Saturday 15 February 2020

A Wedding at Dendera (2016)

Excited children were running about in an open-air enclosure in which some 200 empty white cotton- covered seats faced a stage. There was to be a wedding in the small town of Dendera on the Nile.

 The senior women, soberly dressed, but with bright headscarves, started to fill the front ten rows of seats on the right hand side. They were engaged in the serious business finding the seat that properly reflected their status.  The men were nowhere to be seen.

The wedding couple, I learned, would have been formally married in the mosque the day before but the bride had stayed with her family that night. Tonight’s ceremony would unite the two extended families. Only then, would the honeymoon start.

A raucous band shook the air with tambours and coarse trumpets — the bride and groom were on their way. At last, the men started to take their seats on the left hand side of the congregation and a curtain was drawn to separate the sexes.

The fanfare reaching a crescendo and the bride and groom arrived. Almost overcoming the noise of the band, there now came clapping, whistling and ululation. The groom was a serious looking young man in a western-style white tuxedo.  The bride wore white, mostly traditional, but with something of the western style of wedding dress.

It was a hot evening and under the relentless flashing neon and camera lights, the bride fought to keep cool under her tight white hijab with just a small fan. She looked happy and confident as she sat on a throne, where she was subjected to a great deal of sisterly and motherly fussing.  The groom looked less at ease, possibly impatient.

About a year earlier, the prospective groom endured a fierce interview with the father of his intended. He would have had to establish that he had a job and somewhere to set up home. He had to declare the sum of money that he had available. The bride's father would then have to put up twice that amount as a dowry. Imagine having to work out how to pitch the figure just right. Too low and the bride’s father will think you unworthy and the bride will feel short-changed. Pitch too high and you embarrass the man whose permission you need to marry.

The bride will have used the combined fund to set up their future home. The groom’s role was to take an affectionate interest, while deferring to his future wife on every important decision. He would have been wise to assume that every decision was important.

Surely exhausted, band continued even louder than before. Lights rotated and flashed, gas flares roared and a camera on a moviemaker’s boom swooped over the audience and the couple.  The bride stood up and danced amongst the women while the groom danced among the men.  Men in traditional desert dress danced in a fog of dry ice, whirling dangerously heavy, wooden staves. Just 20 or 30 people were dancing and filming as the bride and groom eventually danced together; perhaps for the first time in their lives.  Nearly all the other guests, there must have been 150 of them, remained in their seats like a cinema audience, the curtain remained between the sexes. If the audience were sharing in the exuberant joy at the front of the arena, they did not show it.

The dancers showed no sign of slowing down. The party had hardly started.