I sighed as I opened another wedding invitation and inwardly dreaded the task of spending the night surrounded by people I didn’t really know, smiling politely and making small talk. It occurred to me that I could decline the invitation however I realised that the family was too close for me not to attend, yet not close enough for me to know anyone more than vaguely. This awkward predicament left me with little choice and so I resigned myself to attending another Cairo wedding. Now anyone who has the luck, or misfortune depending on how you look at it, of attending a wedding hosted by the upper echelons of Egyptian society will be routinely familiar with the entire proceeding. The wedding is invariably held at one of the numerous five star hotels, The Four Seasons, The Marriot, The Grand Hyatt or some other prestigious venue, for God forbid any of the guests should think the family is skimping on cost. Even the five star hotels seem to have a specific rating within the upper-classes and once a certain prominent family has given away their son or daughter in The Grand Hyatt, it very quickly becomes the only respectable place left to marry. The invitation most commonly asks guests to arrive at 8pm however in true Egyptian fashion no one turns up until midnight. The guests proceed to wait another two hours for the bride to make her grand entrance and descend from the celestial staircase, I don’t know why a staircase is always involved, it just is. Guests are then obligated to get up and dance around the bride and groom to extremely loud music or the croonings of a one hit wonder who has been flown in especially to sing at this event. The wealthier you get and the higher your reputation climbs it seems to be a ‘must’ to have an ex pop star sing at your wedding. Once the dancing is over with and you are finally allowed to sit down again, guests are served a hurried buffet before once more exiting the building and re-joining the stream of Cairo traffic.
All of this flashed through my mind as I opened the invitation and I resigned myself to my family duty, trying to convince myself that it probably wouldn’t be so bad.
The eventful night dawned and I readied myself to go through the motions. Of course I was not stupid enough to turn up on time and instead arrived three hours late. However upon walking into the hall I supressed a sigh as I realised that there was only about fifty guests assembled so far and that there was a long wait ahead, and so I politely sat down, readied myself for the night and prepared to do some people watching.
The night wore on, the hall filled and the dancing commenced. I admired the decorations, admittedly they had been used at the last five weddings but that made them no less pretty. I observed the girls and their flowing gowns, saw at least three girls with the same dress on, as anyone knows that there are only certain shops you can go to, Zara and Mango being those said shops, and politely shook hands with numerous people who swore they remembered me as a child and ardently declared that we should meet up, before departing as quickly as they could.
As I sat watching the dancing and listening to some old pop star who had been especially flown in from Lebanon, or so I was informed, I contemplated my surroundings. Of course talking to anyone was completely out of the question as the music was, as usual, deafening the guests and eliminating the prospect of conversation. I watched the ‘alleged’ famous singer stand on a chair in the middle of the dance floor surrounded by men and women, old and young alike, and it struck me that this particular scene was, in essence, a lot of youths living out an inaccessible fantasy.
As a half Egyptian half Irish descendant who was raised in England I have always been privy to two different cultures that I could shift between at will. I spent my teenager years in England where nightclubs, pubs and bars were the norm, especially for that all important first year at university. Summer holidays were spent in Egypt where all my family and friends followed strict Islamic law and a night dancing in an overcrowded, sweaty venue was not talked about, let alone practiced. As I sat watching the young men and women of this particular wedding assemble on the dance floor I realised that this was the Islamic version of a nightclub, this was in fact the ‘halal clubbing experience’. A large proportion of the young men and women from the upper crust of society in Egypt come from strictly religious families who follow a code of Islamic law. This law, combined with living in a Muslim country, does not allow for late nights, inappropriate dresses, grotty pubs and dark nightclubs. They cannot access a life that their fellow teens in the West experience. They do not have the opportunity to share a closeted space with hundreds of beautiful, scantily clad women and handsome men. Nor can they gain close proximity with intimate dancing in a dark corner and the possibility of a cheeky feel in the disguise of a slip on the dance floor. They certainly do not get to pour out onto the streets at 3am after a night of close interaction with the opposite sex. However the Egyptian wedding is like Christmas come early, or in this case, Eid. All the men and women get to dress up, wear too much expensive cologne and perfume and spend the evening checking out which girl is the hottest and which muhagaba (veiled woman) is the prettiest. As I contemplated all of this I watched a group of six men stare and point at one girl whose dress was in grave danger of being relabelled as a belt. Behind these male predators a gaggle of girls stood contemplating which of these men were doctors and which were engineers and most importantly, which one would make the best husband. Women in headscarves, normally the epitome of timid decorum, were wiggling hips provocatively, swaying to the warbling of this particular has-been. The conservatively dressed group of ladies were for once showing a bit of skin. A slight dip in neckline here, a flash of leg there and perhaps even an entire arm. The normal respectable gap between men and women in the Middle East closed dangerously as members of the opposite sex inched closer to one another. While on the periphery of this watering hole the older members of the wedding, normally the enforcers of law and order amongst their young ones, sat swaying to the music, happily watching their usually conservative children grind up against one another.
What is it about the Egyptian wedding that allows all rules and regulations to fly so swiftly out of the window? The wedding merely serves as a guise for everyone to act under a religious mask and experience the thrills of a lifestyle that is completely inaccessible to them in their normal lives. Unlike their western counterparts they did not spend endless nights through university clubbing the night away and were unable to get it out of their systems at the age of eighteen, nineteen and even twenty, and so instead we are presented with the conundrum of the Egyptian, Muslim wedding, where for one night the younger generation of Cairo step out of their usual roles while the parents turn a blind eye. Or actually, as anyone here knows, it’s not really one night at all. As the wedding is finishing the kids are already talking about which club (a.k.a wedding) they are attending next weekend.
So perhaps the next time I am ‘fortunate’ enough to receive a wedding invitation from the prestigious upper crust of society, family duty or not, I may have to politely decline as thankfully, I was able to get the desire to join a hundred other strangers on a dance floor in uncomfortable shoes out of my system at the appropriate age.