Tradition Meets Modernity: An Egyptian Wedding in Cairo
When I get invited to a wedding, I rarely say no because of the abundance of single men, free food and open bars. When I got invited to an Egyptian wedding between an Indian man and an Egyptian woman in Cairo on Christmas, I immediately responded that I would be there. It is uncommon for an Arab woman to be marrying an Indian man in a public ceremony, and this wedding was especially surprising due to the lack of family tension. With little preparation and no formal wear in my closet, I left at five in the morning with a sleep-deprived mind, grabbing scarves to fashion a make-shift dress.
I met Mona and Hysum during my semester abroad. They were the “it” couple, the couple that was meant to be, and one could clearly tell that they loved being themselves around each other. They were having one wedding in Egypt and another in India, an idea which confused me at the time because who would want to go through the details all over again in another continent? On Henna Night, I learned that the combination of the relatives from both the bride’s and groom’s sides, coupled by their “Arab time” (always fashionably late), would have created one giant train wreck.
They were having one wedding in Egypt and another in India, an idea which confused me at the time because who would want to go through the details all over again in another continent?
At Henna Night, I witnessed Arab men kissing my male friends on the cheeks and videographers recording unfortunate shots of us foreigners looking extremely out-of-place, and I knew that twerking was most definitely out of the question. Obviously I broke that last rule because I had to live it up. The younger generation, foreigners included, and the older relatives fought between traditional Arabic music and Miley Cyrus, which went on longer than anyone anticipated. Yet everyone still went home merry and ready to see the lovebirds get married.
The most spectacular part of the wedding was the diversity of the guests and the assortment of fancy clothing each group wore. As soon as I walked inside the reception lobby, I was overwhelmed by the wealthier and classier looking guests who were dressed to the nines, while I wore a simple and sleeveless dress I had borrowed from a friend.
It was awkward enough that the groom and his family did not speak Arabic and thus could only communicate to the bride using English. But even more awkward were the foreigners–myself included–who cornered ourselves in one area of the room sipping guava juice. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we mingled and watched the groom and the father of the bride sign a marriage contract, a ritual normally done in Arabic and in private.
If you find yourself at an Arab wedding, be sure to surround yourself with people who are fluent in Arabic and English and ask them to whisper translations for you. But that was the least of Arab hospitality that we experienced!
The father of the bride even came up to our group to ensure we felt comfortable and even offered to find me alternative dining options, since I could not eat any dairy, which consisted of fifty percent of the food at the wedding. I made up for it the next day though by sneaking into the couple’s room and stealing the wedding cake since I hadn’t tasted a single bite.
I am normally not a pushy person, but when it comes to food, I will fight through a lion den to get my fill. As soon as I saw the buffet line, I ran toward it as though I had starved for days. I pushed past Indian mothers; I raced against elderly Egyptian men; and I fought off children with their sneaky little hands, only to find out that I had disgraced myself for hummus.
This exercise did, however, allow me to sample incredible hummus and observe Arabic table manners. Apparently, eating with your hands in an Arab country is socially acceptable and sometimes the only way to truly enjoy your meal. The Arabic style of eating juxtaposed with the lavish decorations, the spectrum of colors, not to mention the remodeled hotel which used to be a palace, made me fall madly in love with Cairo and with what the rest of Egypt had to offer.
Advice to future travelers: people will stare at you, but that does not mean it should affect you, as long as you remain a law-abiding tourist.
While in Egypt, I had a difficult time adhering to the Arab community’s conservative rules. Too often I was viewed as a commodity and became a target of harassment. Maybe it was the color of my skin, or the way I carried myself, but I did not let anyone trample on my attitude or identity.
Although I did not have to wear an abaya in Egypt, I did have to properly cover myself and be extra aware of my surroundings. Advice to future travelers: people will stare at you, but that does not mean it should affect you, as long as you remain a law-abiding tourist.
Surviving a social event in Egypt meant knowing the country’s laws, becoming familiar with the local traditions, and making Arabic-speaking friends by sharing tea and life stories with strangers. I dove straight into Arab culture as a clueless American, and I came out with a stomach full of knowledge and hummus. At my friends’ Egyptian wedding, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to witness something old, something new, something borrowed, something gold, and a happy marriage in Cairo.