Cairo Wedding Circuit
“Alf Mabrouk ala il Aroussayn!”
The Cairo Wedding Circuit
The rich are out this evening—the “black dress brigade”. This is what we call them, since the daughters of the monied classes tend to go out in chic little black dresses—a standard uniform, regardless of the occasion. Whether it’s a piano bar, a private party, or a fancy wedding, there they will be: creamy skins, coiffured black hair, discreet jewelry and high heels. Today I notice a variation on this theme. There are dresses in all colors: a sweeping royal blue, floor length sheath of silk jersey; a saffron, off-one-shoulder elegantly plain evening gown; a cream pearl encrusted bodice with a chiffon skirt—designer creations that will almost put my expensive costumes to shame.
The men are in suits with colorful combinations of shirts and ties, some conservative, some flamboyant. Their straight, glossy hair denotes their class—no afros here, but smooth styles that hint, somewhere in the family, at possible European blood.
In the marble floored entrance hall, with its pillars and plush stair carpet, the wedding guests have gathered for the zaffa—an expensive zaffa, this one: fifteen musicians in red and white uniforms, plus six additional bagpipe players dressed in tartan; six Saeedi dancers prancing with assaiyas, dressed in gold and white; six dancers for the zar, holding incense burners; a master of ceremonies to orchestrate the proceedings.
In the center of all this stand the bride and groom, faces flushed as the deafening cacophony of drums beat all around them. They are a suitably handsome couple, the bride’s dress a fairy-tale with its mists of swirling skirt billowing out from a tiny waist, her makeup subtle—a change from the standard bridal face, which is usually made up with blue eye shadow, bright pink rouge and scarlet lips. The more baladi the wedding, the harsher the bride’s makeup (and naturally the cheaper and more ill-fitting her dress).
A chair is brought for the bride to sit on. One of the incense burners is handed to the groom, and a tarboush placed on his head. He makes a circle around her waving the incense and looking rather self-conscious, but smiling. They change places and repeat the performance.
The colorful ritual is made sumptuous by the marble surroundings, by the unusually expensive costumes of the zaffa band, and the general aura of wealth permeating from the assembled wedding guests. It has unmistakable class. Half hidden behind a pillar, I’m watching the proceedings when my eye is caught by a small group of young men entering by the main door.
Early twenties, bouffant hair, effete costumes—the young queens are out to party. One of them has an exaggerated mince and a round cherub face. As he bustles by I make a mental note: tonight I will be upstaged. It’s his cock-of the-walk, notice-me swagger that pre-warns me. Ah, it won’t be the first time!
We are first on the program. Sometimes this is hard work, as the audience is still stiff and unrelaxed. On the other hand they aren’t yet bored. Coming last is worse—the poor bride and groom have been dragged off their dais a half a dozen times already and paraded around. They have danced with each other, have been danced around by their friends and relatives, and have attempted to sing into the mike. Cramped into new shoes, they have been sweating under the video lights. And still with the wedding night to come!
So here goes. The five hundred or so guests are seated. The couple have danced a slow song together—Whitney Houston’s standard “I Will Always Love You” (or more recently, the theme from “Titanic”)—with the lights turned down and a spotlight following their self-conscious turn around the room. Aging aunts have smiled on benignly at the scene, and their friends have offered a few wolf whistles. Now my orchestra is playing my introduction, and the assembled faces wait, some expectantly, some resigned, some simply bored. How many such weddings have they attended over the years? Too many to count. How many dancers have paraded before them in costumes that change with the fashion? How many singers, crooning the songs of Abdul Halim Hafez, have they listened to, not a hundred—no, more than a thousand times before?
But the appreciation of tradition should never be underestimated. More often than not they are happy to do the expected, to conform. And when they hear “Gana il Howa” for the thousandth time, they will clap and dance as enthusiastically as ever.
Out under the lights I feel, within the first few moments, the aura of the room. That is to say, the feeling coming from the audience—the exact caliber of their warmth, or coolness. The air between them and myself is alive with this feeling, and I attune myself to it. Some might say that the performer comes to the stage affected by her own mood, and this influences her perception of the audience. But nevertheless, the aura is what she feels in those first moments, and it is a palpable thing.
