In Qena, about 600 km south of Cairo, residents ready themselves to celebrate moulids — festivals that mark the birthdays of holy people — by enacting a very specific tradition they have inherited. Wearing white robes and turbans, they prepare a large arena for the “mermah.”
In this practice, thought to have been brought to Egypt from the Arabian Peninsula during the Islamic conquest, men compete to demonstrate their fencing and horse-riding skills. Once associated with military training, mermah is now part of the celebratory repertoire of Upper Egypt, present in weddings and moulids.
Equestrians race against each other and fence amid a crowd of onlookers. To tunes played on the mizmar, the Upper Egyptian flute, families gather at the prepared area, some parading their horses and sticks.
The sticks vary in length between 1.5 and 2 meters, making them slightly longer than those used in traditional Arabic stick dances, or tahtib.
Holding their sticks and using colorful saddles and bridles, the jockeys parade their horses and show off their skills. Mermah is a source of pride with no financial reward.