Procession of the Bride

Zeffat al ‘Arusah

The Egyptian Procession of the Bride

By Sahra


It was my first night of performing in Cairo, Egypt. I was almost late getting ready for my show at Le Meridien – Heliopolis because there was a zeffah going on and I could not pull myself away. I had been trying for over a decade to sort through and fit together information on the procedure, function, and cultural role of the Oriental dancer within the Middle Eastern custom of the “Zeffat al ‘Arusah,” or the “procession of the bride.” And then, here it is, in front of my very eyes — twenty drums pounding in my ears, an Oriental dancer balancing a shamadan, the glowing bride and groom, and the whole thing stimulating every dance researcher cell in my body. Only with the reassurances that there would be two more zeffah next week could I leave to get ready for my show.

Three female dancers with shamadan (candelabrum) accompany the bride and groom, as male folkloric dancers prepare for a mini-entertainment of a short Alexandrian dance. This Zeffat al 'Arusah proceeds with female dancers, but stands and watches male dancers. Meridien-Heliopolis Hotel, Cairo, Egypt, 1990. Photo by Sahra.

Ritual itself has always fascinated me. When ritual also includes dance as an integral component within the context of a cultural belief system, this is too intriguing to leave untouched. The first time I took part in a zeffah was in the role of the dancer at a Palestinian wedding in Los Angeles in 1980. I had never seen or heard of a zeffah before, and it seemed very strange that when the names of the bride and groom were announced, not they but I should enter, dancing through the door. Of course from that day on I had to try to understand this ritual event.

It is an understatement to say that it is difficult for western-born oriental dancers to make sense of their chosen dance’s cultural matrix. One keeps trying to piece together this giant, overwhelming jig-saw puzzle from tiny irregularly shaped bits of information. What is part of the cosmic humor of it all is that they are not all pieces of the same jig-saw puzzle! When one finally notices national differences, one is hit with cultural diffusion, whether immigration of peoples, historical boundary fluctuations, aesthetic choice or fashion modification, or other cultural contact and change. After endeavoring to define these groups, one is confronted with status groups and the sometimes extremely subtle, but very culturally relevant, internally recognized delineations, each with their own cultural attitudes and definitions.

Cultural Variation in Egypt

Different groups in Egypt enact the Zeffat al’Arusah in different ways. There are many cultural groups in Egypt; geographically the larger ones are: Nubian, Saidi, Cairo urban, Delta Fallaheen, Oasis groups, Alexandrian, Port Said area, and Bedouin. Each has its own traditions with variations within groups, between villages, religions, status groups, and other internally recognized delineations.

This outdoor street zeffah inluded no female dancers; there were short male folkloric dances, this one being the dervsh dance. Cairo, Egypt, 1989.

Definition of Zeffat al ‘Arusah

The definition of “zeffah” is to “process with noise” (Edward W. Lane, Arabic Lexicon, published after death by S. Lane Poole. 1876-90). There are many types of zeffah for many occasions of personal status change, some bad, some good. Writing from observations and field work done in Egypt between 1825 and 1835, Lane wrote about the “zeffat al haram” where one was paraded through the streets with noise to attract attention for public censure to some dishonorable deed (Edward W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836 original copyright. East-West publications, Livres de France, pages 167-172). There is also a zeffah to parade a person returning from the outside, whether from traveling on the Haj to Mecca, or returning from war or prison.

Even within the extended marriage process there are several zeffah. Lane wrote about the Zeffat al Hamman, when the bride’s female friends and family accompany her to the public baths the day before she goes to her husband, the Zeffat al ‘Arusah, when the bride and her entourage go to the husband’s house, and the Zeffah Sadatee, or “gentleman’s zeffah” to and from the mosque once his bride has arrived at his family home, but before he sees her for the first time (Lane, ibid.)

Within the dominant culture of Cairo today, usually only two zeffah are observed. The major zeffah is the Zeffat al ‘Arusah of both the bride and the groom, either on the day of “the signing of the book,” katb el kitab, when they are legally married, or when they actually move in together as man and wife, the Laylet al Doklah. The time separating these two events was usually a matter of days in the past. Nowadays it may be hours or even years if the couple has the unfortunately very usual problem of putting together an expensive apartment and all the accessories.

The other zeffah observed is on the occasion of the engagement. In the past, and often today, this is a small home affair. But it is also currently very popular to make it into a replica of a wedding. The same halls or hotel ballrooms are used, the zeffah is exactly the same; the only difference is that the bride wears a colored dress instead of white, and wears no veil. Couples are waiting longer to get married these days, and I think the expanded celebration of the engagement on the pattern of a wedding reflects this.

Function of Zeffat al ‘Arusah

The reason most often given for the Zeffat al ‘Arusah is to publicly announce the marriage. In many parts of Egypt, for a young woman to be seen in the sole company of a young man would deeply dishonor the family. A girl’s virginity is guarded and prized. The Zeffat al ‘Arusah publicly proclaims that this couple are now husband and wife. The marriage announcement, in this non-paper-reliant community with a high degree of illiteracy, has, through the ages, been done in person by sound and light.

One should not underestimate sound and light as information distributors in Egypt. Vendors call out their product or service from the street. Cars signal with horns. By rhythmic beat one knows different information as varied as the intent of a crowded zeffah, or even what type of drinks a waiter has for sale in the Mogamma government building. Lane, in Manners and Customs (Ibid., p. 166 and 177), mentioned how the groom has lights strung in front of his house for a couple of days before a wedding, and how the bride can hear the zeffah sadatee half an hour or more before she sees the torches and lamp display. One must remember most sounds were natural traditionally, and electricity is rather new in places.

Any zeffah proclaims publicly a change in a person’s status; in the case of the Zeffat al ‘Arusah, the iqa’ zeffah (or rhythm of the zeffah) instructs the public of a new marriage. This allows personal witness to the union by members of the village or neighborhood. I cannot overstate the importance of public personal witness in this culture where most of the social order is maintained from within; from the conservative force of public agreement or censure while following strict honor and religious codes of behavior. Outside the scope of this article, but of utmost importance, is the zeffah function of verifying and assisting in the personal transition of the bride from virgin to sexual wife and fertile mother (see author’s article, “Arab-American Zeffat al ‘Arusah, UCLA Journal of Dance Ethnology, Vol. 13, 1989).

Historically there was the physical necessity for the Zeffat al ‘Arusah to be a safe escort and to protect the bride’s honor and privacy, and all public appearances thereof, as she traveled from her family’s home to his. Most cultural groups in Egypt had traditions in the past, especially for high born brides, to be either covered totally by fabric or concealed completely in a closed carriage atop a camel.


Participation in the Zeffat al ‘Arusah

I shall separate participants into two groups: 1) The families of the persons making the transition and non-professional entourage, and 2) professional entertainers. This distinction as separate groups is also shared by the indigenous populations as well. In fact, this distinction is observed to an extent far beyond what is observed in the West. In Egypt, for a family member to be able to dance, sing, or play an instrument well is usually positive. But for a family member to cross over into the occupation of entertainer is a major, often heartbreaking event for the whole extended family. (The extended family’s lack of acceptance of a professional dancer in their midst is poignantly alluded to as shared cultural knowledge in Shareen el Safy’s question and simpatico with Dina in “Dina at the Mena,” Habibi, Spring, 1993, Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 3.)

Family Participants

When the Zeffat al ‘Arusah was ritual within the physical need for transportation, the specific group’s cultural definition as to whom the bride belonged at that point would establish which family would make up her entourage. Often in Cairo weddings, according to old traditions, the bride and groom did not meet each other before the wedding night (Lane, Ibid., pgs. 161, 172). Therefore, the bride was in the procession without the groom, hence the literal name, “procession of the bride.” I have learned from extensive interviews with Egyptians from provinces other than Cairo, that it is common now, even in remote areas, for the bride and groom, families and guests to arrive in motored vehicles to an established spot and then all of them to process together.

The family has a major role in any zeffah. Often, there are no professionals hired, both in rural and urban zeffah. Family members walk with the bride, or bride and groom. Families sing and often dance for joy. Male family members play duff and tabla. If women ride in carriages or carts, they too can play drums, as they will later in the house for the “farrah,” which means both “wedding celebration” and “happiness.” There is no electronic amplification of sound, the drums are quite noisy and their sound carries well, but more and more often one sees the strong artificial light of a video camera, even in the most humble of zeffah.

Professional Entertainment

This section could easily be expanded to fill this whole issue of Habibi. This is my main area of interest. It involves the always innovative entertainment business of Cairo, as well as being an informative window into social norms, attitude, and change.

Within one generation the entertainment business system went from the Almah (plural Awalim) system to the impresario and entrepreneur system. In the Almah system, entertainment groups were woman-owned and managed, leadership (the “Osta”) was earned by personal charisma and business savvy. Their clients were local connoisseurs promoting their personal favorite entertainers for local work. The Osta were witty, entertaining, powerful women who were almost always non-educated and illiterate. The Awalim had a long and tumultuous history in Cairo; sometimes banned altogether by repressive political regimes and/or religious pressure, other times in favor and encouraged by the court with a few being exalted as favorites of kings. The places for entertainment were either the homes of clients (such as for weddings), the Almah’s own establishment (where only men would go to be entertained), or locally owned night clubs (one of the most famous being “Casino Badia” owned by the renowned Almah, Badia Masabni).

Lane (Ibid.) asserts that Awalim did not dance, they were singers. He terms the public dancers “Ghawazee,” and says they are not of regular Egyptian stock, but their own separate tribes. This is supported by Naguib Mahfouz(“Palace Walk,” translation for English edition by William Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, U.S.A., 1989; originally published in Arabic as “Bayn al Qasrayn,” 1956). When he was writing of the same time period as Lane (1828-1835), he has in his famous work an Almah Osta singing at a wedding. In private with only gentlemen in her establishment, she and her Awalim sing and dance.

Usually Almah wedding entertainment would include the Zeffah al ‘Arusah, the farrah, another short zeffah, then return to their establishment, sometimes with some of the gentlemen from the wedding party. The Zeffat al ‘Arusah would be a grand affair, limited only by the amount one could pay. The farrah would be conducted either inside or on the roof of the groom’s family home. Naguib Mahfouz (Ibid.) described the Almah entertaining at a wedding, separately for the women and the men, and having easy access to men’s quarters in the house.

After the farrah, there would be a small zeffah to process the bride, groom, and according to some traditions, also the daya (the midwife), and the mothers of both the bride and groom, to the bedroom to witness and agree on the bride’s virginity. This established, sometimes by displaying a bloodied sheet, that the marriage was complete and both families’ honor intact. Documentation regarding this tradition is difficult to find, and most of my information was obtained through personal interviews. It is rare to have any literary source refer to this all at once, so much is assumed unspoken knowledge of an embarrassing subject.

The Awalim Zeffah

The Awalim Zeffah I shall describe here is from the collective memories of several Cairenes. It is from the 1940’s and 1950’s. A core group of Awalim lived at the Osta’s establishment. These women would form the basic Zeffat al ‘Arusah. They would play the riq (small tambourine) , sing, and call out compliments to the bride, groom, and families as they processed. A few of the Awalim would dance, four dancers being a popular number, often one or more of whom balanced the shamadan, the candelabra. If the family was especially honored, the Osta herself, a famous singer or dancer in her own right, would also take part in the procession. If extra musicians were needed, there were, and still are, outdoor coffee areas, kahwah where male musicians would sit, available for immediate work.

The male musicians and the awalim would form two long lengthwise rows, parallel with the street, with an open space between the rows. Next came the dancers, then the bride and groom, with family standing beside and behind them. The public crowded in around this procession. The space between the two rows afforded a viewing of the bride, groom and dancers. Family members could come in and dance in this space also.