Sometimes at high class weddings the guests are far too inhibited by notions of maintaining “prestige” to show exhuberance. Their responses tend to be muted, as they cast an eye at their neighbors, or the opposing team seated across the room (the bride’s family and guests are always seated on one side and the groom’s on the other.) For the younger guests it would be uncool to get enthusiastic, and for the older ones, undignified. Luckily these weddings are the minority, since the entertainment is the only thing, apart from the buffet, to break the monotony.
When I first came to Egypt I was a guest at several weddings myself, and was disappointed at what extremely boring occasions they tend to be. To begin with, generally speaking there is no alcohol. I am told that this was never the case in the “good old days”—only a few years ago bottles of whisky and champagne were much in evidence for those who could afford it for their guests. Nowadays, in the increasingly conservative climate of modern Egypt, public consumption of alcohol is frowned upon, and even families that might drink at home don’t want to risk offending anyone.
Naturally there are ways for certain guests to get around this problem—like getting tanked up before hand, or going outside frequently for a tipple from the flask hidden about one’s person. Many times I have danced with the groom and his friends and reeled from the whisky fumes on their breath. Of course these are the fun weddings, when everyone’s actually having a good time.
Having entered the reception room, the guests are seated at tables which remain completely bare until such time as they are given access to the buffet (usually pretty late in the evening). Blasted by freezing air-conditioning, they sit shivering and without refreshment for a couple of hours. (If they were very lucky, they might have gotten a glass of sticky red juice upon arrival). If you are scheduled to perform before the buffet, the guests are distracted, eagerly awaiting the main consolation of the evening—food! If you are coming afterwards, a post-dinner lethargy has usually descended, with the older guests in particular sitting in a stupor, occasionally looking at their watches to see how soon they can politely make their excuses.
Despite this I have heard rumors about a group of people, notorious in the downtown five star hotels, who entertain themselves by being professional wedding guests. Elegantly dressed, they crash ritzy weddings, consume large amounts of free food, and discreetly make their exit. Judging by how little social intercourse seems to take place, and how the two sides of the room never seem to mingle, this would be very easy. As a guest who was used to English weddings, I waited for the speeches that never came, or at least for the two families to make attempts to come together.
The worst scenarios happen when the two families differ in their conservatism or moral values. On one occasion I was barely through the first ten minutes of the show when my singer wrapped up the whole thing and I found myself outside. Very embarrassed, the bride’s brother came to explain that he had hired us as a surprise gift to his sister. Unfortunately the groom’s family was religious and felt it was an insult. The groom himself had insisted I be removed. The young man, who by his flamboyant clothes appeared a natural bon-viveur, was glum indeed. Perhaps it was only just now dawning on him what kind of family his sister was marrying into. I pictured her excited, happy face when I’d tried to bring them down to dance with me, and the uncertainty and disappointment in it when her new husband restrained her. It seemed a sad precedent for the first day of their new married life.
Another dancer I know experienced an even more extreme case. It often happens that one family is more religious than the other, so the dancer finds lively smiling faces on one side, and disapproving frowns on the other. Sometimes the older men actually will turn their chairs so they have their backs to the dancer—or, more politely, leave the room entirely. On this occasion, almost all the guests on one side (the bride’s) turned their chairs, except for some old women, who, as the dancer danced close to them, flicked their hands at her and hissed “Emshi!” (“Get away!”). Meantime the bride’s father had left the room, gone to the management offices, and demanded to know who had insulted his family’s honor by bringing a dancer to perform at his daughter’s wedding. They were from a village somewhere outside Cairo in which he was a leader of the community, and he vowed that he would have the groom’s family banished as a result of this outrage, and sue the hotel in the bargain!
Discord between the families is not only because of differences in religious tolerance, though. Often there are more mundane reasons. The bride may not be wholly to the family’s liking, or there may be some dispute going on between the families which has nothing to do with their choice of entertainment. (It’s quite common for a wedding to be cancelled the same day because the bridal couple are fighting, or some relative has died.) And fights occasionally break out at the wedding itself. I wouldn’t have liked to be the dancer at one wedding reported in the Egyptian Gazzette (Oct 22, 1995) at which:
…a twenty-two-year-old killed his cousin’s bridegroom during their wedding ceremony. He stabbed the victim in the chest. On being arrested the culprit confessed and said he was justified in his desire to take revenge upon the couple. Ever since he was young he loved his cousin but when he proposed to her, she refused him and chose another man.
