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Cairo Weddings

by Nicole
posted December 9, 2009

I hate to burst the collective bubble of mystique that surrounds Cairo, but in actuality, living here for a long period of time ends up feeling like huge swaths of boredom interspersed with flashes of amazing moments–like standing inside a thousand-year-old mosque or sailing the Nile by night. These are moments that lend a baseline sense of wonder and charm.  Every now and again I do think, “Wow, I’m actually in Cairo!” but things have become a little less surreal as I move into my fifth month living here.  Personally, my summer was a great chance to unwind and spend quality time here, but by the time September was on the horizon, I was all alone waiting for my roommates to arrive and school to start—in short, I was, shockingly, actually bored!

Luckily my boring, grumpy sojourn was interrupted by an Egyptian friend’s invitation to an engagement party!  His best friend, Hussein, was in town from Dubai to get engaged, so Ramy was going of course, and was sweet enough to drag me along to experience my first real Egyptian party.  I nervously obliged and threw on the one dress I brought to Cairo with a shawl over the top to cover my shoulders, along with a pair of Dior knockoff shoes that were a gift and won me many compliments over the evening.  Running late, I grabbed the first taxi I could hail as the doormen and local police guffawed. I managed to forget that if the all the taxi windows are down and the driver is driving as fast as possible (like they always do) that my long hair would be destroyed.  Luckily, I’m not much into styling my hair (except for a good blow-dry to get it pin straight) so I finger-combed frantically from the moment when I picked up my friend until we stepped into Hussein’s car to go pick up his fiancée, Dahlia.

The bride-to-be looked fabulous when we picked her up from the salon, dressed in a bright red dress rimmed with sequins with matching red 4-inch heels (a gift from Hussein–that guy has excellent taste!) that made me drool fervently.  I loved how they had designed her hijab most of all, actually.  It was constructed from layers of gold and red tulle with glitter sealed inside, wrapped and pinned into a flower-like shape in the back.  Truly a sight to be seen and a feat of styling!

As we approached the bride’s house, the “wedding honk” began happening. Yes, there is a special way of honking in Cairo which is only slightly different from the post-soccer-match-victory honk that basically translates to “Hey everybody these people are getting engaged/married, let’s party!”  I used to hear it every Thursday night when I lived in Zamalek (across the street from the Nile and thus, the site of many weddings )!

Family and friends came out to welcome the small caravan of cars accompanying us, and after parking, a massive flurry of cheek kissing, handshaking, firework lighting, and hustling inside commenced.  At this point, I got the picture of what Ramy had meant by saying, “Oh it will just be a small party.”  Apparently, in American terms, a small party would be microscopic here, because easily 75 people passed in and out of the chair-crammed salon and sitting room of the bride’s home over the course of the evening.  We danced for hours to all the latest hits, including me: the lone American. Incidentally I’ll never forget the look on one old man’s face when I conversationally told him I was American in Arabic, expecting the usual look of surprise, interest, and welcome and receiving instead a completely horrorstricken look as if  he’d seen a ghost! 

I guess I wasn’t in international Cairo waters any more with the other khawagat (foreigners)!

Nicole dances with her dateDancing socially at a wedding or party in Cairo is always an interesting psychological puzzle for me as a Bellydancer.  Yes, everyone is doing Bellydance moves (including the guys, who are excellent) but as a foreigner, you never want to ham it up too much because people are staring at you anyway trying to figure you out. Heaven forbid they should find out you’re a professional dancer! 

Frankly, the Egyptian girls can get away with being a bit raunchier, and I do try to be more modest with my movements so as not to look like a saucy little American number straight off the plane. 

The guys are the big hams at the parties, because they don’t get to dance much otherwise, so they just let all pretense go!  For me, using my Arabic works wonders, and a little bit of good Bellydance technique goes a long way toward being accepted.  People get excited about foreigners being able to dance Egyptian style, but it’s better not to go overboard and bust out the diva attitude, especially on someone else’s special day!  Most of the time, Egyptian people will be more than welcoming and hospitable anyway without you trying to put on a show for them.

At about 1a.m., after the eating of cake, the showing of the gold jewelry as a gift to the bride, and lots of dancing, Dahlia and Hussein made a break for it along with Ramy and me (as well as assorted other hangers-on).  We headed back to my home area of Maadi and plopped down into chairs at one of the fancy cafés on a main road to have dinner and chat.  By the way, of course the
cafes are open and serving food at 1a.m., that’s how things operate in Cairo!  The problem was that my Arabic was/is still less than fluent and the only people who spoke English were Ramy and Hussein, who were more involved in catching up than speaking to me or translating.  Dahlia and I were making the cross-cultural, “these boys need to stop ignoring us and talking about work,” faces at each other, but were unable to communicate because of the language barrier which was a shame.  On the plus side, after being dropped off at home around 3 a.m. and sleeping the day away, I redoubled my efforts for Arabic class out of sheer frustration.

Fast forward to a couple months later, and I have now been dragged to other random parties including two weddings in the last two weeks alone.  Ramy is a pretty steady lead for invitations, since he has a kind and lovely tendency to invite his American friends along. However, he seems to forget that when he does, my first instinct is to freak out about finding a new dress.  Dress shopping can be a complete nightmare here, but I’ve discovered the secret of going with an Egyptian girlfiend!  It is so much more fun. You can cover so much more ground and learn some stuff!  For example, those claustrophobic looking storefronts on Talat Harb Street (downtown) are worth checking out because chances are they have a 3-story shop complete with air-conditioning and pretty, wearable dresses behind them. 

I’m not brave enough normally to deal with downtown crowds or to go dress hunting in insane hidden shops, but with a smart Egyptian girl by your side, I think one can accomplish anything!

