Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Dance of life

Until I came to Egypt I had been to a total of two weddings in my life, both of which I have no recollection (due to infancy rather than inebriation, mother). Despite having a relatively small social circle I have been to a total of five weddings in the last five years in Egypt, been invited to more I couldn’t attend, and am constantly aware of some friend of a friend about to tie the rope to his neck knot.

Like everything else in Egypt the nature of one’s nuptials is determined by social status and spending power, but all weddings regardless of whether the groom was born in a silver spoon or a rusty ladle are variations on the same formula. I recently had a conversation with a young man who complained that while he would prefer to invest the extravagant amounts of money spent on this formula (hiring a hotel, feedings guests, DJ etc) in a house or a car, the idea was inconceivable to his family for whom the complete works with bells on is mandatory. Another example perhaps of the way in which individuality in Egypt is smothered by the rigidity of tradition, but luckily, this tradition is Egyptian weddings’ finest asset.

Last night I went to the wedding celebration of a woman I once worked with. Coming from a relatively modest economic background, she and her fiancé elected to hold the party in the club of the romantically named ‘public accounting authority.’ The club was on the Nile, and was the standard concrete patio with utilitarian tables and chairs overlooking what was at this time of night the intense blackness of the Nile. When Sharshar, Umm Nakad and I arrived the party was already in full swing, an enormous undulating crowd of people surrounding the throne on which the bride and groom were presumably sitting, the whole scene immersed in sha3by [popular] music played at a deafening volume, the DJ bellowing something incomprehensible about el 7ag Abaza.

We surveyed the scene from a dark corner, attempting to hide from the camera which would occasionally be taken round the seated guests and pointed at startled individuals like a gun. The dance floor was a heaving mass of bobbing heads and raised arms which resembled sunflowers swaying in a field. On the fringes were the obligatory small children zigzagging about like errant missiles. What was interesting about the scene was the unconscious gender segregation: one side was a sea of brightly coloured hegabs, the other a mass of hair lacquered heads. The bride and groom took their first steps in unison in the middle, aglow in the light of the camera.

At one point the shabka (gifts of gold for the bride) was brought round for inspection by the crowd, the camera following behind it, before the sharbat (a hideously sweet drink traditional at weddings) was filmed for about ten hours by said camera. Later, a group of young men performed an impressive and impromptu synchronised dance routine, Take That style, including Justin Timberlake foot moves.

Something should be said about the music. It is generally the case that the less affluent the wedding, the less ‘sophisticated’ the music – which is not meant in a condescending manner. The play list at rich, 5-star hotel weddings mixes Arab and western music, Arab music generally limited to the dulcet tones of Elissa, Fadl Shaker, Amr Diab and whichever respectable Egyptian singer is flavour of the month at the time. When people do dance to the odd sha3by song at these affairs, it is in a self-conscious, almost ironic manner, much in the same tongue in cheek way that English people dance to ‘Come On Eileen’ or ‘I Will Survive.’ Sharshar even told me that at the wedding of one of his best friends last week, the bride had threatened to walk out if just one sha3by song was played, prompting he and his mischievous friends to request that the DJ play sha3by song par excellence ‘el 3anab’ [grapes] by Saad el Soghayer, in which Mr el Soghayar compares women to fruit.

But put on a sha3by song at a wedding and the mood changes, because there is a sort of unrefined, raw, sexual energy in this music which has always fascinated me. Yesterday was a case in point. The dance floor was segregated as has already been noted, but in each section the shoulder shimmying and hip wriggling was breathtakingly and unabashedly sexy, as was the music which at times was limited to a tabla and guttural bass sound which gradually and rhythmically built up and up to its climax, interrupted sporadically by the DJ’s ‘aywa!’ I observed the crowd - which consisted of veiled girls in cling film tightness clothes, matronly women in galabeyyas, women in full neqab, bearded men and lads wearing open shirts and cheeky smiles - and wondered at this strange schism in Egyptian society as a result of which the beast of sex is locked in a dark basement and brought out in certain controlled conditions, but whose roar is constantly audible. As I watched the bride dance for her entranced groom, a stick held aloft over her head Saidi-style, I also wondered if a society at the core of which pulsates this fantastic, life-affirming rhythm would ever allow itself to be subjugated completely to the joyless dogma of extreme conservatism.


fully_polynomial said...

may the answer to this be a resounding no.

excellent as usual.

Forsoothsayer said...

yes, it would and is.

Basil Fawlty said...

I disagree. Conservatism in Egypt has only been around for 30-35 years (based on my mother's old wardrobe from the late 60s/ early Studio 54). I really believe, given time and based on what I've seen in my 2 weeks there, this past March, that this too shall pass.

I went to a number of weddings where Amr Diab was singing. He would be commisioned to sing, say, 5 songs (his rate was LE20,000 per song...this was in the mid 90s) and lo and behold, he'd sing three or four..and then make a runner for the exit, leaving the bride and groom and their parents absolutely livid. This was the rule rather than the exception as I recall many weddings where the father of the groom would go to the 'ism' in mid-wedding to file an official complaint. He was (in)famous for it.

Also, when I was working in Saudi, Egyptians would bring back wedding tapes (of people they didn't know!) to watch with their socially starved friends. It was quite a popular thing for these home-sick expatriates.

faisal said...

I agree with Basil.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating description of social and sexual dynamics -- lets hope Egypt returns to Studio 54 style clothing again, and sooon!

Amnesiac said...

Well they are halfway there with the amounts of polyester used.