Tonight no such complications appear likely. The glittering room is warm with good feeling, and everything is running smoothly. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a huge video screen in the far corner, on which a dancer in glowing lime green is smoothly circling her hips. It’s me! Goodness, my makeup never looked that good close-up in the mirror. How thoughtful of them to be filming in soft-focus!
It’s time for the zaffa. The tabla player strikes up the rhythm and up I go to the dais to bring the couple down. Now that I am close to the wedding dress, I can see how very beautiful it is: the bodice embroidered with hundreds of tiny seed pearls, and the skirt frothy with an organza so soft it looks as though it were spun from morning mist. The bride’s complexion is flawless, with just a slither of shadow over her doe eyes, a finely drawn line in dark brown at each corner, and her cheeks touched and blended into a faint, natural blush. Her hair is swept up leaving just a few dark tendrils at each temple. Her mouth turns up at the corners; she looks happy and, more surprisingly, serene—quite unfazed by the grandeur of the occasion.
The groom is good-looking but slight, barely taller than she, and with a delicately boned face, hair cropped fashionably shorter at the sides than the swept-back crown. He seems a little shyer than she, but friendly. There is no effort today to bring the people out of their chairs. I run to fetch the mothers and fathers of the couple, but by the time I managed to drag the second ones up, the first lot have retreated back to their seats. Meantime the poor bride and groom are left standing alone under the glare of the video lights, looking bemused and self-conscious. Then I have to ask them, “Who would you like to bring?”, and they peer vaguely toward the back of the room, wondering where their friends have disappeared to.
If all else fails I’ll grab the youngest girls from the first row of tables, who in any case are dying to show off their new party frocks. And hopefully there will be a rowdy group of young men somewhere in the room (the ones who have had the foresight to smuggle a bottle of whisky under the table) who will come and save the day.
Today there are none of these problems. Friends and relatives are eagerly coming to join us from all sides. At first they form an obedient circle around the bridal couple like children playing ring-a-roses. But the circle gets too big, and soon the respective parents, aunts and uncles, are all throwing themselves into the fray. Everyone wants to dance. And of course, here he comes, just as I predicted, the queen with the bouffant hair.
His friends push him forward—not that he needs much encouragement—and his expression is expectant. He’s been waiting for this! He’s wearing a starched white cotton shirt with the collar curled up, and a silk waistcoat nipped in at the waist. His trousers are just a little tight. His cherub face is flushed as he sticks the tip of his pink tongue from between even white teeth, and thrusts one hip forward. The people around us, including the bride and groom, make way for him. Here he comes!
There is hardly the space for him to show off his stuff, but there’s a better opportunity coming up. By the time I go to change my costume the people have sat down again, and the floor is clear. From the changing-room I hear the band strike up the song he’s requested.
When I come out again they are playing the closing bars. Peering through the open doorway I am just in time to catch his finale—a balletic spin with a dramatic stop in which he tosses his head like a recalcitrant colt and sweeps one arm toward the chandelier. There’s a spontaneous burst of enthusiastic applause, and the impresario who has booked me for the wedding comes out laughing and almost crashes into me.
“Hallas Yasmina,” he quips. “No need for you to go back inside—no one could top that performance!”
I’m wearing my most risque costume, made of leopard print lycra, with a cut away section all down one side in see-through stretch. No underwear. It’s a favorite for weddings. At the start of the evening I was accosted on my way to the changing room by a middle-aged matron, decked out in “evening higab”—an embroidered skirt and tunic ensemble, her hair covered with an elegant beaded turban. Breathing hard (she’d hurried across the marble hallway in high heels to reach me in time) she proffered a plump hand.
“Ahlan wa Sahlan! I am the aunt of the aroussa, and you are Yasmina, yes? I saw you two weeks ago, at the Ramsis Hilton—my friend’s son’s wedding. I have brought you here tonight. You will do a goooood performance for us today, yes?”
“Well of course, we will do our best for you,” I say, smiling politely.
“And we want the dress! The tiger dress!”
“I will wear it specially,” I assure her, remembering thankfully that that was the one I’d packed.
Now I catch her peaking ‘round the door at me. She spies the dress and gives me a broad smile. I almost expect her to wink and stick up her thumb.
