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Getting a prayer in edgewise

Cairo's zawiyas, simple rooms where the faithful gather, offer space in a city with little room for politics or rest. Many elude the state's grasp.

July 09, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Cairo — THE preacher's voice whirls like a storm down a sunlit alley.

It rumbles toward the corner, colliding with an echo from another preacher about 150 yards away, and that voice seeps into a third voice rising from a different corner and soon sermons from six preachers are entangled, like a chorus trying to soften the trills of a few showoffs. Streets become rivers of prostrate men, women in head scarves flutter at the edges; cars don't pass because they can't, and the neighborhood is at prayer, except for a few boys wrestling among their bowed fathers.

The holy cadences do not flow from mosques; on these dusty lanes there is nothing so grand. Instead, they come from small community prayer rooms, known as zawiyas, where loudspeakers are nailed to outside walls and many Muslims in this cramped city of 16 million gather to get their religion.

Served by traveling imams and sustained by sparse donations, zawiyas float amid car horns and grime, donkey carts and swelter. They peek from beneath underpasses, they dot the banks of the Nile; some are converted apartments, workshops and kiosks, and at least one is a former garbage collection center wedged between two busy streets where prayers spiral like whispers through the traffic.

The zawiya has endured since the days of the great caravans when merchants sought rest and God on journeys across the desert. Partly inspired by the mystic Sufi branch of Islam, zawiyas spread from hinterland to city, providing spiritual fulfillment and help for the poor. These days, with Egyptians disgruntled over a corrupt government and President Hosni Mubarak's aloofness and failure to improve their lives, zawiyas have become entrenched community outposts.

Some have been radicalized in strategic battles between Islamists and a state that since the mid-1990s has tried to bring them under its control. Today, the Ministry of Endowments oversees 75,111 mosques and nearly 23,000 zawiyas. There are no figures on independent zawiyas; the government claims they don't exist, but others say the state has failed to regulate a scattering of defiant voices on the fringes.

"In the beginning, the state cared only about regulating the big mosques," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and human rights activist. "It wanted to establish a very mainstream, noncritical Islam. But those with different ideas began to turn toward the zawiya.... It's become an urban phenomenon popular in the slums. The government will try to step in and nationalize it. But as soon as they succeed in regulating one zawiya, others will mushroom. It's almost like an informal guerrilla war."

Abdel Baset Saqr is not so much concerned with ideological war or the pretty, false words of politics. A fix-it man with 14 grandchildren -- there may be more, after a certain number it's difficult to be exact, he says -- Saqr manages a zawiya in his neighborhood in east Cairo. Boys sell watermelons and hot puffed bread in the streets, and around the corner, Saqr sits in a shop of broken radios studying the zawiya's ledger.

"I started a program to collect medications instead of money. People donate cough medicine, heart pills and antibiotics," he said, pointing to a page listing the names of worshipers who contributed. "One guy gave five aspirin. Another guy gave seven. When someone buys a box of medication, he'll use seven pills himself and donate the other five to me. People donated more money in the past. They used to give 10 pounds, now it's down to two pounds." One Egyptian pound is equivalent to 17 cents.

Saqr's zawiya was founded 12 years ago and named after local hero Hassan Reda Khafer, a military pilot killed in the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. Khafer's family made a "big donation" to open the zawiya, which draws more than 300 worshipers at Friday prayers. A traveling imam, vetted by the government, delivers the weekly sermon for a fee of about $6.

NOT much bigger than a living room -- in fact it once was a living room -- the zawiya is a dim crack in an alley. It holds about 30 men; the rest spill onto the dirt road where they unfurl prayer mats and squint toward the preacher, who seems a silhouette in a faraway window.

Just beyond the range of the loudspeaker at Saqr's zawiya, Abdel Qader Ibrahim has been sewing shirts for 50 years. He is the funds manager for a tin-roofed zawiya that sits in the shade of the Dome Gardens neighborhood. He collects about $25 each week in donations, barely enough to help the poor families, mostly widows and the sick, whom the zawiya has adopted.

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