Weddings in Egypt are always exuberant family affairs. Whether the couple is of modest means or wealthy, city- or country-bred, Egyptian wedding parties are resplendent with enough food, music, performance and ceremony to create what is always a spectacular and "right merry" social event. For most people, time-honored customs and symbols are essential to the celebration.
The casual visitor to downtown Cairo can often see the most public part of a wedding late on a Thursday evening. A garlanded automobile, escorted by a honking entourage of cars driven by family and friends, weaves through the city streets, perhaps with a stop on a Nile bridge for photographs, and finally arrives outside the family home or reception hall.
The couple is met with exultant rhythms from trumpets, drums and tambourines. The beat of traditional wedding songs— sometimes at very high volume—is punctuated by joyful, trilling ululations from the women, the famous zaghareet. Al-farah, the wedding celebration, is on.
A crowd of family and friends of all ages envelops the couple for al-zaffah, the slow procession, accompanied by music, into the reception room. In Upper Egypt, some rural families still retain the old tradition in which a couple's new furniture is paraded through the village on horse- or donkey-drawn carts en route to the couple's new home. In all places, though, the processions, dancing, noise and merriment ensure that everyone knows that there will be a new family in the community.
But many other aspects of weddings in Egypt are less obvious. Typically, the participation of family and friends is an obligation: A wedding invitation is virtually a command. "It is a commitment," says Mohammed Taha, a Cairene. "Other duties must be put aside, and put aside willingly. It is not just financial support, gifts and food: It is a sharing. I will not go and complain that I'm tired and wish I were sleeping, or that I have shopping to do. No! If you are there it is with every cell in your body, and everybody feels that spirit."
Until modern times, and especially among rural and nomadic peoples, wedding celebrations were often lengthy affairs. Now, though preparations can consume much of the weeks before, most celebrations last only several days. During the preparation period the new home is readied, relatives are received, food is prepared and gifts are given
For some families—especially those whose roots are in Upper Egypt— laylat al-hinna, the henna party, is still an important custom. On the evening before the wedding, the bride is joined by her sisters, cousins and close friends—all female. Powdered henna is mixed with water or tea into a paste and, with a toothpick, a syringe or even stencils, is applied to her feet and hands in elaborate designs. Henna is believed to be good for the skin, but the beautiful patterns, often so dense as to look like brick-red crocheted gloves or socks, are intended to bring good luck in the bride's new life. The henna paste can be removed once it dries, but the henna stain remains for weeks; it is thus city couples, who find its appearance inappropriate to office or school settings, who tend to abandon this tradition.
But for Samir, a 29-year-old clerk in an industrial company, and his bride Sanaa, 20, the customs of her family's home town of Aswan meant that both had laylat al-hinna parties the night before their wedding. Sanaa's sister and girlfriends set five large candles in the bowl of henna paste in accordance with the old saying "khamsa wa khumaysah," which translates and expands roughly to "five fingers poked in the evil [envying] eye." Late in the evening the women walked in procession around Sanaa's apartment building, carrying the henna with the candles. Only then did they decorate her hands and feet.
Samir's mother insisted that he and his friends use henna, too. In pro forma obedience to this wish, Samir lightly touched henna to his hands and feet at his pre-wedding celebration, held with male relatives and friends.
Averting the "evil" or envying eye is important at any time when something new or beautiful or desirable might evoke envy in someone's heart. If a healthy baby, a happy home, or even a new printing press needs protection against the bad luck that envy can bring, a happy and beautiful bride is especially vulnerable. The tradition of showering a couple with gold coins during al-zaffah serves the purpose of drawing guests' eyes away from the bride—even though play money, rose petals and chocolate "coins" made of gold foil are most commonly used for this purpose today.
One groom's mother explained her concern that envy and other forms of ill will can result in inexplicable bad luck. "At a wedding you may feel that too many people were commenting, admiring her dress, for example. Then, suddenly, for no reason at all, you find her dress catches on a nail and tears. Or a big bouquet of flowers falls on her dress and spoils it. You immediately get that feeling, 'Ah, someone has been looking at it too long.' This is the envy!" she laughs.
