Monday, March 06, 2006

Mothers Of The Bride

There are people who have commented that I candy coat Egypt, a country with lots of problems where people have very hard lives, when I talk about the happier moments in our lives here. Well, I don't think so. The fact is that at my age I don't have so many illusions about living happily ever after in any sense. I've lived long enough to have seen that most of us spend our days in fairly stressful yet often tedious tasks that never seem to end. We spend years worrying about jobs, taking children to schools, running late to dental appointments, shuffling our money to meet bills and obligations, and then to relieve the boredom, something really horrible happens to us and we lose loved ones or find a dream shattered. I don't believe that human beings anywhere lead lives that are particularly calm or unnaturally joyous. But I do believe that most of us are granted brief moments of happiness, love, and comfort in the company of our friends, family and neighbours or by the beauty of the world in which we live, and all too many of us forget these blessings in the daily grind of living. In one sense, the events that I describe in my life here are not really about Egypt but about the common human joys that we all share, just as we share the common human sorrows. When I began writing my blog, I was concerned about the fact that somehow there was an "us vs them" attitude about people in the Middle East, that the journalists had managed to let people forget that the people with whom I'd chosen to live, the Egyptians, were really not so different from the Americans, the French, the Taiwanese in their daily lives. Sure, we all live in pyramids and drive our camels to work and go grocery shopping in belly dancers' outfits, but other than that we are just plain folks. So I decided to record some of the experiences of my daily life, and being a fairly easy-going, patient, and friendly person myself, most of those experiences are positive. I've had my share of horror but I'm not sure that the bad parts of my life have anything really do with being in Egypt as much as they have to do with human weakness in general...not my favourite topic and one that can be covered by many news sources.

Last week my young housekeeper got married to my neighbours' head groom. I could be concerned that she was too young to marry at seventeen, but she'd been orphaned a few years ago and that is a rather maturing experience. She's been working since she was about fifteen to provide the money for her household effects. It wasn't an arranged marriage. Gaber had been interested in Sabrine for some time and only recently convinced her to marry him. Sabrine worked for me up until a month before her marriage when she quit to have time to arrange all the things that were required for her new home and she found me an new housekeeper, a young single mother with two daughters who is really in need of the income. Tradition dictates that a new bride does not work outside the home in the villages, but a divorced mother has to do something to support her children if the father is not ready to help (as is too often the case both here and elsewhere). I've seen the procedure for weddings in the city, but this was the first time that I was intimately involved with the events in the village. Tracy and I found ourselves in the odd positions of being sort of adoptive mothers of the bride, having helped her to assemble some of her household needs for the wedding and having offered moral support during the whole procedure of the engagement.

A wedding in the villages isn't a one day affair. After the party to announce the engagement, the couple may wait a few months or years before marrying, depending on the ability of the groom to provide a home for the bride. Gaber's family is from a neighbouring village and he had an apartment in a building in the village that housed the rest of his family, so this wasn't an issue for them. Their engagement was only a few months. The first event of the marriage was the furnishing party when the families assembled the furniture that Gaber had bought and the linens, dishes and appliances that Sabrine had bought. I was invited to Sabrine's home where her purchases were assembled outside waiting the arrival of the trucks to carry them all over. I'd foolishly put my camera battery charger into a plastic bag with a box of salad the week before, shorting out the charger, so I don't have any photos of the collection, but it was most impressive. The women sat in the courtyard chanting rhymes in praise of the bride while the men sat in the living room. When the trucks arrived, everyone loaded the furnishings on board to move to the new apartment, leaving Sabrine at her home. The bride doesn't get to see her new home until her wedding night.

A few days later, the henna party is held at the bride's home. Henna is an herb that mixed with water provides a fairly strong dye and is used to colour hair or skin on important occasions. The henna party is a sort of bachelor party without the cake or the other festivities that we might associate with the night before the wedding. It gives the chance for the families and friends to celebrate the upcoming nuptuals while at the same time, provides a place for a very important economic event, the "nota". The "nota" is a system whereby local people pay a small amount of money to the bride and groom on the event of the marriage with the understanding that they will receive a similar payment when they have a wedding. The amounts contributed by each person are carefully noted in a large book under the supervision of a group of the older women, so that someone who contributes a lot will in turn receive the same amount. The contributions will provide the young couple with a financial boost at a time when it is direly needed.

