Illustration by Bouklao.
Do whatever she wants. Just do whatever your parents want. Do whatever HER parents want.
Do 👏🏽it 👏🏽for 👏🏽THEM! 🎶
Cries the giant carnival of friends and family singing and dancing through the parade of my mind in a variety of colourful costumes ranging from just happily married, 24-year-old divorcees, and 31-year-old afterparty animals. It really is a lot of THEM to please for one night.
The chatter becomes louder and turns into a zaffa both figuratively and literally. This, of course, is a disaster because no two self-respecting westernized millennials brought up in Egypt want to spend what Hollywood and our parents have told us is the most important day of our lives being introduced as man and wife surrounded by a band of garish women bobbling around you with candles on their head in broad daylight accompanied by the extras cast of Aladdin making such a loud cacophony of stupid fucking noises (which we are told hold a lot of cultural weight) for 20 minutes straight whilst a mass of old people you’ve met only once in your life at some tant’s 3ozouma judge you. You want to be surrounded by your friends, who of course have skipped that whole charade and are busy getting pissed at the open bar you’re paying for and not enjoying.
Family First. But Which One?
The war of attrition between my fiancée F and my mother started off quite sweetly. It’s a bright summer day in the backyard of the villa, the birds are tweeting and the baladi dogs are barking. The wedding topic comes up and my mother with a big smile on her face begins to discuss the zaffa. Mid-way through her prose, my fiancée innocently interrupts. “Actually we were thinking not to have a zaffa.”
...my mum turns to my fiancée and giggles through gritted teeth as if the thought of not having a zaffa is as ridiculous a thing to say as saying fish can fly
Silence. The skies become grey, the birds immediately stop tweeting, the baladi dogs stop barking and everything in the vicinity has turned its attention to the gravitational vortex of tension, the black hole of passive aggressiveness that has just appeared in the ground between the two which I wish would just suck me up right there and then. Here we go. The silence eventually subsides, the birds tweet and the baladi dogs bark and my mum turns to my fiancée and giggles through gritted teeth as if the thought of not having a zaffa is as ridiculous a thing to say as saying fish can fly. Fiancée returns gritted-teeth giggle with awkward half eye roll toward me. Oh it’s fucking on!
In what can only be described as a miraculously unaggressive and jovial tone considering the contents of the words that came out of her mouth, mum jokes, “Over my dead body there’ll be no zaffa, it is my life!” followed by the kind of halflaugh, half humph sound one makes when they’ve proved a point. I look up, the fish are tweeting and I have to somehow decide between apparently killing my mother, relieving her of her actual life force or inevitably being killed by my fiancée. There is no winner in this war.
There is only God and then the Egyptian ego and no one else will get in the way of them double parking sideways at a roundabout.
I didn’t really have a plan or a choice here except to just say yes to everyone, constantly and contradictorily for months until mass confusion would hopefully stupor my fiancée, my parents, the in-laws, and the wedding planner and everyone would just get frustrated and shouty, then leave me alone at the bar. It was the Schrödinger’s Cat of weddings; depending on who you asked at any one point there was both going to be a zaffa and no zaffa, a belly dancer and no belly dancer, 500 guests and only 100 guests, traditional maa’zoon who rants on for days about the power of men over his wife or modern cute maa’zoon in a suit who does a bit of stand up and admin. At some point the wedding was both fully cancelled and being organised at full force. The wedding was both alive and dead and only on the day of the actual wedding I imagined would all of this be figured out.
Always Have a Plan(ner) B. Inshallah
The process of planning a wedding in Egypt is made increasingly more difficult by the role of the planner. To F’s and my surprise, unlike in Hollywood, the planner is not some affable fairy-like gentleman who floats problems away with pithy wit whilst showing you 17 samples of lavender centerpieces to choose from.
To F’s and my surprise, unlike in Hollywood, the planner is not some affable fairy-like gentleman who floats problems away with pithy wit whilst showing you 17 samples of lavender centerpieces to choose from.