Samir and Sanaa's wedding also reflected a conservative style by offering separate celebrations for men and women before the arrival of al-zaffah. As evening fell, a portion of the narrow alley between the apartment buildings was closed off with colorful, red-patterned tenting (See Aramco World, November-December 1986) and strung with colored light bulbs. Musicians sat along one side and male guests filtered in to sit in the small wooden chairs that lined the enclosure. A member of the wedding party poured tiny cups of coffee, prepared down the street over an open fire. While the musicians filled the night with traditional Middle Eastern strains, the men took turns dancing.
Later, Arabian horses dressed in studded saddles and silver bridles arrived to highlight the men's evening. The horses are trained as foals to "dance" by lifting their forelegs in high, prancing steps and swinging their hindquarters in time to the music, all based on foot-commands of their riders. Disciplined in their deft steps and movements, the magnificent mares drew nervous gasps and laughs whenever their riders—deliberately, for fun—brought them a little too close to the guests. In between acts and songs, the call of a tip collector ensured small donations of appreciation from the guests.
Near the enclosure, women in colorful ankle-length dresses, some wearing Bedouin-style mask veils decked with coins, eagerly awaited the couple's arrival. A feast was being prepared in a neighbor's kitchen, where more than a dozen women cooked meter-wide pots of meat, rice, macaroni, and eggplant over propane burners. Salad, fried pastries (balah al-sham) and honey-drenched kunafah completed the wedding meal. Outside, a crowd of excited children from the surrounding buildings ran about; some mischievously tossed pebbles at the men's enclosure in an effort to get the guests' attention.
Less than an hour before midnight, the women announced the couple's arrival with high-pitched ululation. Music swelled as bride and groom slowly made their way to the kushah, the flower-decked stage set with two chairs from which the pair would greet their guests. Here, customarily, the new bride accepts nuqtah, a gift of money that is slipped discreetly into a purse she carries with her. The bride's single girlfriends—not averse to this moment of visibility to potential suitors—may also pinch her knee for good luck in their own hopes to be the next to marry.
Sanaa's family had also brought to her new home a year's supply of clothes: This would, according to tradition, keep her from burdening her new family. For Sanaa, the wardrobe included some 20 home dresses, 10 outside dresses, six robes, 10 nightdresses and eight bolts of cloth. And in accordance with a tradition called hallat al-ittifaq, or the cooking-pot agreement, Sanaa's family had prepared four stuffed pigeons for the couple's wedding-night meal.
Sanaa explained that the next morning, she would wear a cheerful red robe, and family members would visit later, bringing cookies, peanuts, sugar, vegetables and other foods, all symbolic provisions for her new home. The food gifts are called aashyan, which derives from the verb "to live." On the seventh day of marriage, there would be a second visit with more supplies, customarily cheese, butter, and bread.
Sanaa was educated through the sixth grade and, coming from a conservative rural family, she has lived out certain Islamic social norms which are common throughout the country. Like most Egyptian women—including those who are college-educated or working in city offices—Sanaa had not spent any time alone with a marriageable man before her engagement. "This would be against our religion and our traditions," said a Cairene lady who teaches foreigners about Egyptian culture. "But [young men and women] can be together in groups at a club or a sports event."
Custom still favors arranged marriages. The process usually begins when the prospective groom asks his mother to look for a suitable young woman to be his wife. Arrangements are then made with that woman's family to make an appointment to meet her father or guardian for the formal proposal. Should this meeting lead to initial acceptance, the suitor than reveals his finances, the sum he will spend on the dowry and the nature of the jewelry he will give his bride-to-be. If the two families agree, they seal their understanding by reading together al-Fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur'an, and setting an engagement date.
With the agreement secured, traditionally the man must build, buy or at least rent a house or—in the city—an apartment; electrical appliances are also his responsibility. The bride-to-be and her family customarily buy the furniture and other household items.
An engagement party is a festive warm-up for the wedding itself, and here some couples exchange rings that they will wear on their right hands until the wedding, when each will switch the ring to the left hand. The ensuing engagement period allows not only the couple but also the families to find out as much as they can about one another; it's important that both families share the same social class and have similar educational and cultural backgrounds. "It's not simply a matter of the couple themselves wanting to be together," said an Egyptian mother. "After all, we don't just add one person to our family. We add another whole family—parents, sisters, brothers. We have very strong ties. It is a family thing."
The marriage document, signed after the engagement, legalizes the marriage. In it, the groom details his financial commitments, and it is here that the bride's family must declare in writing whether she is marrying for the first time, or has been married before. A false statement in this matter is grounds for immediate divorce, if the groom wishes. The document is signed by the groom, the bride, her father or guardian and two witnesses, customarily in a mosque or a family member's home, under the aegis of a shaykh, or religious leader.