The contradictions of Egypt never cease to surprise me. I have danced at weddings where ninety per cent of the room is in higab, and upon my arrival on the stage I feel the eyes of the older guests boring through me with what I assume to be hostility. Throughout the first half, until I go to change, I sense them rigid and unmoved. “They hate me,” I am thinking as I move sedately in front of them, trying to be “a serious dancer,” not making any movements that might be interpreted as vulgar. “They disapprove; they are uncomfortable with my even being here.” And I remember the dress I have brought to change into, and dread it. Far too revealing. Far too audacious.
With trepidation I emerge a second time, cautious of my reception. And low and behold, their faces light up! The old ladies in their head scarves, the old men slumped in their chairs. They sit up and come alive! They look my body up and down. “Now THIS is a dress!”, I feel them thinking. As I near the tables they clap and beckon me closer, and their eyes twinkle. At last something to look at, to break the boredom. A dancer is a dancer, after all. She should be glamourous, even outrageous. The old ladies stretch out their arms to put their hands on my hips while I shake them. That’s more like it! Do your stuff! And get the bride and groom up and show them a thing or two!
Some dancers will stand between the couple on their dais and place a hand from each (the bride’s underneath, the groom’s on top) on her belly, then undulate it while their hands remain for a few seconds. It’s a tradition which obviously stems from the presence of the dancer as a fertility symbol, and a reminder of the sensual importance of the union.
It is at times like this that it’s so easy for the western and eastern mentalities to misunderstand one another. This dance is earthy, and its roots are buried in a time when modern, western notions of vulgarity and taboo in body movement were irrelevant. Here the people respond to the earthiness of the dance; it’s what they recognize and expect, and if you water it down and deny them its intrinsic sexuality they will be uninvolved—and unmoved. So when the old ladies put their hands on my belly and laugh in delight, it is the ultimate compliment. It means I am performing my proper function. They want earthiness, they want personality, they want humor—this is vitally important—and they want eroticism.
Beauty of course is in the eye of the beholder, but a general standard of beauty for an Egyptian audience includes fair skin and a certain plumpness, especially in the face, which is felt to show good health and good humor. If you have lost weight it means you must be sad—pining away, literally. If you’ve gained weight, well, you must be content with life!
We’ve come to the end. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Have a happy evening!” I tear back to the changing room, while the technicians hurriedly pack up the instruments. We have to hurry as we’re late for the next wedding, which is on the other side of town. I leave my costumes for the boy who assists me to pack. Let’s hope he remembers to unplug the hair drier—I’ve lost one already this season. Still sweating, I pull on my clothes and proceed out to the car. The musicians are already in their bus, making jokes and flicking the ash from their cigarettes out the window. The chief of orchestra is shouting at the technicians to hurry up. It’s twelve thirty a.m., but the air is stiflingly hot and humid. As we drive away, I’m thankful for the breeze on my face from the open car window.
The next location is one of the less salubrious army clubs, situated in Maadi. It’s the nearest we get to doing a baladi wedding. Instead of smoked salmon and roast lamb, the buffet consists of sandwiches and crisps. Instead of chic little black dresses, the guests are in galabayas. Instead of a clean comfortable changing room with mirrors, I am shown into a stuffy humid storeroom with no lock. There are boxes piled high to the ceiling, and what looks like a pile of rubbish swept into one corner. The zaffa boys have changed in here before me, and there’s a disgusting stench of stale sweat and rotten food. Before I have time to protest I’m told to “Hurry up, hurry up!” My assistant finds me a couple of chairs onto which I gingerly arrange my things. Then he stands guard outside the door while I undress. It is so hot and airless my skin is sticky with sweat and my hair is sticking to my back even as I’m trying to squeeze into my costume. Holding my breath so as not to breathe in the horrible stench, I hear the orchestra start to play my opening music. How did they get here so fast? I’m not ready! When I remove my shoes my feet sink into something unpleasant that smells like the residue left in the bottom of the bucket when you take out the rubbish bag. There’s nowhere to check my makeup except a tiny hand mirror in which I can only see half my face at a time. I press loose powder into the appropriate places, give my hair a quick brush, and teeter outside on tiptoe.
