When you live in Egypt, you hear the words el mouled a lot. Literally, the term means birthday and is most commonly used to indicate the birthdays of Sufi saints and prophets. But outside this meaning, the words are also used in a couple of proverbs; for instance, mouled we sahbo ghayeb means “a birthday whose owner is missing” and is used to indicate something of a chaotic nature.
However, once a year, el mouled indicates the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which falls on the 12th day of the third month of the Islamic calendar: Rabi’i Al-Awal. This year, the celebration fell on 12 January 2014.
There are many traditions that surround the celebration of the day; it is believed that the Prophet used to fast on his birthday and that the first person to celebrate it was Omar Al-Mala’a, the Sheik of Mosul, located in modern-day Iraq. Al-Mala’a celebrated the Prophet’s birthday by organising an annual poetry reading which was attended by princes from all over the Arab world. It is reported that during the 8th century, the prophet’s home was transformed into a place for prayer in honour of his birthday.
Not all Muslims celebrate the day though, as the Wahhabi from the Sunni sect do not believe in the validity of the feast as they only observe the feasts set by Quran.
In Egypt the celebrations take on a more gastronomic quality. The feast is celebrated by purchasing special Eastern desserts known as halawet el mouled that can be bought in the many stalls that are erected on the days leading up to the celebration. The desserts are made with enormous amounts of sugar, and are known to be extremely sticky. They are definitely not for those who are watching their figure because, besides its sweetness, the desserts also contain a large assortment of nuts.
The most famous among the special sweets is malban, which is similar to Turkish delight. It is made of starch, sugar and water, and is usually stuffed with walnuts and dusted with powdered sugar. Other sweets include small squares of roasted nuts mixed with simple syrup. After this the nuts are spread on trays and left to dry, and once dried they are cut into the proper size. The squares are usually named after the type of nuts they are made off; peanut squares are fouleya, the pistachio squares are fosdo’eya, etc. The use of shredded coconut is also common in these special sweets.
Another common sight on the streets are dolls known as ‘arouset el mouled that are given as gifts to children. As with the desserts, this tradition started during the Fatimid era; it is believed that the dolls were originally made of sugar and food dye. These days the dolls are made of plastic and vary in size: they wear poufy dresses with dessert-themed designs. Besides being a coveted gift for kids, the ways the dolls are dressed give a good indication of social, fashion and religious trends.