Though her personal consent to the marriage is essential, the bride's father customarily stands in for his daughter at this ceremony. "It is a way for her to show her appreciation and respect for her father," said another mother. "She can never, out of her love for him, deprive him of that privilege."
Following Egyptian tradition, the groom and the bride's father clasp hands andpress their thumbs together. The shaykh covers their hands with a clean, white handkerchief. Reviewing the document, and reading a passage from the Qur'an, he confirms the commitment of the parties. Then the handkerchief is removed by the shaykh—or it may be whisked away by a single man for good luck in his own marriage plans.
Legally, the couple are now husband and wife, but traditionally they do not live together until after the wedding party for family and friends. Depending on their circumstances—especially the ability of the husband to find a house or flat—this may be the same evening or more than a year in the future. So after a small party to celebrate the contract, the new husband and wife may go out for the evening, each returning to the respective family home afterward.
Muslim and Christian families in Egypt share similar values when it comes to marriage. Among Egypt's Christian Copts, family approval is equally essential for marriage, and the efforts and financial help of many are necessary to launch a couple into married life.
For Emad, an aircraft-maintenance engineer, and Ghada, both Copts, a four-year engagement had hardly prepared them for her father's initial denial of his permission to marry. Emad had been offered a job overseas, and the couple had decided that they would marry, he would leave and, when he was financially able, Emad would send for Ghada to join him. Ghada's father disapproved of the plan, however, and stated his preference that Emad do what husbands are supposed to do: Find a home and set it up before the wedding. Dismayed, the couple prayed and fasted for three days, hoping that Ghada's father might change his mind. He did.
Thus the wedding preparations had to be accomplished in only 10 days—an unusually brief time, especially in Egypt. But the frantic pace seemed only to add to the festivity as the family organized work-parties to make several hundred bonbonnieres. These small dishes, filled with Jordan almonds set around a chocolate truffle, are often given to wedding guests at both Christian and Muslim weddings; each is wrapped in cellophane or white tulle tied with a ribbon or a pink satin rose.
Emad and Ghada's wedding began with an hour-long evening ceremony in a church decked with greenery. Family members distributed the bonbonnieres and women ululated the joy of the occasion. Afterward, the couple celebrated with family and friends at a garden reception, secure in their families' love and support as they began their married life together.
Weddings based on more urban traditions still follow many of the same patterns. Osama, a medical-school graduate, and his fiancee Heba signed their marriage document while he was serving in the military, and they waited six months for their wedding party, which they held in an officers' club. Marrying after sunset in accordance with local custom, and on Thursday, the day that precedes the weekend in Egypt, they were greeted by a band of musicians as they stepped from their flower-garlanded, rented Mercedes. Osama, in a suit, and Heba, in a fairy-tale white dress, veil and train sewn by her mother-in-law, were escorted by young candle-bearing bridesmaids. Inside the lobby, the traditional wedding beat of drums and the women's zaghareet sounded as al-zaffah began its slow progress toward the reception room.
Inside, locked in a throng of well-wishers, bride and groom were serenaded. Relatives and friends—men in business suits, women in long-sleeved soft-hued dresses with elegant tarhah scarves—strained to get a close look. Delighted guests tossed confetti and tiny, gold-foil chocolate coins, which were quickly scooped up by the children. A video camera, now a fixture of many upper-class Cairene weddings, beamed its hot light into the bride's khol-darkened eyes and the groom's nervously perspiring face.
After reaching the flower-decked kushah and toasting each other in fruit punch, the couple was entertained by an evening of song and dance. Later they took to the dance floor in a romantic cloud of special-effects smoke. Male guests encircled them, singing and dancing, while the bride's mother made the rounds to greet each guest as all enjoyed a lavish buffet dinner.
Whether Muslim or Christian, whether in a decorated city alley, a lavishly appointed Cairo hotel or a neighborhood garden, whether the music is Western, traditional Egyptian or that of a Nubian band, Egyptian weddings are celebrated with an intensity that stems from the veneration of family bonds. And, as for couples everywhere, they brim with hope for happy endings.
Free-lance journalist Patti Jones Morgan lives in Kopervik, Norway. She wishes to thank Sonia Youssef and Jamal Barghouti in Cairo and Hoda Tawadrous in Houston for their help with this article.