My mobile phone rings. It’s my cousin from Egypt. I hesitate to answer as they usually only send messages on the internet or short missed calls to say they are thinking of me – Calls are too expensive. The call ends… but then it starts again. Hesitantly, I answered – either this is going to be very, very, bad news or very, very, good news.
“Zara, I am getting married! You must come to Egypt!” This is followed by squeals of excitement and joy from the both of us. Asmaat is my only girl cousin who is in my age range and I lived with her when I was in Egypt as a child. We are like sisters. “You’re the bridesmaid. The engagement party is in two weeks time. Can you get here?”
The truth is I couldn’t really go as I had a lot on but that didn’t matter. She is my sister and I wasn’t going to miss the engagement party for the WORLD! Engagement parties in Egypt are as big as the actual weddings. The woman is called the bride and the man is the groom. Also, they are usually more fun as there is less pressure on the bride as the dread of consummating the marriage and moving away from the family isn’t looming. An Egyptian engagement party is where you announce to the world that you are going to get married so it is ok if you are seen together (so you have permission to go on dates). It is also where the dowry of gold is given from the man to the woman. A deposit almost, something to show that the man is serious; he isn’t playing around and is going to marry the girl. This dowry is in Egypt called a Shebka.
So I cancel a few things and book an exceptionally expensive last minute ticket to Egypt – for what will be 4 of the most special days of my life.
To be the bridesmaid was an honour. Usually, due to cost and the fact that it is an imported tradition from the west, Egyptian brides only have one bridesmaid – basically another girl who can stay with her; organise things with her and ensure she is safe and never left alone with the groom – yes even though they are engaged at no point are they allowed to be left alone together until they are married!
The only things that had been organised when I arrived were the location, the cake and the band.
My cousin, Asmaat, had decided to use a small open top function room 5 mins down the road from us near Kobri Abass. More often, engagement parties in Shaabi families’ are held, like weddings, on the street outside the bride/grooms house but she had gone with an inside venue due to it being a bit cooler in February and because of some recent street troubles in the area related to the political state of the country. The cake was going to be supplied by her brother’s fiancé who works in a cake shop and the band were friends of our cousins, Sharif and Ahmed, who used to work in the wedding band business themselves.
But that was it! Four days and we had to organise the dress, the soft drinks, the hair, the makeup, the shoes, the car, the flowers ….. well everything really !! I knew this was going to be exciting.
Well, first was the dress! At the engagement party it is traditional for the bride to wear a BIG puffy dress very similar to a wedding dress only in a BRIGHT colour. We head to Helwan, the end of the tube line, and actually where her groom lives. We push through the busy market, fighting through the people, stalls of fruit, clothes and electrical goods and at last we slip down a side street and suddenly from the dirty, noisy streets we have somehow been transported into a calm, wonderland of wedding dress shops! Our hunt begins – in each shop we enter we ask for her size and start from there. Some truly hideous ones are pulled out in some of the craziest sickly colours imaginable but also some truly beautiful ones too.
After hours and hours in the heat we decide on a purple/lilac dress from one of the first shops we had visited. It was beautiful with intricate beading and we had been given the ok by her brother, who had tagged along with us for moral support and also to ensure we picked nothing too revealing! We headed back to the shop to hire the dress. Shaabi Egyptians very rarely buy their wedding/engagement dresses – it is bizarre to do so… I mean you are only going to wear it one day, right? All the dresses on show are for hire. We pay the woman 80Le that is less than £8 to rent the dress and give her Asmaat’s Egyptian ID card as a deposit and guarantee we will bring it back by the end of the week.
But that is just the start … These dress don’t have sleeves and in a growingly conservative Egypt the brides are now choosing more and more to stay covered and in their hijabs, even on their wedding day. Only a few years ago it was almost standard for the bride to have her hair out on the engagement/wedding day. We still had on our list leggings and a netted leotard to find in the same colour that she can wear underneath the dress for a modest look.
Before leaving Helwan we also popped into a jeweller’s where the Shebka gold had been purchased and one of the rings was being adjusted. We now had all the gold. How we got safely back home on the underground with that big dress and gold I’ll never know.
Over the next few days we were on the phone organising various video people and booking our photo session. All whilst sifting the streets and local markets for leotards in the right shade of purple as well as head scarves to match the dress as well as shoes, accessories and everything else!
Each evening we would visit a beautician in Sayyeda Zeinab who prepared us for the big day by stringing our faces, putting us in facemasks, soaking our hands and pushing back our cuticles. Though totally, fun they were far from gentle!
All the time we were there we would discuss her dreams, if she was happy with the guy she was marrying - I had yet to meet him. Mohummed, her groom, used to be a neighbour many years back and their mothers had recently bumped into each other and realised that both their children were single and looking to get married so they met a few times, in the presence of family, agreed and now were getting engaged.
