Piety and Joy: Mawlid Festivals in Egypt

at the mawlid (1)
at the mawlid (2)
at the mawlid (3)
saints in Islam
piety and joy
women and men
for God
family time
a time out
official celebration
state control
In Egypt, thousands of Muslim "friends of God" are commemorated around the country at festivals known as mawlids. Under different names, similar celebrations exist almost everywhere in the Muslim world. These festivals combine pilgrimage, piety, communal celebrations, charity, trade and amusements in a way that some find beautiful and fascinating, while others find it wrong and troubling. This photo series, made in Egypt between 2002 and 2005, is an attempt to tell of mawlids both as an experience and as a subject of controversy: these festivals, like are not just a colourful piece exotic culture: they are an important issue in the way Muslims define religion and piety: can religion be fun? Why couldn't it? Is there only one defined way to express piety, or can it take many forms? These photos do not provide answers to these questions: on the contrary they show that different answers are possible and that none of them can claim to have the final word.

I made these photos as part of the fieldwork for my PhD thesis on mawlid festivals, the debates around them, and the way they are currently changing. The original purpose of the images was simply documentation, but in the course of my fieldwork, photographing mawlids and the people celebrating them developed into an independent project. To accurately document the festivities and their atmosphere, I chose to use colour film and no flash. Most of the images were shot with Fuji 800 and 1600 ISO films, which in my experience are the best choice available for high-speed analogue photography. Good optics provided, they outperform digital cameras in terms of speed, tonality and contrast handling under difficult lighting conditions. Daytime images were generally shot with Fujicolor 100 or Fuji NPS160 films. Most of the images were shot with Canon AE-1 and A-1 cameras and 28mm/2.8 and 50mm/1.4 FD lenses that suited well for fieldwork because of their reliability and quick handling. Later, when my emphasis shifted from documentation to more artistic ambitions I sometimes also used a Meopta Flexaret middle format camera. Of a material comprising approximately 1500 frames I have made two very different selections: one that was used as illustrations for my PhD thesis, and one for an exhibition with the title "Vroomheid en Plezier" (Piety and Joy) at ZIM, Rotterdam, 29 April-13 May 2005. This series is a slightly expanded (two images have been added) version of the exhibition.

Egypt MMII-MMV (c) Samuli Schielke.
Return to the photography main page / See my academic work on mawlids