The Zeffat al ‘Arusah today also takes the above formation. Marriageable females now extend the two long lines before the bride and groom; they hold tall festooned candles, announcing by light as the lit shamadan did before. In a street zeffah the crowd is so intense one can barely see, having to rely on the iqa’ zeffah beat of the drums to be instructed as to its cause. Then one can follow the tall candles over the crowd to find the center. Once one has pushed closer, one can see a white puff of tulle which has bride beneath. Only because of the space between the two lines can one view the dancers, bride and groom.

Today it is still possible to hire an Awalim zeffah. I am told that they are very expensive. As they are known to be prostitutes, it is also considered to be in bad taste to have them in a 5-star hotel and they are not allowed in some government reception halls. Everyone I interviewed said nowadays it is not a good idea to have women dancing or singing in the street zeffahs. There is conservative religious pressure not to display women publicly. Whether one believes in this or not, I am told that a family would be crazy to bring problems onto themselves at this time, especially on the joyful occasion of a wedding.

Hassaballah Band

During the British occupation, there was also another musical entertainment that became popular, termed the Hassaballah band. I am told that there was an actual band leader by the name of “Hassaballah,” but I haven’t found proof. Even today, any band with this pseudo-military sound and dress is termed Hassaballah. Drums and brass, popular in military bands, are the instruments used. Today one can still hire a Hassaballah band. I have seen them used in zeffah in 5-star hotels as an attention getting introduction to announce the appearance of the bride with her father. Then once she is handed to the groom, a regular zeffah group with the two long lines continues the zeffah.

Although one can hire a real Army band, if one has the connection, who play very well, the Hassaballah bands are notoriously bad. They are available in many different degrees of ability in playing their instruments and in staying with any one song at a time.

Impresario System

In the early 1950’s the Nile Hilton Hotel was built, signaling and representing the national winds of change that increased Egypt’s international relationship with the world, cutting the influence of many local systems, such as the Almah. Foreigners had already long invaded and influenced Egyptian music and dance. The latest instance of influence was Hollywood and others heavily investing in sound recording and cinema, insisting on modification to fit the needs of the media and foreign aesthetics. This influence in the Oriental dance can be seen in Egyptian films showing the Western aesthetic of slim, glamorous dancers wearing costumes contrived to cover the navel, doing short, timed theme dances. Once established, the 5-star hotels had their influence in what was put on stage and how. Among the elite of Cairo, foreign was in fashion: foreign owned and patterned hotels, foreign manners and society, and foreign entertainment. The business person who dealt with these hotels had to be multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and preferably male. Thus developed the impresario system: a man who was educated, literate, able to deal with foreigners and who could facilitate international business contracts.

Wedding entertainment contracted by an impresario gave, and still gives, one a wide range of many different zeffah choices, including Awalim if one wished. The impresario-hired zeffah are kept to a tight schedule. After the zeffah, instead of one Awalim group entertaining for the length of the farrah, the impresario schedules one hour shows by different singers, dancers, and comedians, each with their own band and ensemble. Continuity and specific wedding rituals, often borrowed from the West, such as the couple’s “first dance” and the cutting of a tiered wedding cake, are accompanied by a house band, able to play Western and Eastern music. The house band usually stays for the length of the farrah, sitting for hours while other artists entertain.

Firit Zeffah

Of course the impresario needs zeffah choices he can rely on, who will arrive at the required time and do the job without any problems. The family needs a zeffah that will be spectacular, impress their friends, not be embarrassing in any way, and produce a videotape where the bride and groom shine. More and more, firit zeffah fit the requirements. Firit zeffah, or “zeffah groups” have developed in response to need. To be rehired by an impresario they have to arrive on time, be very loud, and provide whatever is new and interesting in zeffah entertainment and video staging.