“Where are your shipship?!” scolds my assistant, looking dubiously at my feet. Unfortunately I forgot to pack them when I left home. Nowadays more and more dancers—even Egyptians—are starting to wear shoes on stage, and right now I wish I was one of them! From the reception hall I can hear the voices of the wedding guests even above the music. Ah hah! It’s going to be a rough one ! Well, here goes…..
As I enter the room, two of the club staff have to push through the guests to make a path for me. Oh what horror—there’s no air-conditioning! A seething mass of perspiring faces turn in my direction. Some are seated at tables, but a whole lot more—mainly small boys—are milling around. A group of Saeedi men carrying assaiyas smile at me, flashing their gold teeth. The women, of all ages, are mainly well-built with strong, plump faces. They look more forceful than most of their men folk; their smiles are loud and brazen. As I pass by, some of them reach out to touch me. One woman pats me on the rump like I’m a horse going out to the racetrack. The orchestra is seated at one end of the room, and the bride and groom at the other. Rather to my alarm I see that the stage is right in the middle, about halfway between the two, and surrounded by the surging crowd.
For the opening music they manage to control themselves, and restrict their high spirits to clapping and smiling. Children sit crammed together at the borders of the stage. Groups of teenage girls eye my costume and nudge each other. Older boys try to catch my eye as I pass. Every time I circle the stage I almost trip over the video camera cable, or the cameraman himself, who insists on crouching in my path and filming me from somewhere down by my ankles.
Then when my singer steps forward for the first song the audience seems to take this as a cue to invade the stage and I’m swamped within seconds. I turn for assistance in the direction of the orchestra, but they are busy playing, and the “maitre” in charge is lost somewhere on the edge of the throng. A huge woman in a blue galabaya, red lipstick and a hairdo from hell descends on me, announcing herself as the bride’s mother. She grabs my arm so hard a bruise appears later on, and propels me toward the seated bridal couple. Her enthusiasm has an almost threatening edge. I wasn’t actually planning to do the zaffa quite yet—but what the hell, now is as good a time as any! I take the bride and groom by the hand, and down they come onto the dance floor.
The bride is built like a horse, and sweating as much as I am. In that thick white (and now that I see it up close, rather grimy) dress, cut right up to her neck, she must be hardly able to breathe. She has large teeth and shiny blue eyeshadow. The groom is about half her size, and wears glasses. She looks like she could eat him for breakfast, or, if she were really mad, squash him like a fly. But he seems cheerful enough. The orchestra has launched into a medley of shaabi songs—there is no alternative at this kind of wedding—and the whole room is dancing. I even spy two little girls in frothy pastel dresses dancing on the tabletops.
Bodies press in on me from all directions, and there’s a pungent smell of sweat accumulated in layers of clothes (not least from the bride and groom) mixed with cheap perfume. I feel a woman’s hands on my hips, from behind, revelling in the movements. Another woman strokes my hair. A third, dancing aggressively, pushes her way in front of me to match her hip-drops with mine. There is something almost frenzied in the way the women throw themselves into the dance—it’s like a release which they crave, an urge they cannot resist. And not only the women: the men also, with an energy bordering on violence. And yet, at no time does this energy become threatening. Despite the inherent excitement, the tension is not sexual—aggressive maybe, but in that strange amorphous way that a crowd,by its own nature, is an almost uncontrollable energy. When I feel the women’s hands on my stomach, my hips and even my face, I feel only that we are sharing the vitality of the moment. The men and boys take advantage, certainly, of the opportunity to be physically close to the dancer, but they do not abuse it.
In the faces around me I see abandonment. The guests at the previous wedding were keen to dance also, but their enthusiasm was within a controllable limit. They allowed themselves to have fun. These guests are beyond fun. They are high with the music and the rhythm, and just barely in control! It’s with some relief that I find Safaa next to me. Still singing into the mike, he has pushed his way to the center of the room to keep an eye on me. Perhaps this was a mistake though. He tells me later that whilst standing in the crowd he felt a stealthy hand creeping inside his suit pocket to remove his wallet! He managed to grab the hand and expel it before this happened, but since the person was slightly behind him, he never saw their face!
