We took a truck to the absolute end of the village of West Aswan after leaving the house at around dusk. Our task would be to return to the house by foot, only after knocking tirelessly on the doors of the neighbors and friends of the groom’s family, inviting them to attend the approaching wedding day.
Last May, a friend asked me to photograph his nephew’s wedding while documenting Nubian wedding traditions in West Aswan. So on this night, I went with the groom’s sister and her friends to dozens of homes to remind the village of the wedding date and ensure that an ample number of guests would make their appearance.
As we passed through the high and colourful arched entrances that characterise traditional Nubian architecture and into the wide open courtyards furnished with smooth sand, we quickly greeted, talked, and laughed with each family encouraging them to come. We then would exit through the backdoor, entering directly into another neighbor’s house only to repeat this swift and cyclical greeting process again.
This is because in West Aswan, an entrance for one house often is an exit of another. This is due to the unique design of many traditional Nubian homes, which reflects the communal nature of the village, though visitors and newcomers can easily feel as if they are in a labyrinth.
But we are not the first to make the trek around the village or go through these household mazes. The bride had preceded us weeks earlier, as here it is custom for the bride and the groom to personally invite the guests weeks before the wedding.
“The groom usually takes his car and goes with his friends around the village to invite the people,” says Karima Seyam a specialist in Nubian traditions who lives in Cairo. She explains that in the past people may have even taken small presents and perfumes to the invitees’ houses to help persuade as many as possible to attend.
Though traditionally Nubian weddings may last well over a week, now the most significant celebrations happen primarily on two days: the Henna day and the Wedding day. “Every Nubian village has their own tradition. One village may have three nights another one has two nights,” says Fatma Serag, whose family comes from Alalaki, Aswan. “But in the past the wedding festival could take up to seven days.”
Serag explains that many of these changes are most likely be attributed to the fact that the groom’s or the bride’s family does not earn enough money for a seven day festival as before, affecting both the length of the wedding celebration and the amount of gifts exchanged. This reflects the wider situation in Aswan, which like many places outside of Egypt’s capital, faces economic marginalization and underdevelopment and is doubly burdened by the deteriorating economic state of the country.
Despite this, however, the wedding celebration remains an important aspect of life and culture that many people are invested in continuing.
Before the official Henna day the groom’s sisters and friends go to a henna designer to paint their hands. We spend over eight hours crammed in a small room, watching the strokes of henna stream out the tube and admiring the artist as she draws intricate designs on our hands and feet. After drying, the henna is washed off and we place our hands and feet over a hole in the corner of a dark and smoky room the women call the “dukhan”. The “dukhan,” which in Arabic literally means “to smoke,” is a smoking fire that has been set in a hole in the ground. It is used in both Nubia and parts of Sudan to aromatize the body and to blacken the henna stain on the skin. Seyam emphasises that it is rituals like this that highlight the importance of henna and the Henna day in Nubian weddings.
The next day, the celebration begins early and I am whisked away to several locations as the festivity spreads from house to house. Male friends and relatives of the bride and groom go to the bride’s house first and begin to play the tabla and sing. Similarly, female relatives and friends sing and dance at the groom’s. The processions finally culminate by joining at the groom’s house where a meeting of rhythm and joy proceeds as the groom enters with his friends.
“Arees bastabu ya wa hed!” a symphony of voices sing to him with a perfect combination of cadence and verve.
Serag laughs as I ask her what these words, which combine Arabic and Nubian, mean. She explains it is a traditional greeting used by all Nubians, regardless of tribe or language, to express joy. “We say this when the groom enters the party. It is song to begin the festival,” she says.
With the night comes food brought out on platters by men in long white galabeyas. Henna day almost always ends with dancing and this wedding is no different. A local wedding DJ and musical troupe are hired to provide music for the children’s dance outside the groom’s front yard. Later, a cow is killed and prepared for tomorrow’s feast.
The Wedding Day
Despite the previous night’s dancing, the morning of the wedding starts extremely early. It’s well before sunrise and half the courtyard is already transformed into a makeshift kitchen while last night’s slaughter is being cooked. Today, preparing the food is a joint task. Men cook the meat and are filling the pastries while women cut the vegetables and prepare the platters. The younger ones take it upon themselves to do the arduous chore of entertaining the rest with music, drums, and naughty jokes.
As darkness approaches, the families separate and head to the hairdresser’s to perfect their transformations. The groom’s sister and friends adorn themselves in dresses, gleaming and shimmering as they powder themselves. While the groom and his friends are surely prepping themselves elsewhere by other means. After stopping at the portrait studio for a quick photo session with the bride and groom, and a minor dance party in the street in between, we return to the village where the guests have already been fed and the eight-hour concert is just beginning.
While most other weddings are ending their concerts at midnight, for Nubian weddings in Aswan midnight is exactly when the wedding really begins. Although women and men often dance in separate spaces, with the men in front closer to the stage, it’s not uncommon to see female and male relatives dance together. Everyone participates, the young, the old, men and women. No one here seems to know how to tire. The dancing lasts till 8 am in the morning, well after the sun has already risen.
As the numbers dwindle, the music finally ends. Breakfast is tea with milk served with biscuits for those who could stay awake enough to eat; many others lie passed out at their neighbor’s or their relative’s house.
During my time here everyone insisted that keeping traditions and preserving culture and language is important. As members of one of the oldest civilizations in Africa and the Nile Valley, Nubians take pride in their heritage. Here, there is a vitality, an endurance, that has sustained the people of Nubia for a very long time, allowing them to recreate the moments and traditions of the past while simultaneously reinventing them anew for the future.
Originally published on Daily News Egypt website.