Saber Leeby, who believes in the purifying powers of snakes, unfurled a black banner with the names of God embroidered on it. He put on his black sash and adjusted a string of charms -- a tiny Statue of Liberty, some smiley faces, earrings, assorted ribbons and sequined brooches.
It was time to dance and get closer to heaven. He joined dozens of other revelers on a street in Cairo, swaying to drum and tambourine rhythms and to the rolling melody of an electric organ and the twang of an oud, a kind of Arab mandolin. It looked like a multigenerational rave party, except that beneath the gaily lit, carefree surface, an ancient religious practice was at work.
Leeby was kicking up his heels at the climax of a moulid, a celebration of a saint's day. The holy man in question, Abu Salama, may be an obscure figure to some, but such festivals are also dedicated to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam; his descendants; and revered founders of Sufism, a mystical branch of the religion.
If there is a prime example of the variety of Islamic life, the moulid is it. It can be a family affair, with lots of religious recitation. On the margins, it can also be bawdy and include men in drag and tents for sex. There is usually gambling, and there is always food and music.
"These are gatherings of love," said Leeby, an engineer who moulid-hops all summer. "The extremists and the fundamentalists, they are all against God. We are all for tolerance and forgiveness and love."
Many Egyptians despair over the decayed state of their country, but they are convinced of their superiority over the rest of the Arab world and are especially proud of Egypt's storied tolerance. It is common to hear Egyptians declare that strait-laced, fatwa-happy fundamentalists could never come to power in Egypt. Sufism, with its notion that believers can come close to God through mental and physical activity, is a strong presence in Egypt, where it has an estimated 5 million followers.
At the Abu Salama fete, dancers swung their heads from side to side, sometimes swaying from the waist. Chants praised prophets and saints. "Allah" was repeated over and over.
Some women wore head scarves, but others let their hair fall freely. An elderly lady, evidently too frail to stand, shimmied in her seat, while a gray-haired gent did a jig with a cane balanced on his head. A singer warbled, "Love, love, love. I got close and praised the prophet. Love. I gave it a try."
"Everyone can feel the love if they want," said Leeby, who recounted that he had received the "call" to serve Sayeda Nafisa, a female saint, while he was working in Libya. A self-appointed Snake Man, Leeby carries snakes around in a bag. They suck the corruption from the earth -- that's why God created them, he said. He didn't want to bring any of them out just then. Too much of a crowd.
In the summer, there is a moulid going on somewhere in Egypt almost every night.
Moulid aficionados say that reverence for saints began with the cult of the dead in ancient times, continued through the Christian tradition of saintly devotion and was adopted by Islam. Followers of the Coptic Church, Egypt's largest Christian group, celebrate moulids for their saints.
Despite the long pedigree, moulids have come under assault. The government is suspicious of large gatherings and usually tries to break up moulids by 3 a.m. Police dislodge people and their picnics from lawns and sidewalks and shut down the shooting galleries and roulette games that are as much a part of moulids as the chanting and swaying.
Moreover, in the quest for modernity, some officials regard moulids as retrograde. Authorities in the town of Qena recently put up a fence to keep a moulid throng away from the tomb of its favorite holy man and moved the street games to a stadium to keep downtown looking pristine.
Conservative Islamic groups have denounced the moulids as un-Muslim. They find fault because people attend hoping to win favors from saints, because women and men dance on the same platforms, and because the songs, while full of pious sentiments, sound pretty much like Egyptian pop music.
A few years ago, leaders of a mosque in the village of Sids tried to sabotage a moulid by kidnapping a young man and dampening the festivities, Cairo magazine reported. In the Nile Delta hamlet of Jizaya, vandals repeatedly dismantled the colored lights and flowery tapestries that mark the bounds of the moulids.
"When I went to school, my Muslim teacher preached against the moulid, but I returned to them anyway," said Hany Dessouki, an actor, musician and Sufi adept. "It's a way to get a message to God, it's a rich social occasion and it's a way to relieve the stress of this world."
In Cairo, the celebrations were originally financed by and associated with guilds of artisans. The Khan el-Khalili bazaar, which was once the gemstone cutters' district, hosts a big moulid dedicated to Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson.
These days, the festivals nourish a kind of cottage industry of carnival barkers, mechanical ride operators, tea brewers, roving restaurateurs, watermelon peddlers and rent-a-tent salesmen. Vendors sell top hats and dunce caps made of paper and foil. A little removed from the straw-covered dance floor, hashish salesmen make whispered pitches.
You don't have to be Muslim to attend. At a recent moulid, Leeby supplied a visiting American reporter with a white chiffon that once lay over Sayeda Nafisa's tomb, a yellow flower, a candle and a prayer card. He urged the reporter to put on the black sash. No one seemed to think it odd. A little boy ran up to a singer onstage and whispered something. Spotting the foreigner, the singer incorporated the visit into his lyrics.
"America has come to visit master Ali," he sang. Ali was the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. "America and Ali mean love."