugar dolls during and after the celebration. By the mid-1990s many candy shops closed and they’re were 5 major shops in Cairo left producing them. School children performing the Hawlet Arouset dance was a common sight on tv specials in Egypt.
Since the 2011 revolution the number of shops that make the dolls in Cairo has dwindled to three, with one only makes a small amount the week prior to the celebration. With the sugar shortages, price hikes, and import taxes candy makers struggle to find what they need to make the dolls.
Admiration for the Art
Local folklore and love for the celebration pepper the internet as artists post there new arouset al moulid inspired creations.
Here’s a sweet poem about the dolls by blogger Hussam Elsherif
Come on, come all it’s Moulid Night
Prayers, swings, and festive light
Here’s a doll an there’s a knight
Sugar crunch and sweet delight
are children dreams of this night
There are crochetted, quilled, and beautiful drawn versions all over the internet fondly recalling these dolls. This one is by ‘Hind of Alexandria’ .
Making a Doll
I was so thrilled when my Muhammad, my husband, found a store selling them by a bus stop in Sayyidah Zaynab. Due to the cost of the candy the decorations were poorly done with starburst and peanut candy wrappers, and layers of cellophane and newspaper sewn together to make a skirt.
These dressings are held on with wires, staples, tape, pins, glue, and are often sewn together.
My Muhammad suggested I use my crafting skills to remake her with beautiful clothing from colored papers and various craft supplies we have on hand. The next day I took the challenge. I did not realize how complex this task would be just undressing her carefully took an hour!
When I remade it I wanted to not glue or tape anything to the doll because I have decided to try to preserve her as long as possible (maybe with a special glue?).
Once she was naked (oh-la-laa). I laid her down on a towel and redrew her face since the original was not lined up well with the indents from the mold and they were faint.
Then I used bright yellow potato sack netting to be a crinoline. Next I glued A4 medium weight paper in to stripes the short way, and folded them and tied them on with a string. I decided to add green under layer in the center and reuse the shiny side of the candy wrappers to decorate the skirts.
I ended up trimming the skirt and used the remaining piece in a criss-cross fashion to make a bodice. After this I took onion and garlic bag netting to make a shawl that I woven through her arms and tied around her back. As you can see below, I also made a crown from the wrappers.
I took a break for lunch at this point and decided to tackle the fans next. Originally my doll came with five ugly starburst wrapper flowers. I had a heavier (not quite card-stock) weight paper in bright colors I glued into stripes and accordion folded to make into small fans. which I decorate with candy wrappers. After each one was glued I refolded it and tied it in elastics to help set the glue. Then I sewed them into dimensional fans by using a heavy duty needle (I used an upholstery needle). I went about 5cm up from the center on to each fold. When I finished I used a paper weight to hold the fan in place as I tied it off.
I hated the exposed wires to support the fans so I recovered the main wire, the wooden stick it attaches to and the small wires that attach the stick to the doll. This required patients, tape, and nearly two hours of twisting gold foil and opaque cellophane. I began to hate the project at this point, but with the love of the tradition I persevered.
I used more of the thin paper and made giant fans using the same gluing and folding technique as I did with the small fans. I decorated them with glitter glue, loose glitter, foil, and scraps of cellophane.
I used the remaining foil and candy wrappers to make flowers for the center of her fans. I used the threaded the string from the little fan through the center of the big fan. Finally I took both sets of string from the fans to tie them to the wire which I had twisted onto the gold foil cover wooden pole. I used the smaller pieces of wire to attach the doll to the poll. I covered those wired with a an additional layer of cellophane to act as a necklace and a belt.
She was huge and heavy so I began to worry she would fall over and break so I filled up her hollow insides with the old skirt from the shop and put her on a plate to give her a sturdy base.
It was 9pm. I spent 12 hours redecorating a doll. It was fun but way too time consuming. I have a novel to finish! If I was going to be distracted crafting for a Egyptian tradition relating to the celebration of Mawlid seems like a good reason!
We took this picture on our way out to get some Mawlid sweets…look who’s on the box!