Headstrong in belief

Prayer in CairoThe New York Times‘ Michael Slackman had a great idea for a story: the increase in public displays of piety among Egyptian Muslims. For women that means covering their heads and for men it means having a zebibah:

The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.

Again, great idea for a story. Slackman writes that as Egypt has moved from a Muslim country with secular style to a full embrace of Islam, the prayer “bumps” have become all the rage. He speaks with hairstylists, security guards and other men on the street about how they’re developed:

Observant Muslims pray five times a day. Each prayer involves kneeling and touching one’s forehead and nose to the ground. All five prayers require placing one’s head on the ground for a total of 34 times, though many people add prayers and with them, more chances to press their heads to the ground. Some people say the bump is the inevitable result of so many prayers — and that is often the point: The person with the mark is broadcasting his observance, his adherence to one of the five pillars of Islam.

But the zebibah is primarily a phenomenon of Egypt. Muslim men pray throughout the Arab world. Indeed, Egyptian women pray, but few of them end up with a prayer bump. So why do so many Egyptian men press so hard when they pray?

prayerSymbols of piety are fairly commonplace in the Arab world, Slackman writes. Everything from long beards to robes worn in the same manner as the prophet Muhammad. But the zebibah is a home grown symbol and one encouraged through peer pressure. The ending to the story had the best vignette:

There are many rumors about men who use irritants, like sandpaper, to darken the callus. There may be no truth to the rumors, but the rumors themselves indicate how fashionable the mark has become.

Not everyone has a zebibah. Plenty of Egyptians still regard their faith as a personal matter. But the pressure is growing, as religion becomes the focus of individual identity, and the most easily accessible source of pride and dignity for all social and economic classes.

“You pray, but it doesn’t come out,” said Muhammad Hojri, 23, as he gently teased his brother, Mahmoud, 21, recently while they worked in a family kebab restaurant. Muhammad has a mark. Mahmoud does not, and did not appreciate his brother’s ribbing.

“I pray for God, not for this thing on my forehead,” Mahmoud shot back.

For such a brief report from the streets of Cairo, this story about zebibahs managed to show quite a bit of diversity about religion and public life.

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  • Christopher W. Chase

    That’s quite an interesting story–I appreciated the analogy with the dark circles under yuppie eyes in the 1980′s and the contextualization that some other symbols of intense devotion (like the beard) can actually be counterproductive. I am reminded to some degree of accoutrements worn in the U.S. that function as public displays of piety, such as the “Mark of Ashes” on Ash Wednesday, or the subtle display of the fringes of LDS undergarments that sometimes takes place among knowing crowds, or the blue star on the brow or Goddess Charge necklaces worn by some Wiccans. For some, even the eponymous WWJD bracelets might serve as markers of public piety. Thanks for bringing this story to the forefront for comment and reflection.

  • Charles Curtis

    I was at the American University in Cairo in 2004-05, doing grad work in Arabic Studies.

    Cairo is one crazy town, Egypt crammed & magnified, 20 million or so in 20 square miles or thereabouts. The streets are vibrant, noxious chaos, untrammeled humanity. Sensory deprivation mired in overload, dust layered on grime, embedding & overlain with two thousand years of history and the weight of millions, generations of fellahin rushing in on a beleaguered cosmopolitan core.. It’s fascinating and alienating, for a western kid like myself.

    Very few women or girls go about these days without hijab, if you see one, she’s likely either a Christian, or a foreigner, or a daughter of the cosmopolitan elite (and very likely a student at AUC or such, and almost always in the center city, Zamalek or thereabouts.) Still, couples are everywhere, and the streets are charged. Hijab aside, you often see people behaving as if they were in Capua, not Cairo. Flirting, even petting, in full Meditteranean fashion.

    Evidentially the near universal embrace of the hijab is a recent thing, that spontaneously and (according to more than one Egyptian I discussed this with) inexplicably four or five years ago. After 9/11, about the time the Iraq war began.

    One of the many things that has given me profound pause, when considering how we have behaved in the Middle East the last five going on fifty years.

  • http://piousfabrications.blogspot.com David

    Wow. By no means do I intend to pass judgment on Muslims as a whole, but the Matthew 6:5 (“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”) came to my mind often when I was in Iraq. It seems to be a competition among many Muslims as to who can appear more pious in public. We provided a prayer room for the Muslims who worked on the base, for instance, but most of them preferred to do their prayers in the area directly outside the entrance to the main palace. I asked one of my interpreters why they did this one day, and she told me in private that it was so others could see them praying and know they are good Muslims, partially for their own protection (the terrorists hate apostates more than they do infidels) and partially for their own recognition.

  • Charles Mathewes

    For more on this interesting matter, take a look at Saba Mahmood’s excellent book, THE POLITICS OF PIETY. A really fascinating look at how religion in public and private intersect among conservative Muslim women in Cairo.