I have been waiting in Cairo to attend a wedding. As my trip has been interrupted anyway there was no way I was going to miss such a memorable event.
1. The Marriage Contract
Ibn Battuta was married several times but he never describes the marriage ceremonies even thought he was married in different countries and presumably the rites differed a little from place to place. Summer is wedding season in Cairo and the contract-signing ceremony I attended which was held in a small side room of a Mosque, resembled our registry office wedding. Only a few people were invited and we all sat in front of a raised dias where the imam sat at a desk between the father of the bride and her brother on one side, and the groom and bride on the other. The bride wore palazzo pants and a tunic in white chiffon with blue trim and the groom wore a suit. She was not veiled and nor were most of the women guests. Dress code was everything from glamorous to smartly casual, long skirts to capri pants, suits to jeans and jackets. The imam said a few words followed by a short prayer then got down to the marriage contract. The groom and the bride’s father shook hands in front of the imam, the gesture was held and both hands were then covered by the imam with a white cloth. He put his hand on top of theirs then spoke the words of the marriage vows which both parties repeated in turn - the same as our marriage ceremony except the bride was represented by her father. Everyone at the desk, including the bride, then sealed the written contract with their signatures on the document. The whole ceremony which took about 20 minutes, is the official one and at its conclusion the bride and groom are married according to law. However in almost all instances, including this one, the bride and groom then go to their respective homes and the marriage is not consummated until the celebration party takes place. Not all weddings are like this; in some circumstances, dowries are still the order of the day....
Getting 'kitted out' for the evening's entertainment
That evening ladies only were invited to the home of the bride’s mother for a party; about 25 women of all ages from children to great grandmothers, got togther while a team of 4 women did everything from DJ and animation to belly dancing. The evening was a hugely successful mix of the ceremonial and the hilarious and the dress code was again mixed from sexy evening wear and long gowns to casual jeans and skimpy tops. As in Algeria, the bride wears lots of different costumes the first one being a sari. First she entered the room holding a tray with lighted candles and some sugar and sat in a ‘ceremonial’ chair in the middle of the room - the mother of the bride carried a perfumed incense burner which was wafted over the bride’s head to protect her from the evil eye, then sugar candy was given to the bride by the mother and mother-in-law to signify ‘sweet’ relations between them (this is like the Libyan ceremony). Then the bride carried the now-blessed tray above her head and danced with her ‘attendants’ - close friends and the animation team, who also help her dress. Other changes of costume included a Hawaiian-style outfit, a cowgirl outfit, a Gypsy Rose outfit, and a belly dancer outfit. While the bride was changing costume the other animators were in charge of the non-stop music and getting the guests to dance - this was not a problem here because the women danced and sashayed at the first beat of a tambour or tinkly click-clack of a castanet. The whole evening was one of general hilarity and bawdy humor for which the older women were completely responsible. When men are present and in public these grandes dames behave with great decorum, but at all-female gatherings they take off their headscarves, let loose and get a little crazy, a side of them that men will never see. And all of this gaiety without a drop of alcohol.
The bellydancer with one of her 'props' - a cane.
Several of them who were wonderful dancers told us we should not expect to see them dance at the party on Saturday and indeed they did not. The grande finale of the evening was the belly dancer who was one of the best I have ever seen; pure sensuality, her body shimmered and moved like liquid gold - sorry guys, she only performs for women. The event like everything here in Egypt started late and ended early - at two in the morning we all left, and arriving back in Talaat Harb men were still sitting in the cafes having tea, smoking shisha and playing dominoes.
3. The Wedding Party
Six hundred and fifty guests, two bands, one of whom was the Lebanese superstar, Ragheb Alama, armfuls of white Casablanca lilies and white roses exquisitely arranged in tall glass vases, a fez-hatted bagpiper, belly dancers with chandeliers atop their heads with lit candles, an enormous beautifully iced and decorated wedding cake, two huge video screens that would not have been out of place in Times Square and the entire event filmed by two cameramen.
The bride wore a gorgeous white embroidered fitted dress with thin straps, a veiled headdress and carried a small bouquet of white tulips which she tossed behind her, after cutting the cake. Dress code was full-on glamour and even I for once was dressed in keeping with the event; long black evening gown, high-heels, little gold evening clutch and jewelry, courtesy of my friend Virginie who very graciously loaned me the entire outfit as my intended apparel was in the hands of the Egyptian Post Office - another story. (At a rough guess I’d say about a third of the female guests were veiled.)
The event started at 2130, but the bride and groom did not arrive in the reception hall until around 2300 when they danced to “At Last” which was both romantic and fitting since they had been officially married since Thursday and this was now Saturday.......The musical star attraction came on at two in the morning and the last guests went home at six - by which time some of us were was sitting in a teashop off Talaat Harb smoking shisha and drinking mint tea, evening gowns and all.
The next day all we were capable of was an evening felucca ride down the Nile......
(Many thanks to friends Alessandro and Livia for the bride and candleabra shots. Note that in the photographs many of the women are unidentifiable and as in Libya this is because it would be inappropriate. Some women specifically requested their pictures not be published.)