I go back to the changing room to put on a Saeedi thobe. As I’m peeling off my badla, and wiping the sweat from my face (and most of my makeup with it!), I notice out of the corner of my eye something moving inside my costume bag. Very gingerly I start to lift the top most dress, and jump back with a start as a little brown mouse leaps with a terrified squeak right out of the bag onto the floor and scuttles away. It must have crept in there while I was on stage. And they say being a dancer is a glamorous profession! Well, a mouse I can stand, but if it had been a cockroach…well, I might not have recovered so fast!
I’m dressed but my hair is soaked through and through with sweat—nothing to be done, and anyway, under the circumstances, who will care? Returning to the room I feel like a soccer player coming back out onto the pitch after halftime—even more so as the guests’ cheers mingle with the pounding of the rhythm section. It’s a Saeedi number, but I don’t dare twirl my assaiya for fear of knocking some child over the head with it. Safaa appeals fruitlessly through the microphone for parents to remove their offspring from possible harm, but everyone ignores him. (Children are an occupational hazard even at the smartest of weddings. Permitted to wander across the stage at will, I have tripped over a meandering toddler on more than one occasion, and just once I accidentally on purpose kicked one small boy who kept crossing my path, to teach his parents a lesson!)
The bride’s uncle comes forward to join in with me. In his white galabaya and headdress, and flourishing his assaiya, he steals the limelight, enjoying every moment. His gingery brown eyes twinkle mischievously while the rest of the family urge him on. An entourage of adolescents join us with finger cymbals and attitude. All semblance of performance has become irrelevant at this wedding. We are here to let the people share with us the music and the dance. It’s a free-for-all that’s almost on the verge of chaos. The bride and groom are back on their gilt covered chairs, flushed and perspiring. They have glazed, shell-shocked smiles, as if they can’t quite believe it’s happening.
Sometimes when I’m dancing with the happy couple (at least I hope for their sakes they are happy, though it’s clearly not always the case), I feel quite drawn to them, and find myself wanting to know their names, if not their life stories. But the code of conduct dictating how we relate to them doesn’t leave any room for personal questions—no time, and no opportunity. So we find ourselves smiling and laughing almost cheek to cheek with perfect strangers, whilst simultaneously trying to make their time on stage “an event”.
Sometimes the bride or the groom can leave a memorable impression, though. Twice I’ve had the groom make very suggestive signals to me when I took their hand—and on both occasions they were Saudis marrying Egyptian girls. Sometimes the ariis is so anxious not to upset his bride that he refuses to dance at all, and sometimes you’ll have one that can’t wait to get down to the music and show off in front of his friends. As for the aroussa, her behavior can be quite indicative of character. You have the shy, blushing ones who barely want to move. And then there are the competitive ones who almost seem out to prove they can dance better than you can—and get quite sulky if you bring their friends into the limelight.
The bride I remember most, though, was audaciously seductive in her behavior to almost everyone, and at the end of the show as I was about to run out, beckoned me up to her chair. I leaned down, and with a sidelong glance at her new husband she whispered loudly in my ear: “I expect to be marrying again before long—be sure to come back and dance at my next wedding!” Then in view of the whole room she gave me a huge wink! (I’m sure she was serious, as I’ve had my musicians tell me that they’ve performed at such and such a bride’s previous wedding. They seem to find the idea very amusing.)
Tonight’s wedding work is over, and once again the musicians are climbing onto the bus. Now we have a nightclub to go to, which is quite a different kind of job altogether, and has different requirements.
It’s already nearly two thirty, but here the night is still young. We won’t be heading home until the sun has dipped its pale morning reflection in the waters of the Nile. And when we wake up tomorrow the afternoon shadows will already be lengthening and the day slipping into another hot summer night on the streets of Cairo.
Yasmina (Francesca Sullivan) is from London, where she began studying Oriental dance in 1984. Her principal teacher was Suraya Hilal. She began dancing in the clubs there while working as a fashion photographer. She graduated from the Polytechnic of Central London with a degree in Film and Photographic Arts. Beginning in 1988, she danced for a year in Italy, followed by six months in Morocco. In 1992 she began dancing for a Middle Eastern agent based in Beirut, and spent the next three years working in five-star hotels around the Arabian Gulf, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Bahrain, and also in Jordan and Syria. Since 1995 she has been living and working in Egypt, where she danced for two years at the Meridien Heliopolis Hotel, as well as Tivoli, Sunset, Safir, the Nile Maxime, and Pyramisa. www.yasmnaofcairo.com