They are glorified furniture suppliers who will charge you a small fortune, then happily smile and nod to the bride’s intricate requests for variations of pampas and Baby’s Breath – which it turns out has nothing to do with motherhood (make sure to brush up on your botany before planning a wedding) – or cheese cloth and macramé – which I also found out have nothing to do with food – and basically just turn up day of, after a long series of “InshAllahs” with whatever secondhand tables and chairs they probably used for another wedding they organised the day before. And then request extra money for the service of actually staying throughout in order to ‘organise the wedding.’ What was I paying for then exactly?
We’d already been through two of these ‘planners’ and probably would have been better off just hiring IKEA to do the ceremony. At least then we’d know we’d be responsible for the assembly.
You're One Cauliflower Away From The Ultimate Buffet
There is something perverse and baroque about Egyptian wedding buffets. Over-the-top feasts of béchamel and sushi and la7ma grilled, stir-fried, or braised. Chinese stations but also risotto and fried chicken. Not only does it cause overwhelming decision fatigue, leaving you with a giant bi-polar dish of pizza, roast potatoes, bamia and for some reason that one piece of cauliflower you thought would add to the dish’s taste and nutritional value, but also, such a giant amount of food is essentially wasted because half the guests are too wasted to eat anyways and the sheer idea of a smaller spread will put pure fear into parents’ eyes, lest you be considered not affluent enough to afford such gluttony.
...depending on who you asked at any one point there was both going to be a zaffa and no zaffa, a belly dancer and no belly dancer, 500 guests and only 100 guests, traditional maa’zoon who rants on for days about the power of men over his wife or modern cute maa’zoon who does a bit of stand up.
There are of course alternatives. One extreme would be the British way of a seating plan with set places for everyone to dine. Now have you ever A) Tried to tell an Egyptian that there’s a designated seat for them that they absolutely have to sit on regardless of who they’re sat next to? B) Tried to ask an Egyptian if he would specifically like to eat beef or chicken at a wedding 4 months in advance? I have, because my brother Adam got married to a British girl, in Egypt and I had to help usher. You will be met with the most bewildered of looks, followed most likely by laughter, a hefty pat on the back and then they will go sit next to the first person they know and insist on having some chicken with their beef. At one point, our wedding planner – the first one – suggested this seated dinner idea to my wife F who first laughed in her face and then privately told me we should fire her immediately for even thinking it was a viable option in Egypt.
...no Egyptian is going to sit on the seat you ask them to because a little piece of paper has their name on it (or even turn up on time to a seated dinner that starts 6 PM sharp)
I believe there is a pharaoh complex running through the veins of every hot blooded Egyptian. Just glimpse at a busy Cairo street and you will see a whole population basically doing whatever the fuck they want, all the time because no mere man or mortal, no government authority can truly tell an Egyptian how to cross the road, or queue or drive in the right lane. There is only God and then the Egyptian ego and no one else will get in the way of them double parking sideways at a roundabout. It’s the reason there’s so much chaos in the country but honestly it’s what I love most about living here. It’s a constant screw you to 21st century, perfectly organised, meticulously planned, efficient cities where you actually see a route from A to B to get anything done. Cairo is human error on crack, it’s punk rock urbanization, it’s A to B via ZKGHSKHD?? and it’s absolutely amazing (if you don’t mind spending half your life in traffic).
It’s like being at a high school house party if instead of girls twerking there were dancing horses and instead of Shaggy, Shaabi.
This is basically a really long roundabout way to explain that no Egyptian is going to sit on the seat you ask them to because a little piece of paper has their name on it (or even turn up on time to a seated dinner that starts 6 PM sharp because... you know, traffic). So what is the other option?
A few years ago I went to a more traditional working-class wedding of an Uber driver and it was the best wedding I’ve ever been to. There is little to zero pretense at a typical Shaabi wedding. No elaborately engraved guestbook set up, no boho-chic-formal dress code, no imported cacti. Just pure unadulterated debauchery. It’s like being at a high school house party if instead of girls twerking there were dancing horses and instead of Shaggy, Shaabi. Joint after joint of hash and Stella beer after Stella beer are passed around until buffet time. And buffet time is just a huge U-shaped table and rows of industrial sized trays of macarona with red sauce, kofta and salata. No plates. Everyone gets a spoon. Dig in. I think if you want to have strangers socialize at a wedding, get them eating out of the same plate with a spoon.
I told my dad about this option and his response was swift: “Tayeb, how about you marry an Uber driver then.”
