It takes a village
No matter how much the celebrations might differ across Egypt, the most important aspects of marriage remain the same, says Salonaz Sami
Although the end result remains the same, wedding ceremonies vary considerably in Egypt from one governorate to the next. When it comes to marriage, each district has its own customs and traditions, and in many cases these are based on ancient stories from the town's history.
"Weddings in Upper Egypt are nothing like what you see in Cairo," explains Umm Mohamed, a housewife from Beni Sweif. Whereas in Cairo people celebrate on the big wedding night alone, in Upper Egypt celebrations can go on for four to seven nights.
The celebrations start with baking day, when "the women from the bride's side of the family gather in one house to bake sweet pies for the bride. These are then distributed throughout the village and to those invited to the wedding," Umm Mohamed told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Unlike at Cairo weddings, where the happy couple, or their wedding planner, send out invitations months prior to the big occasion, in Upper Egypt men from the bride's side of the family, mostly close relatives, divide the village between them and each will then be in charge of personally informing those invited in his assigned section. "The process can take several days or perhaps a week," Umm Mohamed explained.
The next stage is "furniture night", when everyone helps to prepare furnishings and upholstery for the newlyweds. "We put everything out into the street for people to see and admire," Umm Mohamed says, and the furniture is then loaded onto a truck or two with the help of the groom's friends and transported to the couple's new house.
"The bride's friends and relatives ride on top of one truck with the furniture, and the groom's friends ride on top of the other. Everyone sings and dances in celebration on the way." The songs have words like, "Efrahi yadi el-oda gayaki arousa mouda, efrahi yadi el-a'a gayaki arousa el-sa'a," or "O bedroom be happy, a stylish bride is coming, O hall be happy the bride of the hour is coming."
Following this comes henna night. "All the women gather in the bride's house dressed in bright colours while music fills the air," said Umm Safaa, also a housewife from Beni Sweif. "Although the henna day starts early in the morning, the actual henna night ceremony doesn't take place until the sun sets."
The mother of the bride prepares a big pot to be used for the henna, while the ladies cheer. "All the women gather around the henna lady in anticipation and excitement. She starts with the bride first, drawing beautiful flowers in henna on her hands and feet, and then all the other women take their turns."
No entertainment is needed on henna night because the women do all the singing and dancing themselves. Songs like, "Medi edk ya arousa, medi edk lel-henna," or "O bride stretch out your hands for the henna," are among the most famous henna songs.
However, the women do much more than just sing and dance at such weddings. Although it's the men who come to propose and ask for the bride's hand in marriage, women have harder tasks to fulfil. "It's the women of the bride's family's role to ask around about the potential groom's ethics and financial status," explains Umm Safaa. Moreover, henna night is not just about the bride celebrating her upcoming marriage. Unmarried women come dressed in their best clothes too, because this could be a chance for them to get husbands also, according to Umm Mohamed.
"People who have unmarried sons come to the henna night to congratulate the bride and share in her joy, as well as to find a suitable match for their sons or grandsons," she explains. In Upper Egypt, along with some other areas, men and women are only allowed by tradition to marry into their own village or district, "because outsiders have different ethics and forms of behaviour from ours," Umm Mohamed explained.
"Unlike city women, our women are not usually educated, and if they are, they are only allowed to work as school teachers, because this way they only come into contact with children rather than with adults who are strangers," she said. "Our women are accustomed to hard work, whether inside the house or outside it in the fields, and they are used to helping their fathers and later their husbands."
In Upper Egypt, women can get married as young as 16, and this means there are far fewer unmarried women than there are in the cities. "In the city, they wait for the groom to graduate, work and gather enough money to buy a house," Umm Mohamed comments. In the village, the groom's money is not the only financial resource. "Our weddings are built on solidarity. Everyone in both families pitches in what they can."
This is called al-noe'ta, money paid by the family and friends of the bride and groom in order to help them buy the things necessary for their marriage and for their life together.
"We believe in the old saying, what goes around, comes around," Abu Warda, an electrician, explained. The amounts of money collected for the happy couple are recorded with details of who paid what, so that this can be paid back at some future time. This is called al-gama'ia, or "the assembly", in some Giza governorate villages. "It helps that women begin to buy all they can afford for their daughter's future marriage from the day the daughter is born," explains Abu Warda. "This can include kitchen utensils, bed sheets, and electrical equipment -- anything that is within their budget."
The equivalent of the henna night of the bride is the groom's bachelor party. Organised on the same night, the groom's friends, usually dressed in white, gather in his house to celebrate his last days as a single man before tying the knot.
Finally, the big day comes. "More often than not, the wedding takes place in a large open area in the village, depending on the number of guests coming," Umm Mohamed said. Smaller weddings are held in the street where the bride's family lives. In the latter case, the neighbours' permission is sought first. If someone refuses, because they have a sick family member, for example, or there is a school exam the next day, the wedding is relocated.
Once the location of the wedding has been agreed on, the preparations begin. Plenty of lights are put out, the stage is set for the band or DJ, and the kosha, or place allocated for the bride and groom to sit, usually in the centre of the stage, is prepared. On the wedding day itself, "the groom's house is busy from sunrise onwards with preparations for the meal in the evening," says Abu Warda. "When the groom arrives at the bride's house, he is welcomed by the whole neighbourhood, with the streets echoing with the zaghareit, a traditional expression of happiness."
Women move their tongues from side to side in their mouths while covering their mouths with one hand to produce a sound that's like a "rhythmic whistle". When the zaghareit are heard, this is an indication that the groom has arrived. The couple is then led to the kosha in the al-zafa, a ceremony that often includes a traditional band playing while holding candles.
After the wedding, it is customary for the couple's friends and families to follow them in their cars or motorcycles to their new home. This scene can often be witnessed in the streets of Egypt's towns and cities, as tens of cars follow the couple's decorated car while honking their horns and moving from side to side, usually giving other drivers a hard time.
The next morning, it is customary for the bride and groom's families to visit the couple and bring them delicious treats, a custom called al-sabahia, or the morning after. However, nowadays this has changed. "The visit is usually pushed from the early morning to the evening, in order for the couple to have enough time to rest and relax after their big day," explains Umm Mohamed.