Meanwhile, the festivities going on outside the bride's house while the financial crew works inside are loud and happy, and they span the generations from the grandmothers to the infants. Younger boys and girls crowded around Tracy and I begging to have their pictures taken. I obliged, but tried to point out that Sabrine was the star of the party without a great degree of success. The noise was deafening with music blaring from a DJ's stand outside Sabrine's family home as buses and cars drew up depositing well-wishers from surrounding villages. The women formed a knot around Sabrine where they took turns dancing together. I've seen plenty of belly dancers in hotels over the years but none of them can match the women who dance at family occasions for sheer joy in performance. Inevitably, Tracy and I got pulled into the circle to dance, something that Tracy did much better than I did. I actually took lessons in this sort of dancing many, many years ago, but over the years my knees have suffered greatly and no longer can stand the twists required to do it properly. Sabrine danced for hours that night, the power of the young, and Gaber arrived about halfway through to spend a couple of hours dancing with his bride to be. Perhaps this exercise helps to reduce the natural anxiety of the bride and groom. When I arrived at the party, I made my way through a thickening crowd of young men on the fringes of the women's group.

As the evening wore on, this group grew larger and more boisterous in their celebrations with young men dancing together in traditional dances using staffs and rather untraditional dances in which they waved cans of insect spray whose propellent had been lit, providing the boys with mini-blowtorches. Safety is not Egypt's middle name, but happily no one was hurt during the evening. After a couple of hours of the music and dancing, I made my way home, a bit deaf for the time being, but I had clients for riding early the next morning and a lot of preparation to do yet. The next day was the wedding celebration which was held outside of Gaber and Sabrine's new home.

The wedding itself is actually just the signing of the register to show that the bride and groom are married. The ceremony is small, with only a few witnesses, is called "the signing of the book" appropriately, and is usually held in the afternoon, after which the bride goes off to the hair dresser and prepares for the party in the evening. Tracy had arranged for her car to be decorated to carry the bride to her new home, but some workers arrived rather late to install kitchen cabinets at her new house, making us late for the task which fell to one of our neighbours. She and I dashed about getting ready to go and went over to Zawya, Gaber's village, in my jeep.

We found lights strung over an alley in the village and crowds of people standing before a stage on which Sabrine and Gaber were greeting their guests. Most of the grooms in our area were at the wedding, so I wasn't surprised to find some of mine waiting for us to take us to the stage to congratulate the bride and groom. We inched our way through the crowd to the stage where Sabrine greeted us with hugs. The change in her appearance was fairly astonishing. A beautiful girl in her natural state, she had been made up for the video tape that is made for every wedding. Like the old tomb paintings that I've seen all over Egypt, I found a groom with dark skin and a bride who was made up to be much paler. Interesting. Her long hair had been wound up in curls on top of her head and her hands decorated with henna drawings. She was dressed in a long white wedding gown of western design, which I very much suspect was rented for the occasion. A wedding dress is not really a very practical investment for the new wife of a stablehand. Sabrine insisted that Tracy and I join her and Gaber on the stage while people climbed the stairs to congratulate them. There we met members of both families, including the much-feared mother-in-law. Rumour has it that Gaber's mother is a very strong woman and that Sabrine will have some adjusting to do in learning to live downstairs from her. Egyptian mothers-in-law are not known for their love of their sons' wives. I had my problems with my mother-in-law and chats with Egyptian friends assured me that the problems were not necessarily concerned with my being foreign. Egyptian wives also have problems in the same area. To be honest, Gaber's mother didn't really look like someone I would want to cross.

The wedding celebration was a bit of an anticlimax after the henna party. Lasting only a couple of hours, the party broke up with the announcement that the bride and groom would be accompanied to their new home. As she turned to move down the stairs, Sabrine looked at Tracy and I with huge worried eyes and gave us a small smile. We didn't join the crowd escorting the couple to the apartment and went back to our cars. Sabrine had told me earlier that this was a moment that every girl fears as much as she might look forward to it. The day following the wedding, the bloodstained sheet of the marriage bed would be on display to prove that the bride was, in fact, a virgin at her marriage. If for some reason the sheet had no blood, which could conceivably happen even to a virgin bride, there could be serious repercussions including an immediate divorce. Happily, this was not the case for Sabrine, as I heard from her friends later.

Sabrine's life hasn't been easy. She is not from a wealthy family, quite the contrary, and it is large, her father having married three women, although not all at once. She's had pretty much to fend for herself since her father died a few years after her mother, but she's a smart girl who thinks carefully about her choices. Having talked with her a lot about what she was deciding to do in marrying Gaber, I have a lot of respect for her good sense and intelligence. We've seen her through a major step in her life, her wedding, and now since Gaber is working in the same field as I am, with horses, we will be in contact through subsequent events. In all probability we will see her a new mother within a year. I don't plan on losing touch with her because she is a girl who sang as she worked in my home, who loved to play with my dogs and laughed with us at silly Egyptian television shows that we would watch together in the afternoons to help our Arabic. Somehow Tracy and I adopted a daughter and we plan on being there for her. Mabrouk, habibti

17 comments:

Leila said...

