Marriage is a momentous decision, no matter what country you hail from. But in the United States, the mystery and innocence of getting married have long since disappeared, unless you’re brought up strictly religious. Couples living together before getting married, pre-nups souring the idea of forever and true love and an open attitude toward divorce (if it doesn’t work out, you can always try again, no problem) have changed opinions on marriage and taken away some of the mystery the big wedding day brought.
In Egypt, however, the mystery and innocence remains (at least, as far as public knowledge is concerned). In a predominantly Muslim country where tradition and religion (and “honor”) are sacred, wedding traditions hold steadfast, but this is not to say that Egyptian Muslim weddings are that different from their Christian-American counterparts; in fact, the celebrations I’ve attended in Egypt were quite similar to the American weddings I’ve attended.
Contrary to what most Westerners would believe to be true of Muslim marriages, many Egyptian couples (at least among the more educated in urban Cairo) have been in a relationship long before the idea of marriage comes up-i.e., arranged marriages are not the decided norm. Living together is obviously taboo, since having sex before marriage is quite taboo, although this is not to say that all people live by that rule (note: the Egyptian authorities will try everything to make sure that couples cannot be alone. A man and wife cannot check into a hotel room unless they are married). Many people wait until they’re older and are more financially stable to marry, as weddings are expensive and the couple must have their own apartment to live together in (something I was slightly surprised at, given to the amount of literature I’ve read on Muslim families where many family members live under the same roof).
Egyptian weddings often consist of a religious ceremony in the masjid, an engagement party (sometimes before, sometimes after) and then a big wedding day. I attended the religious ceremony in 2011 of Damby’s cousin’s marriage. Rather than have everyone gather in the grand room of the masjid (a beautiful one I’d often admired passing by on the highway) the ceremony took place in a small wood-paneled room in the basement. The bride was decked out in a big white dress (yes, Muslims wear the same color as Christian brides) and had on a lot of make-up despite being a hijabi (a trend later copied at other weddings by both bride and guests in a most unfortunate clownish way). I was the only woman not wearing a hijab (and showing skin, as I’d worn a short-sleeved dress with leggings), which gave me a laugh, and I wondered if the people who I did not know there were wondering who the heck I was. The customary witnesses sat in the front at a table with the imam and everyone else assembled on seats, sipping on the juice boxes that were passed out. The ceremony began, and I largely spaced out since I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying, unfortunately.
Engagement parties are somewhat odd, as they often have an air of a wedding party. I attended one of Damby’s friend, a male coworker at H&M, which was kind of nice as it was held outdoors in the huge Al-Azhar park in Egypt (known for actually having green grass!) The bride-to-be wore a knee-length, sleeveless green dress with her hair up (she was not a hijabi) and she walked carrying flowers to a setee that they’d set up in front of a backdrop in the little hedged-in area that must be reserved for private celebrations. This is customary at Egyptian weddings, where the couple sit on a fancy couch and pose like an old-fashioned couple in the backdrop (reminds me of taking horrid class photos during our school days). This time I was not so out-of-place, as many people there were younger and a bit less conservative, although I’d taken care to wear skinny jeans with my black top and black heels (I didn’t have anything appropriate in the way of dresses that I wanted to wear). Everyone sat at round tables and chowed down on chicken sandwiches and a mix of American dance and traditional Egyptian music played.
Also present was the ubiquitous camera-men: not just a photographer but a videographer as well. Just as Americans like to record every moment on their cellphones and cameras, so Egyptians like visual souvenirs of their big day. The videographer usually has an assistant, as the videocamera is always a huge hulking machine reminiscent from some movie set, complete with a huge cord that threatens to trip the guests.
On December 11 I attended the wedding of Damby’s brother to a girl who just also happened to be their cousin, the daughter of their father’s sister who’d grown up in Kuwait with a Kuwaiti father. Yes, it’s perfectly legal to marry your cousin in Egypt and the Arab world, although not as common as it used to be (I’m pretty open-minded, but I couldn’t help thinking the entire time of a cousin I had who was like a brother to me, and the thought of marrying him made me want to throw up). The wedding took place in the hotel of the Dafaa El Gawy military club in Nasr City. The rented room in the hotel was swathed in a purple color scheme, with purplish lights surrounding a purple backdrop and a white settee for the photos. Each table setting had a little bag of chocolates to eat in a purple bag.
The lights dimmed once the guests had all arrived and videoscreens played a photo montage depicting the bride and groom with friends and family. The groom entered to cheers and applause like a president. Then the bride entered through a hidden sliding door in the mirror-paneled wall, descending steps not to the “Wedding March” (although they did play that-ironically-at the end of the night when bride and groom exited) but to “1000 Years,” otherwise featured in Twilight. I don’t think an English song is traditional at most weddings, but the bride happened to have attended university in Liverpool, UK. As she walked to meet her husband on the dance floor, accompanied not by her father who hadn’t come but by her two younger brothers a spotlight followed her, and the couple had their first dance (probably quite literally their first) together. Then they sat on the settee and everyone came up and congratulated them.
Like an American wedding, the bride and groom cut a cake (simple except for red roses) and fed each other a piece, and all the single girls got up to catch the bride’s bouquet (although the American tradition of having a guy put a garter belt on her did not follow). There was a help-yourself buffet table with the same type of food you’d find at an American wedding, nothing really traditional as far as I could tell (although one huge difference is that wine and alcohol were NOT served).
Most enjoyable about the wedding was the dancing. While American Top 40 music was played at the beginning of the wedding, it segued into very traditional Egyptian Arab songs (although Amr Diab and Tamer Hosny were also played). It was mostly the young people, especially the guys, who danced. What I found disturbing was that guys and girls did not dance together, besides the bride and groom: the girls rallied around the bride, mostly just clapping and moving from side to side, whereas the guys all jumped up and down, even battling it out Jersey Shore style. Needless to say, the “guy side” was much more interesting to me, since it was less dainty, although I did dance in the middle of the circle with the bride and also joined hands in a circle train. The highlight was when Damby’s older Aunt Nadia (see picture below) made me actually dance with her, Egyptian style: it wasn’t belly-dancing but it was much more flirty than how the other girls were dancing, and we ended up in the middle of the men’s circle! Afterward everyone was very surprised that I’d danced, but why not? I do love to dance when I get in the mood to.
Towards the end of the night a live band set up, and Islam Karakee, a semi-famous Egyptian singer that was dressed like a cross between the poor men who go around shouting “bikya!” and an army general, came and preformed. Some tacky-costumed Cleopatra-style belly dancers appeared, along with male dancers dressed in suits and fedoras; there were men on stilts and even a woman leading a pantomime horse around! It was definitely the best ending to a wedding, if I must say myself.
Me with Nadia, my dance partner. I decided to wear this vintage lace Saks Fifth Avenue label dress, as I never get to wear a long fancy gown and it was more appropriate for the setting.