Headstrong in belief

Prayer in CairoThe New York Times' Michael Slackman had a great idea for a story: the increase in public displays of piety among Egyptian Muslims. For women that means covering their heads and for men it means having a zebibah:

The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.

Again, great idea for a story. Slackman writes that as Egypt has moved from a Muslim country with secular style to a full embrace of Islam, the prayer "bumps" have become all the rage. He speaks with hairstylists, security guards and other men on the street about how they're developed:

Observant Muslims pray five times a day. Each prayer involves kneeling and touching one's forehead and nose to the ground. All five prayers require placing one's head on the ground for a total of 34 times, though many people add prayers and with them, more chances to press their heads to the ground. Some people say the bump is the inevitable result of so many prayers -- and that is often the point: The person with the mark is broadcasting his observance, his adherence to one of the five pillars of Islam.

But the zebibah is primarily a phenomenon of Egypt. Muslim men pray throughout the Arab world. Indeed, Egyptian women pray, but few of them end up with a prayer bump. So why do so many Egyptian men press so hard when they pray?

prayerSymbols of piety are fairly commonplace in the Arab world, Slackman writes. Everything from long beards to robes worn in the same manner as the prophet Muhammad. But the zebibah is a home grown symbol and one encouraged through peer pressure. The ending to the story had the best vignette:

There are many rumors about men who use irritants, like sandpaper, to darken the callus. There may be no truth to the rumors, but the rumors themselves indicate how fashionable the mark has become.

Not everyone has a zebibah. Plenty of Egyptians still regard their faith as a personal matter. But the pressure is growing, as religion becomes the focus of individual identity, and the most easily accessible source of pride and dignity for all social and economic classes.

"You pray, but it doesn't come out," said Muhammad Hojri, 23, as he gently teased his brother, Mahmoud, 21, recently while they worked in a family kebab restaurant. Muhammad has a mark. Mahmoud does not, and did not appreciate his brother's ribbing.

"I pray for God, not for this thing on my forehead," Mahmoud shot back.

For such a brief report from the streets of Cairo, this story about zebibahs managed to show quite a bit of diversity about religion and public life.

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