Oh my God they are both so beautiful, Smallah. I don't want to incite the Evil Eye or anything so I will have to contain myself; the bride's profile is exquisite, and the groom looks unbelievably aristocratic and debonair. He's your horse groomer? From a village? He looks like a movie star!

Roba said...

Wonderful post. I enjoyed it word by word.

Hashem said...

Maryanne, all I can say is that my tears overflowed my eyes. Seeing all these people happier than ever, makes one feel that the good people are still there. I miss Egypt too much and reading your blog every post makes me burning for coming back.

Outstanding! Thank you.

lily b said...

I've enjoyed reading about Egypt from the point of view of someone who obviously loves it. If I wanted to hear the negative things, I'd turn on the news.

I had the same thought as Leila; a very lovely couple. I hope they will find much happiness together.

Salsaqueen said...

Thank you Maryanne for sharing such a special occasion with us - a wonderful narrative. I hope her life is not made too miserable by her formidable mother-in-law! Inshallah.
Sabrine is lucky to have 2 adopted mothers to look out for her.
Salsaqueen

Shafaki said...

Your blog is becoming more and more colorful. I've not checked for a while, now it seems your camera is working overtime. I'm so glad your showing the world in photos real things from inside Egypt so those who did not have the chance to live it in Egypt would see with their own eyes glimpses of life here.

SalamiSalome said...

I lived in Cairo for over six months as an undergraduate...I'm also a Medieval Middle East Studies specialist who spent a lot of time crawling over and under some the dirtiest parts of that city. When I left Cairo, I swore I would return someday, vowing that the nickname Umm ad-Dunya was incredibly apt. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for showing this aspect of the reality of Egyptian life...it is truly touching...

Shari said...

Thank you so much for this blog of yours. My family and I have spent considerable time in the Middle East. My baby brother has chosen to remain there with his wife and baby son. We know there are problems, but like you said, why not focus on the moments of joy and celebration? Thank you for sharing the joy in your life, the neat things about this country, and your own unique take on it all. Keep writing!

Riana said...

Wonderful blog! So nice to read the real Egyptian life through your words.

Merci!
Riana
http://frenchtoastfrance.blogspot.com/

julianna said...

Mabrook to the new couple and masha'Allah for them also! they were so pretty/handsome!

I have been enjoying your blog although i have not commented ever.. it reminds me in many ways of Jordan and I miss it horribly.

I got married in Jordan but i didn't have a party.. insha'Allah we can have a party when we return someday... after (and if) they let him ever come live with me here...

Julianna
http://juliannasblog.blogspot.com/

Sand-E Sez said...

As an egyptian living in toronto I must say you truely have Canadian spirit. The way they welcome and embrace culture. I suppose it all boils down to the glass being half full or half empty. I love that you've managed to let the "full" over power the "empty".

yum said...

I just saw your blog today, and I have to say this was a wonderfully written post.

You are so right about the way some people perceive other nations/cultures. The thinking is that a poorer nation means desparity, when in fact, sometimes the opposite is true. I tend to see stronger bonds with People rather than Things in eastern nations. And happiness is universal.

It was lovely to read about the Egyptian wedding ceremony, Especially touching was the part where the furnishings are set up for the new bride. Wish all the best to the new bride and groom. And thank you for sharing this with us. The pics are great!

sabanur said...

mashaAllah, your blog only makes me look forward to my future life in Egypt with my Egyptian hubby! http://www.yemeniprincess.com

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your website. I'm from England and have been concerned about my new life in Egpyt, but now I have found people with the same views as me I know its my dream come true. The man I love and a country so beautiful.

Cairogal said...

The first photo in your post says so much. It actually warms the heart. My husband (from Giza) says that Egyptians laugh so they don't have to cry. I suppose there are a lot of things in day to day Egyptian life that could bring anyone down. They just manage to turn it around and enjoy life when those moments present themselves. Weddings are one of those moments.

I have no illusions about what the country is, so I don't think your posts ignore the other side of Egyptian life. You just make me remember all the wonderful things about life there. Was that you or your friend Tracy in the photo of the women dancing?

Maryanne said...

Your husband is so right about laughing to keep from crying. Most Egyptian humour makes fun of the ordinary frustrations of life here and is really funny. Even the funny movies are often simply a compilation of things that can and do happen to people, but the humour comes when it all happens to one person.
Tracy is the dancer.

diba said...

I found your blog, very interesting. i loved it. mainly this post. best regards from me in indonesia.