The bride and the groom are seen in a street zeffah amid a crowd of family and friends, lit by four tall candles held by unmarried women as well as video camera lights. The firit zeffah leader is seen playing tabla to the right. Downtown Cairo, Egypt, 1989

Firit zeffah come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are reorganized zeffah musicians and families thereof with the old Almah system leadership intact, but unseen, with a new facade to fit the current fashion. For example, I asked for a business card of a firit zeffah (business cards for zeffah is new) working in a 5-star hotel. The name was “Om Ashraf” (the mother of Ashraf – woman-owned) and the address was a kahwah on Mohammed Ali street (the coffee places on this particular street are where zeffah musicians and Almah historically made business contact). But at the same time, this field is now open to more than the traditional Awalim or to the musician class, which is also a reflection of what is happening to traditional classes in Egypt today. Now firit zeffah work is open to any business minded, competitive person with a talent for organizing and showmanship. Many firit zeffah members are male university students with a firit leader bragging high marks in the University of Commerce. To be earning extra money in the evenings as a young man in a firit zeffah does not seem to hold the same connotations as a family member crossing over into the profession of music or dance.

Many firit zeffah last exactly one hour. They don’t cover much ground, possibly one or two blocks of the zeffah is in the street, or the distance from the front door to the ballroom in reception halls and hotels. The walked procession done to the iqa’ zeffah (Dum tec-a tec tec, Dum tec tec) is interspersed with stationary periods with mini-entertainments. The distance covered and stationary periods are all well-timed to last exactly one hour. I stress the exact timing because this concept is very foreign. To contrive to have something last an exact amount of time, and to end abruptly is not part of Egyptian nature nor of cultural politeness rules. Again, the two long lines with the viewing and dance space are used as the basic structure. The family may dance in this space as well as the mini-entertainments.

These short entertainments may include:

1. A group of dancers — awalim are still seen, but folkloric dance groups of three to five dancers, usually male, are popular, too — with simple choreography for the firit zeffah, duff and riq players.

2. There may be little tableaus, such as putting a tarboush (fez hat) on the head of the groom, while the bride swirls an incense burner above his head for good luck. Then, for humor, reversing these very historically established roles, the bride wears the tarboush on top of her white veil while the groom clouds her with incense.

3. Another whole category of entertainments are colorful special effects such as beribboned hoops held in position. These cannot be considered dancing or actually very amusing to the crowd at the time, but all are designed for the benefit of the video camera, for framing the bride and groom.

Oriental Dancer in the Zeffah

The female Oriental dancer(s) in the Zeffat al ‘Arusah are always termed Almah or Awalim, whereas the term for Oriental dancer on a stage is Ra’assa. There is a big difference in status. I have been told in no uncertain terms not to perform in a zeffah in Egypt. It is normal and encouraged to include a mini-zeffah in a Ra’assa’s stage act, especially for the farrah.

Not so long ago, it was popular to have a big star do one’s zeffah. I have heard women in their 40’s and 50’s still talking about who did their zeffah. Some people tell me it is still done today, but they have offered no specific proof.

The Oriental dancer, with or without shamadan, has a very special place in the Zeffat al ‘Arusah. She is the only professional entertainer to process in the family space during the iqa’ zeffah. If she is not there, no one else takes her place. Others may dance in that space temporarily during the stationary periods with the new fashion of tacked-on mini-entertainments; at these times the meaning has changed and it has become a stage. When the iqa’ zeffah begins again, the space becomes ritual space and not invaded. According to my many interviewees, to have a man dance during the iqa’ zeffah is unthinkable and to have a woman in folkloric costume just is not right. It has to be the Oriental dancer to complete the ritual of a woman’s transformation.

Recent readers of Habibi are familiar with Sahra, or Carolee Kent, as she was featured on last Summer’s cover and poster. In addition to her success as a dancer in Cairo, Sahra also has a scholarly dimension to her background. She received a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology, and went on to pursue a master’s degree from UCLA’s Dance Ethnology Department. In 1987 she presented a paper entitled “Arab-American Zeffat al ‘Arusah in the Los Angeles Area” at the annual UCLA Dance Ethnology Seminar in 1988; the paper was later published in the UCLA Journal of Dance Ethnology (Vol. 13, 1989). Later that year, she moved to Cairo and continued her research in the zeffah homeland.

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