“What should I wear?” I ask, and he unhelpfully answers, “Wear anything.” Typical man. If this scene played out anywhere else it would be funny, but I am in Cairo on my way to an Egyptian wedding with strangers, and I literally have no idea which bits of my meager wardrobe will be inoffensive and appropriate for the occasion.
His name is Mohamed and he is the driver I arranged to pick me up from the airport in Cairo. I normally take public transportation, but after receiving 104 unsolicited offers to host me from Couchsurfing men here I’m a bit wary of this town. I instinctively know Mohamed is different though. Within seconds we are friends, and less than an hour later he invites me to his brother’s wedding tonight. “I love to share my city,” he tells me. “It is so safe here in Cairo. No one needs to be afraid to come to Egypt.”
He picks me up and introduces me to his family: wife ShuShu, daughter Shahd and shy son Marwan, and after driving 20 minutes through a confusing maze of streets we park. The wedding is held in an alleyway between buildings. Lights and decorations are strung everywhere, and Egyptian pop music blares from a DJ booth in the middle. “The groom hosts the wedding,” Mohamed explains, “but he does it in the bride’s neighborhood as a sign of respect for her family.”
The alley is arranged by gender, with women sitting in rows up front and men gathered around round tables in back. The first thing I see is a 20-ish woman standing on a chair near the front. She wears a conservative long-sleeved blouse with skin-tight jeans. She’s shaking her money maker in a belly dance that could teach Miley Cyrus a thing about racy moves, and all the while she fusses with her niqab to make sure her hair isn’t peeking out. None of this seems remarkable to the women around me, but as a newcomer to Cairo I see the ambiguities and I am reminded again how little I understand this culture. In this celebration, though, what I see more than anything is joyful freedom.
There are at least 100 people here, but I soon discover that Mohamed is the only one who speaks any English. Still, some words translate easily. “We love Obama!” they say. “California!” “Hollywood!” I feel so welcomed and accepted. Mohamed’s mother greets me with her eyes and kisses my cheek. I soon feel like a celebrity and find myself surrounded by children who want a photo, then grandmas with babies, and then I’m mobbed by tween girls who act just like American girls that age, posing like rock stars and supermodels. I wonder if they think I am the hired help.
Lights and color are everywhere, and loud ululations rise from the women’s section as the bride and groom take the stage. Women of all ages, dressed in both western and Islamic fashions, crowd the stage and stand on chairs in a frenzied belly dance. I find myself wondering if this is where twerking originated. I’m dying to join in, but Mohamed is the head man of the family tonight and I’m afraid to do anything that might dishonor him in front of his family.
I look toward the back of the alley, where young men gather in one group and older men in another. The young men try out their best hip hop dance moves, never really looking at the women’s section but still hoping to earn some attention from that direction. A man hoists the groom onto his shoulders and they dance frantically, encouraged by the feverish cheers of the crowd. The groom spots Mohamed and drags his older brother onstage for a wild dance that gets the whole crowd clapping and dancing along.
Soon the refreshments arrive, small boxes containing a piece of cake and a bite of pastry, with cans of soda and bottled water thrown into the crowd by strong men. This is a far cry from western mega-dollar weddings, but I prefer the Egyptian way – here it’s all about the joy of family, friends, and the joining of two people together.
I look around and realize Mohamed is the only man in the women’s section, and suddenly I know he’s there because of me. I tell him to go be with the men, I’ll be fine on my own surrounded by these good women who share no common language with me yet welcome me as one of them. No, he says, the men will want him to smoke shisha and marijuana and hash and that’s good for a young man but no good for a man with a family. Ten minutes later we leave, and I’m sad this night has to end. It’s moments like this that make me love solo travel so much – I mean, when on a tour would I ever have this kind of experience? I’m so humbled and grateful for the opportunity to be welcomed into a peek into authentic Egypt, which is so safe, so inviting, and so very different from the Egypt everyone (who has never been here) warned me against traveling alone to.