Sunday, July 24, 2011

My big, fat Egyptian wedding

After a couple hours exploring Coptic Cairo on Friday, I was walking through a nearby Muslim neighborhood with Alex when she remarked how fun it is to just wander down random streets and meet locals. Less than five minutes later, we were dancing in an alleyway to wedding music, holding babies, drinking soda, and photographing small children.

We had been strolling down a trash-strewn street when we heard music; children and women had promptly yelled to us to follow them down an alley. They led us to a small area where women, old men, and children danced, with music from drums and a traditional wind instrument called a mizmar filling the air. After an hour of snapping photos of kids, making friends, and dancing with the older people, we left the neighborhood, promising to come back right after sundown for the wedding party.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

In the United States, it's almost unheard of to invite a complete stranger to your wedding. But, perhaps because of a combination of the Egyptian tradition of hospitality and the fact that our presence was so outlandish—we were a good six inches to a foot taller than almost everyone there, for example—our attendance was considered an honor.

Two hours later, we were back in "Old Cairo." With no idea what was coming next, we ventured back into that same alleyway, which this time was replete with colorful lights, even more children, and a cameraphone hooked up to a television showing live-action shots of the goings-on in the alley—and, inevitably, our beaming faces. After holding a couple more children and taking approximately 10,000 photos of cute little kids, we got a chance to rest and learn a bit more about what was going on. Our new best friend Mohamed, who told us he had been an aluminum salesman in Tripoli before war broke out in Libya, introduced us to the bride's father and told us that most of the people were family members and neighbors. We sat, had some complimentary sodas, and received an inevitable dinner invitation to Mohamed's house.

One of the five million children running about.

Soon enough, the bride arrived and all hell broke loose. Dozens of women wearing colorful headscarves formed a circle three or four people deep, and young women started shimmying their hips and gyrating to the loud music blaring from a nearby tower of speakers. As I had one of the only two cameras—Alex had the other one, of course—I assumed the role of wedding photographer. Meanwhile, Alex became the party entertainment, dancing with every single woman and child in sight.

Of course, I ended up in the center of the circle, too.

After literally three hours of ridiculousness, we still didn't completely know what was going on. The bride was sitting on the side of the hullabaloo, looking pretty glum (she's in the first photo at the top of this post, wearing a pink shirt with a cat on it), and there was no sign of the groom. When we asked people where he was, some said he was at another party and would arrive soon, others said he wasn't coming at all, and still others told us that he was over there in that alleyway. We think a more formal wedding ceremony had taken place earlier that day; this party was merely part of the all-day celebration.

 (If you can't see the video, click here.)

Either way, what was clear was that I still have much to learn about Egyptian and Muslim culture. There were women in niqabs watching young girls dance suggestively, while some of the older women seemed to remove and put their headscarves back on at will. Meanwhile, I danced with women wearing headscarves, while other women encouraged me to snap photos of everything. Young men took in all the excitement from a few feet away, with youths drinking beer—haraam!—right next to the DJ stand.

All in all, it was a super sha'abi wedding. Later that night at a party at the apartment of some of our American friends, I told two Egyptians that, after the wedding, I was even more confused about Egyptian culture: about how relations between men and women worked, about how modest dress can sometimes go out the window, about how concepts of what is haraam, or forbidden, and hilaal, or permitted, blur in different social situations—at least through the eyes of a Western observer.

"This is Egypt," one of them replied, laughing. "We don't understand it either."

Update (11:40 p.m.): We took Mohamed the aluminum worker up on his dinner invite and headed over to their house this evening for a four-hour affair. After scarfing down a giant plate (read: mountain) of rice, two pieces of chicken—I had to eat Alex's, too, because she's a vegetarian—eggplant, potatoes, a couple sandwiches, various beverages, and a bunch of sweets, I feel like I'm going to explode. The sensation reminds me of both my first night in Jordan last year and my family's trips to that really good vegetarian Indian buffet place in Gaithersburg.

After a truly wonderful evening of food, conversation, and food, Alex and I emerged with both a better understanding of how an average Egyptian family lives and a clearer picture of what actually happened Friday night. Turns out it was the beginning of a monthlong wedding celebration; the celebration we attended was a party for the bride that followed some sort of opening ceremony earlier that day. I think. Either way, we were invited to come back at the end of Ramadan for more food. Blargh...

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