Nicole poses with family
Author poses with Dahlia, Hussein and someone’s niece?

The first of the two weddings was a casual garden-party sort of affair down the Nile from Giza at a gorgeous villa.  Apparently this style of wedding is beginning to become de rigueur with young couples here in Cairo as a fun, open-air way of tying the knot that is less stuffy and more party!  I have admit, it was an awful lot of fun, and we danced the entire night away to our favorite Shaabi music before driving the staggering distance home. (We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere.)

The zeffa is probably my favorite part of weddings here that we don’t have in the U.S.  Seeing the bride and groom escorted into the wedding venue by a variety of displays including folkloric dancing, tanoora performances, and drumming always makes me vow to bring this tradition back home.  At the garden-party wedding, there was a fairly low-key zeffa out in the street, where photos were taken, the bride and groom stood shyly but happily on display, and a group of men circled them drumming and singing, accented by women giving the zagaroota. 

The groom’s brother—a friend of Ramy’s who, incidentally, speaks German but no English—decided I should actually be part of the zeffa, so he grabbed one of the three foot long taper candles the women in the procession carried, and thrust it into my hand with a massive smile that was genuine (if slightly scary).  Once we escorted the bride and groom to the stage, I handed the candle off to some auntie or cousin and fled somewhere less visible!

The most recent wedding I’ve attended featured a huge zeffa as part of a completely different style of ceremony.  Apparently the groom (whom I am told is the brother of some vague acquaintance of Ramy’s) is a higher-up type in the Egyptian military service, so the wedding took place in an army venue and was fancy to the extreme.  I’m talking smoke machines, disco balls,
a 6-tier cake, and flower arrangements the size of yours truly!  When Egyptian weddings go all out, they go all out!

The zeffa was extravagant, and luckily, my room mates plus Ramy and me managed to struggle our way through security with our American University student IDs just in time to catch the whole thing.  First came folkloric dancers performing a Saiidi dance, then Tanoora dancers who exited suddenly through the crowd, removed skirts still whirling at about eye-level for some of the taller gentlemen, and finally much posing and picture-taking while the huge crowd milled around grinning and the musicians carried on.  I was mostly busy clapping along, adjusting my full-length gown, trying not to feel dorky because we simply don’t often wear dresses that length in the U.S.!  It felt glamorous and pretty, but also slightly awkward, so I kept grabbing at it, making sure my little wrap covered the backless-ness to an acceptable level.  I would never imagine I’d feel more at home in a mini-dress (not for a party here obviously), but you learn something new everyday day on study abroad–even if it is something shallow.

Nicole poses with date
Author and Ramy

An unusual aspect of this wedding however was that the actual signing of the documents took place just after we had all settled down in the cavernous hall, before the party commenced.  An official was there to facilitate, the families did the paperwork together, and everyone said a brief prayer for the wellbeing and success of the marriage. This is, in my experience, a rarity
for Egyptian weddings. I haven’t quite figured out why, because obviously there has to be official paperwork. I assume that before the other weddings I’ve attended, it was done elsewhere–before their giant reception parties began.

We were able to experience wedding details because of an odd staple of culture here–Egyptian wedding videographers!  These guys run around at every wedding, toting huge video cameras with bright lights mounted on top, trailing ropes of wires and cables. Presumably, their purpose is to capture a lovely wedding video, but also to provide a live feed to the projection-screen monitors on either end of the hall. When the cake is cut, the rings exchanged, or the bride and grooms’ fingerprints taken on the official document, everyone can catch every second of the action.  It’s nice but seems a bit tacky, since you are able to see everything close up and in an more-or-less artistic way.

  Trust me, however, you will want to punch one of these videographers when they decide to video everyone at the party and get right up in your face with those super bright lights.

It’s the slightly tacky but sweet and heartfelt vibe that defines Egyptian weddings for me, along with the interspersion of American and Shaabi music.  The bride and groom’s first dance was to a well-known American soft rock tune, and they revolved in the middle of the floor slowly, gazing into each other’s eyes with happy smiles while their families looked on tearfully.  Of course, this was all taking place in the middle of a smoke machine cranked up to the max, manic laser lights, and the usual wedding photographers/videographers circling around which made the effect a bit less elegant in retrospect, but it was quite usual for a decent wedding.  We ended up seated (therefore filmed) at the bachelor table, which was a dapper affair ridden with black suits and much serious work discussion, until the music got going–

when at least ten young men rose as one to go party down in a circle Raqs Sharqi-style. I was mid-sentence with Ramy when at least four of them literally seized him
and dragged him away while apologizing in polite, broken English.  He smiled sheepishly and went off to do his turn in the middle of the circle of dancing participants.

After dancing for hours and eating more than enough cake, we decided it was time to make a quick exit and head home.  We piled into Ramy’s semi-stylish old Corolla amid slightly raised eyebrows and smiles and it was off home to Maadi.  (Three pretty American chicks plus one cute Egyptian guy is considered a recipe for something)  I dismantled my elaborate hairdo, laying the white roses that I had jammed into my hair on the dusty dashboard as we dodged slower traffic on the highway. Above us were many incense-burner styled minarets lit up in green neon, and we passed one hundred-plus year old empty buildings, as they slowly crumble into slums by the roadside.  Cairo at night is romantic–in an ancient, contradictory way that’s hard to explain until you have experienced it, and it is easy to take all of the romance for granted when you live here.


romantic couple
click for a closer look at the loving looks between this couple!


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  1. Barbara Grant

    Dec 11, 2009 - 07:12:38

    This article was a joy to read. Nicole is gaining a great deal of insight by not only studying the Egyptian dance, but actually living within that culture and seeing how it works first-hand. I appreciated reading about her experiences and I hope she has a great future as a knowledgeable Egyptian dancer.

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