She explains how excited she is; how lovely he is; (she had barely been off the phone to him every night before bed since I got there) – She seems very happy and I am not worried. In Egypt the engagement makes dating acceptable and they weren’t to be married for over a year and she has the chance to break off the engagement if she discovers she doesn’t like him.
The night before the big day and still loads hasn’t been done – we get out of the taxi coming back from the beautician’s – we are exhausted but our cousin’s wife, Shareen, is shouting down the mobile, “You still need to buy potpourri and chocolates!” Why on earth we need these I don’t know but we get them ………
Once we finally get home the glue gun is pulled out – Shareen means business! She starts with the plain, purple leotard. Together, we embellish the sleeves and neck with crystals. I am then instructed to go to my dad’s flat and sneak out the tray that is kept in the display cabinet. “It’s the best tray the family own.” explains my cousins – “WE NEED IT! “…
And it was! It was needed for the most important job – the bringing out of the GOLD!! I get the tray and once again out comes the glue gun! What feels like hundreds of chocolates, pieces of potpourri, ribbons and plastic flowers are stuck on the tray around the velvet case containing the gold. Whilst this is going on we have the music playing loud from the TV. All of us are dancing, singing and zaggareeting! This is bellydance from the source; in its natural habitat, celebrating! You could even say in the celebration of Asmaat growing up, becoming a woman. We all give her tips on her dancing and teach each other some moves. She wants to make sure she looks good when dancing at the wedding engagement – it’s essential. She is a little conscious about her dance skills as everyone will be judging her moves!
Way into the early hours and two bags of potpourri later, the tray is ready and we are all danced out. To a westerner the tray may seem tasteless but if it isn’t cheesy it’s not an Egyptian wedding! It is that desire for colour, joy and innocence that makes these wedding `engagements so very special! They are unpretentious. The sisterhood and love of all of us together that night was so beautiful – we finally went to bed happy, excited and joyous.
The day of the wedding:
We are woken up by the zagareets of my auntie. “Yallah! Yallah! – today’s the day!” We roll over and try to sleep more. There is no need to rush. Parties don’t start until the late evening and nothing before 9pm. They never start before sunset as the last prayers must be said before the party starts.
We finally get up and eat our tamaya (falafel) and foul madams for breakfast. We pack a small suitcase with our shoes, accessories, dresses, headscarves, makeup, everything really and the two of us head off to the beautician’s to be transformed - Asmaat into a bride and me into a bridesmaid. Everything else has been organised and is down to others in the family to pull off… let’s hope it falls into place. We won’t be seeing them again until the party.
As we get to the beauticians I ask Asmaat who she would be with if I wasn’t here. “No one,” she says. “I would have had to do this all by myself.” She doesn’t have a sister and her best friends would not have been allowed to be away all day and evening from their families. “But I would only want you to be here with me anyway.” These words mean the world to me. I love her so much and in a way though happy for her I am sad and scared. She is growing up and though the marriage is still far away she will soon need to move away from home; take on her responsibilities as a wife and even as a mother. She won’t be able to go out partying on the streets of Cairo with me or helping me with all the shopping for the souk or looking after me in Cairo; advising me teaching me things about life - life as an Egyptian. Though younger than me, she is 20 years old, she’s like a big sister.
We arrive at the beauticians and if I thought it was tough before – I hadn’t seen anything. We are there with about 3 other girls, also there with their bridesmaids and mothers. Unfortunately, Asmaat’s mother is too ill to be with us. It’s Friday, a busy day for weddings. We wait in line at each stage for Assmat to have face masks, her nails painted – her hair washed and styled, her make-up done and finally her hijab put on in a beautiful manner by a professional hijab stylist! He uses around 5 hijabs and a whole box of pins! It takes nearly an hour for this. My scarf is also done in a less elaborate way.
Before I know it, it is approaching 8pm and we start to get her into her dress. She looks truly stunning - So beautiful - So adult!
We are ready …. The other brides have gone. All have been picked up by their grooms and we are waiting. She calls her groom – they are stuck in traffic on the way from Helwan! It doesn’t matter. We start dancing with the beauticians. Over the last few days we have made friends with them all. The groom finally arrives and comes upstairs with her bouquet and collects her. Waiting downstairs are her mum, brother and some of the groom’s family. Some busking musicians start playing and singing folkloric wedding songs. They circle the beauty shops on Friday nights knowing that there will be brides in ALL of them. The music plays; we zaggaret and again we belly dance as she gets into the car and her brother slips the buskers some money.
In the car the singing continues we wiggle in our seats and everyone is clapping – even the driver - YES the driver! We beep the horn in the traditional way to indicate that there’s a bride in town. We play racing games with the other cars of family members all of us laughing and screaming.
We arrive at the photographers as the photos are done before the party. There is a queue of 4 or 5 other brides. As I said, Friday night is a bride factory in Egypt. Weddings and engagements are everywhere! We finally get to take the photos with all the family who came in the car. And then the photographer asks the family to leave so he can do some sensual photos with just the bride and groom. “NO!” shouts Bebo, Asmaat’s brother. “I am not leaving my sister with two men!” Ironic as he had done exactly the same only a few months ago with his fiancé! We calm him down. Truth be told he doesn’t really mind but feels he has to oppose it – it is his duty as her brother! Once they have had their photos taken we finally make our way to the venue.
The magic - If it hasn’t been magical enough already - really starts at the party. We walk in to be overwhelmed with a fantastic turn out from all the family, some I hadn’t seen in ages – the rest of her brothers our other cousins, hundreds of second cousins and aunts and uncles from all areas of the family.
Her Zaffa begins – this is the bridal parade. At engagements this is usually just a band, whereas the actual wedding, performers such as a tanoura or if you are lucky and rich bellydancers perform. The band starts to play traditional songs. There is a mizmar player and loads of drummers. I dance with Asmaat. This is her moment to shine. Then our cousin, Sharif, grabs the riq and takes over from the singer. He leads the traditional songs singing them straight at Asmaat from his heart. At that point my other cousin takes off his jacket and grabs the tabla and leads the band. There we are surrounded by our family - all dancing, leading the singing and leading the music – our family all came together in a moment of ecstasy a moment of tarab we were all so in sync together, all so joyous.
This goe on for some time. Then she walks into the hall and sits on one of the thrones but not for long – the DJ, a shaabi fego singer ,takes over – playing all post revolution heavy beat fego music and rapping along over the top of it. Everyone looses themselves in connection with the music, what it is saying and relating to it. The men especially go crazy.
Then our tray, the one we made such an effort with, enters the room and everyone screams, shouts and zagareets – “Here comes the GOLD!” lulululululululu-weeee !!
The rings are put on the bride’s right hand (it would be the left if it was the actual wedding) and the bracelets are put on too. The bride and groom feed each other a chocolate from tray. Then, in the blink of an eye, all the rest of the chocolates, although glued in place, are gone from the tray – grabbed crazily by children and adults alike!
Soon after, the cake is brought out and the bride and groom cut it whilst dancing with the knife. A slice of cake is rationed out with one bottle of fizzy drink to each guest. Traditionally, you only ever get cake and a fizzy drink at Shaabi weddings and engagements.
After this the dancing gets more and more intense. We all loose ourselves – at one point in-between all the Shaabi songs a Saiidi song comes on! Some of the fellahin members of the family start dancing – I grab my Auntie’s walking stick and start spinning it. Before I know it I am in the middle of everyone dancing with the stick in full swing. Everyone is cheering. Then I pass it one of the men in my family who jumps up and starts dancing, swinging it around his head!
Then the MC/DJ goes into full swing with the Shaabi Fego music. He’s a big Arsenal fan and has their flag hanging over the DJ stand. I find it so amusing that no one cares. In England a bride would moan at such a thing being wrong in her decor. We don’t care! We are here to bellydance till the sun comes up! One of my cousins really looses himself in the music to the point where jumping up and down results in him splitting open his trousers!
I love just how beautiful everyone bellydanced –from my very old great aunts, to the men and the small children. Such a vast mix of ages all brought together by the music. The kids are especially encouraged to dance.
This goes on for hours. Until none of us has any more energy left and the sun is up. The final thing to happen is the throwing of the bouquet …”Weird!” I thought. “They must be doing this ‘cos they have seen it in western films.” It is a fairly new thing to do in Egypt. As I stand in the crowd, I look around! I am surrounded by just the men. All looking pretty pumped – “Where are the girls?” I thought they would all be fighting for the bouquet to get married!
I quickly realise that I should get out of the way. They were taking it as a competition and the winner is the catcher- every man wanted to prove himself. As Asmaat flings it in the air all the men dive for it and all I see is an explosion of flowers EVERYWHERE as hundreds of hands catch and pull it apart at the same time – I am glad I got out of the way – CHAOS!
One of my second cousins comes out from the crowd holding a single, limp flower. He’s panting, “ I went in there for some flowers.” he says, “ I came out fighting for my life!” I burst out laughing!
The day had been such fun from start to end. I had never felt so close to my Egyptian family as I did that day. It truly brought home how much I love my culture, my heritage and my national dance! What a memory!!