Despite the clear financial benefits – I would save on transportation – I did not really fancy marrying an Uber driver.
Location, Location, Location
Having the wedding at my parents’ villa inevitably caused another channel of disruption. Over the last couple of years my father has tended to the house’s structural and agricultural landscape as if it was his own child because I imagine as a 70-year-old who has been through it all and has four egomaniacal children ranging from ages 30-40, his children are actually very, very annoying to him and the numerous plants he has nurtured around the house never bother him and simply just get on with growing into lovely ornaments which never leave home or ask for money.
The source of the noise was my dad coming to terms with the disruption in the garden from the wedding setup, which wasn’t exactly to his taste. “WHAT IS THIS FUCKING SHIT BALADI AHWA SHIT STREET CHAIR!?”
Waking up on the day of your wedding is quite the mindfuck as it is, let alone being awoken by intense, angry screaming. The source of the noise was my dad coming to terms with the disruption in the garden from the wedding setup, which wasn’t exactly to his taste. The massive ‘BAR’ sign made of lightbulbs for starters – “What is this fucking shit, do we live in the road!?” He is screaming at anyone and everyone within the vicinity. The dancefloor made up of bohemian antique rugs – “What is this fucking shit, are people coming to pray on this?!” The lighting trusses – “What is this fucking shit, it is hiding all the trees!” The tables – “What is this fucking shit, it is hiding all the grass.”
And my favourite; the café-style sanded down wooden chairs on the balcony, set up for the kabt kitab. “WHAT IS THIS FUCKING SHIT BALADI AHWA SHIT STREET CHAIR!?” He then proceeds to kick said chair off the balcony to the garden below, in front of the wedding planner and then goes back to his room to sleep. Thanks.
Dad then missed family photos because he was late getting changed despite only having to move about 10 feet from his bedroom. To be fair during the Kabt Kitab he did cry so obviously he really does care a lot and was filled with emotion from the occasion. Or maybe he was just still upset because of the fucking shit ahwa baladi street chair he was sat on. Not sure.
I can’t write Arabic. I did my best to shakily copy my name from my ID onto the paper, hoping the onlookers wouldn’t notice. However my mother decides to shout out to the audience, very loudly, “My baby, my baby, ya kookoonanananina, he doesn’t know how to write, ya looloo.”
And so it was, in the Katb Ktab, sat in front of an amalgamation of close friends (who I now have the satisfaction of shooting a 3obalak or two at), family, not-so-close-family (who will, thank God not 3obalak me any time soon) and a few people I had met at afterparties or festivals once, that the maa’zoon handed over a 15-page contract for me to sign that would seal the deal.
This was somewhat problematic, firstly because I can’t think of anything less romantic than 20 minutes of unanticipated bureaucracy and secondly I can’t write Arabic. I did my best to shakily copy my name from my ID onto the paper, hoping the onlookers wouldn’t notice. However my mother decides to shout out to the audience, very loudly, “My baby, my baby, ya kookoonanananina, he doesn’t know how to write, ya looloo.” In that exact moment of signing, the moment where I am officially becoming A Man. Thanks.
YOMO (You Only Marry Once). Inshallah
As I write this, I’m just back from my honeymoon two weeks on from the wedding, a giant plate of fried rice, prawns, and lasagna sits in front of me, leftovers still available from the buffet which is great because neither F nor I cook so hopefully we can live off them for a while.
It didn’t matter that the DJ ran out of commercial wedding music and started putting out ‘00s deep and tech-house bangers.
Here’s essentially my takeaway - it doesn’t matter. None of those decisions that everyone around me had panicked for months about made a difference. It also didn’t matter that it randomly started to rain in Egypt in October – which has never happened – halfway through the wedding. It didn’t matter that the lighting technicians decided to freestyle on the color scheme and turn the dancefloor into a corniche khaleeji nightclub at some point or that the DJ ran out of commercial wedding music and started putting out ‘00s deep and tech-house bangers.
As long as you surround yourself with the people you truly love and those people have more than enough booze and béchamel, all you and your guests will remember was a big, badass party with intermittent zaghareet and dancing all night on fucking shit street chairs. 3obalak!
For previous How (Not) To columns, click here.