Journal: Saturday 18 October 1997
In the evening my friend and guide Hassan invited me to go with him to part of the wedding celebrations of a friend of his in the village of Kom on the West Bank. I’m not sure how long the celebration had been going on already but this evening, he told me, there was to be music and dancing, which he knew I couldn‘t resist.
I was getting used to crossing the river on my own at night on the local ferry. I had even become accustomed to the gun-toting police launch alongside and the helicopter flying overhead. I had so hated these when I first got to Luxor earlier this month but they were no longer present now that Aida had finished. There were a few curious glances by men on the ferry who must have wondered where a tourist was going at this time of night, but nobody paid me much heed or bothered me at all. Hassan met me on the other side and we took a service taxi to Kom. When we reached the village there were a lot of arabeyas with horns honking loudly and crowds of people in the narrow streets, all going in the same direction, congregating in a little square in front of some of the houses. I could hear the music as soon as I got out of the car.
We walked down an alley and when we arrived at the square Hassan was made welcome by his friends while I, as a foreign guest, was given a place of honour at the front of the crowd and was provided with a bottle of Pepsi. This was very different to the urban wedding I had attended in Luxor two years ago, which had taken place in a street with loud amplified music. This time there was a small group of musicians playing rababa and drums which sounded fantastic. A young man in a galabeya was dancing alone in the small space before the band, with his arms in the air holding a scarf and his hips swaying and swirling in slow motion in time to the beat of the drum. This was a true Saidi (Upper Egyptian) wedding, with little influence from western culture. The bride wore no fancy wedding dress, but a colourful galabeya and headscarf, just like the rest of the younger women around her. The married ladies covered their galabeyas with a black outer garment and a wore a black head scarf or hijab over their hair to show their status.
In Upper Egypt, most of the marriages are arranged, often between cousins or other members of the same family. The Saidi culture does not allow boys and girls to mix freely, so it is difficult for young people to meet prospective partners without the intervention of their families. There is often an elder woman in the villages known as el-Khatba, who knows all the village families and will arrange suitable marriages between them. In the past, it was not uncommon for the groom to have never even met his bride before the wedding ceremony. Also, girls as young as ten may have been already spoken for, although the legal marriage age is not before fifteen years of age. The dowry, known as el-Mahr, has always been required in Egypt and a father must be able to afford quite large sums of money for his daughter’s marriage as wealth and status are considered important. Recently even more money is required from the bride’s family for both the wedding party and the dowry (sometimes as much as LE2000 and much more in the cities) as well as all of the linen and furnishings for the home. The groom must provide the living accommodation (often in his parent’s home) and a certain quantity of gold jewellery must be bought for the bride. This is her insurance against divorce or widowhood. With rising prices and poorly paid work in the rural areas this has become difficult for young men, who simply can’t afford to be married and must often go away to work in the tourist industry or to Saudi Arabia as a means of earning more money.
One of the traditional Saidi wedding customs for the bride, consists of a ‘henna-day‘, when her hands and feet are decorated with the red dye and intricate ‘tattoos’ of henna and she is pampered, fussed over and prepared for her wedding by her women friends and family. The ceremony itself is merely a formality, the signing of forms, but the celebrations may carry on for several days. The marriage contract is signed and registered by the maazon, a man who has an official licence to do this, either at a mosque or the bride’s family home, with the couple and their families and friends in attendance.
The wedding I attended was a later part of these celebrations and everyone seemed to be having a good time. After a while two men got up to perform a stick-dance, known as Tahtib, which was very lively and earthy. The poles, each over a metre long, were swung through the air in graceful but wild figure-of-eight patterns and over each other’s heads at great speed. The dance is traditional custom, a way for the men to show their manliness and prowess and once used as a martial art. Indeed, I had seen depictions of the origins of this dance in the tomb of Kheruef at Asasif, where men fighting with long sticks appear to be using exactly the same movements. Afterwards it was the turn of the women to dance and several of the younger girls got up and began swaying to the music. Saidi women’s baladi dance is very special, the movements are not wild or gyrating but controlled and very graceful and I would imagine also symbolic. After a while they pulled me up into their circle and taught me some of the dance movements. It was great fun.
It was quite late when we left. Hassan walked me back to the ferry, about 5km, as there were no service cars to be seen and as we walked through the darkened deserted fields he explained many of the traditional Saidi wedding customs to me. This still remains in my memory as one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent in Egypt and a wonderful way to remember the last night of my holiday.