Policing ambiguity: Muslim saints-day festivals and the moral geography of public space in Egypt

Schielke, S.

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Schielke, S. (2008). Policing ambiguity: Muslim saints-day festivals and the moral geography of public space in Egypt. American Ethnologist, 35(4), 539–552.

Egypt , festivals , habitus , Islam , public space , state , veneration of saints

In this article, I explore how the festive culture of mulids, Egyptian Muslim saints-day festivals, troubles notions of habitus, public space, and religious and civic discipline that have become hegemonic in Egypt in the past century and how state actors attempt to “civilize” mulids by subjecting them to a spectacular, representative order of spatial differentiation. I argue that habitus must be understood as a political category related to competing relationships of ideology and embodiment and that the conceptual and physical configuration of modern public space is intimately related to the bodily and moral discipline of its users.

Main finding
Through studying the Muslim saints-day festival and state attempts to reform (civilize) it, the author argues that conceptual and physical configurations of public space are connected to the moral and bodily disciplining of its users. The officers of the security apparatus, through their training, adopted a shared common sense regarding how the festival should relate to public order and how festival-goers should behave and how they can be policed during the festival. The effects of reform have been limited; however, the restructuring of the public space has brought some success to the reform movement such as from banning tents and stands from the main square and installing heavy police presence. Since these and other implementations, the festival’s atmosphere has changed and lost much of its energy, yet this is limited to the center of the main square; the marginal areas still maintain large crowds and ritualistic celebrations.

Description of method used in the article
Fieldwork included participant observation and interviews with neighbors and festival visitors and critics. The author focused on the demands for public order and views of what is deemed appropriate religious behavior held by members of the state apparatus.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Performance/Cultural Expression
Interviews Participant Observation
Physical types
Geographic locations