Remembrance as Protest: Multiple Meanings under the Dome of Sayyida Nafisa in Cairo

By Sara Nimis
Submitted to Session P4755 (Memory and identity: The significance of locality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt and Israel/Palestine, 2017 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Corpses, the uncanny material remains, evacuated of the life that made possible their existence, inspire in Egypt the same primordial awe and fear that is the raw material of ghost stories elsewhere. At the same time, the association of places of burial with power and bounty in Egypt have made them important centers of gravity for the performance of rituals of remembrance (dhikr), shrine visitation (ziy?ra) and communal celebration (mawlid). In Sufi cosmology, the shrine is imagined as a liminal space, where opposites meet: living and dead, sacred and profane, permissible and forbidden. The paper will consider different ways of remembering Sayyida Nafisa (d. 208/824), a great-granddaughter of Muhammad, through narratives about her life, through the formal and informal structural features of the spaces in and around her shrine in Cairo, Egypt, and through a variety of ritualized interactions with those spaces. It argues that Nafisa’s legacy, like the physical shrine, projects the illusion of being fixed in stone at her death. In fact, spaces and memories alike are made dynamic by living people who draw upon them for support and guidance in the negotiation of immediate personal and communal struggles.

The memory of Sayyida Nafisa is cherished by some as a model of conventional female piety by virtue of her modesty and meekness, and her performance of the role of dutiful wife and mother. At the same time, her status as a saint is premised on her active transgression of those norms, by mixing with men to teach them, and to perform other public roles. The paper will argue that a similar duality between convention and protest is inherent in the socio-political meaning of contemporary ritualized commemoration in the vicinity of the tomb. Karaitim and Mehrez have argued compellingly that the protests in Tahrir square in Cairo in 2011 presented a host of elements typical of Egyptian mawlid celebrations held yearly in the vicinity of saints’ tombs. This paper will extend their argument, with reference to Mitchell’s concept of “the rhetoric of occupatio” and Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque to analyze how “traditional” rituals and the vicinity of the shrine continue to function as a locus for communal protest. Indeed, the revolutionary potential of these moments and spaces can be understood as an unspoken backdrop for the long-standing controversy among Islamic scholars regarding the permissibility of shrines and their veneration.