By Khaled Diab
In Egypt, getting married has young people all tied up in knots.
No matter how grand or modest, the vast majority of Egyptian weddings have a number of things in common: the bride and groom are the constant centre of attention, and the music is invariably so loud that it could make your ears bleed.
And my brother's wedding, which I attended in Cairo recently, was no exception to this time-honoured tradition. From the moment his bride, trailed by a lacy white dress, and he, decked out in a black suit and bowtie, entered the ballroom preceded by a loud fanfare of drummers and dancers, to the end of the party in the wee hours, the happy couple did not get a moment's rest. They had to have the first dance, and then dance until they were quite literally about to drop.
When they weren't strutting their stuff, they had to sit on two raised throne-like seats where everyone could see them, and eat first while everyone watched them. And it is the glare of this constant spotlight that I regard as the most horrifying aspect of Egyptian weddings.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of a wedding in Egypt for Europeans is that Egyptians overcome their inhibitions and go wild without the need for alcoholic lubrication. Hakim, one of the country's favourite singers who mixes modern pop rhythms with traditional working-class shaabi music, whipped the guests – women and men, young and old – up into a frenzied storm of pulsating hips, trembling bellies and shuddering shoulders and chests.
As a gift from my brother's father-in-law, this wedding did not cause the happy couple undue financial pain. Whether they can afford it or not, most Egyptians drag themselves over hot coals in order to put on the grandest wedding they can. After all, getting married is a life-defining moment, so the justification goes. But why should people spend a big chunk of their lives paying for the excesses of that one night?
Marriage is popularly believed to be the better half of faith and a rite of passage into the world. But as the prerequisites for tying the knot and the cost of living keep on rising, and people stay longer in education and work on building careers before marriage, many young couples find themselves in danger of losing the other half of their faith and are stuck for years in limbo between the two worlds.
My sister's approach of getting married without a large wedding raises eyebrows in Egypt. My own approach of living together unmarried in a furnished apartment, and then building a life together from the bottom up while moving gradually towards marriage, is out of the question for most Egyptians. That said, there has been a massive trend in recent years in which unmarried couples have been living together under the guise of so-called urfi marriages, which are unregistered, informal contracts they enter into for the sake of social decorum.
Recent research by the Brookings Institution reveals that the Middle East has the lowest rate of marriage in the developing world, because a large percentage of people don't take the leap until their early 30s. While settling down late is not seen as a major issue in the west, the key difference is that most unmarried Arabs are in that situation involuntarily and sex out of wedlock, while quite common, remains frowned upon.
In Egypt, economic challenges and the housing shortage make up part of the equation. But another significant factor is the inflexibility of familial demands. Few families are willing to allow a marriage to commence without a fully furnished flat in an appropriate neighbourhood being ready, not to mention the additional expense of a glittering jewellery set and a large wedding.
Needless to say, given the massive extent of the marriage crisis, it is a popular topic for the media, dramatists and comedians. Films, TV soap operas, newspaper caricatures and popular jokes delve into the various aspects of this phenomenon.
For instance, a short story by the satirist Ahmed Ragab, who is a national institution in Egypt, explores both the housing and the marriage crisis. It features a young couple who have had a “stay of execution” imposed on their marriage because they cannot find a flat and are each still living with their parents.
In a desperate bid to consummate their marriage and start their new life together, they agree to take part in a shrewd developer's “affordable housing” scheme in which would-be residents have to work on the construction site of their future apartments. The extended families of the DIY residents pitch in to help out in this collective barn-raising effort. They endure sweltering heat, hard labour and humiliation, only to discover that the developer has gone and sold the tiny apartments in which baths are installed vertically to other buyers.
An increasing number of young people are beginning to challenge these dated and rigid attitudes to marriage, in which what should be an emotional alliance is often more akin to a business partnership. A nascent singles pride movement is growing and women are trying to purge the Arabic word ‘Aanes' (which means spinster, but applies to both genders in Arabic) of its negative connotations.
Abeer Soliman writes a blog called The Diary of a Spinster. “My aim is not to lament my lot as an unmarried woman but to open a window on to my generation (both women and men) so that society can gain insight into our situation and stop labelling us ‘aanes',” she writes in her Facebook group.
Another popular blog on the subject by Ghada Abdel-Aal, an Egyptian pharmacist, has, with its blend of humour, honesty and insight become a best-selling book. “The problem with Egyptian men is that half of them are like molasses, all gooey, and the other half are hard taskmasters. I suppose the best thing to do would be to put them all in a blender,” she jokes.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest