Saturday, February 16, 2008

Evening in Imbaba

Wednesday evening, I went to a pre-wedding party in Imbaba, which is a lower-income, more traditional residential area of Cairo. Western people don't generally go there. A classmate from my colloquial Arabic class, Aaron, had been invited by Omar, an Egyptian/Sudanese friend of his, and in turn invited several people from class (with permission from Omar). Aaron, his roommate Will and I met Omar downtown, and we all took a taxi to Imbaba together.

I had been told the event we were attending was a wedding, but actually the ceremony and reception were scheduled for Thursday. Couples in the Middle East often have pre-wedding parties where the women dance and do henna painting and the men, well, the men do their own thing.

I really didn't know what to expect at this party, but I had a feeling it would be really different from the wedding festivities I attended the last time I was in Cairo in 2006. I knew it would be better to try not to draw attention to myself (which turned out to be nearly impossible), so for the first time since I arrived in Cairo, I decided to wear a scarf to cover my hair and neck. I think it did help to wear the scarf because it is a signal of modesty, especially to men. I admit I was a little nervous (not a surprise for those of you who know me well), but I was really excited to interact with locals in a non-tourist area.

On our arrival in Imbaba, we met the brother of the bride, Ahmed, on a main street, and he escorted the four of us through the alleys to the party's location. As we walked, Ahmed asked if I wanted to sit with the women, or if I would feel more comfortable sitting with the men, since the only people I knew were all men. I consulted with Aaron and we agreed that I would sit with the men just to make it easier for my friends to watch out for me.

As a Western woman, a female outsider, I get to walk a fine line between the sexes. Throughout the Middle East and in many other cultures, women and men are separated. When you go to a mosque, there is a room for men to pray and a separate room for women to pray. There is less mingling between men and women in social settings. It's just one of those traditional cultural things, with religious and moral underpinnings. And at this party, I totally expected the men and women to be separated into different rooms. Thankfully, the hosts were willing to make an exception for me, one of many ways they tried to make me feel comfortable and welcome.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the party was held outside. The bride's family had strung colored lights above the narrow street from apartment to apartment and had invited the whole neighborhood. Women were sitting at one end of the street, the DJ and speakers were in the middle, and men were at the other end.

We were first offered a seat, then something to drink (soda, of course), then welcomed to the party over the loudspeakers. And of course, our small group attracted quite a bit of attention, although I did the best I could to minimize this: it was someone else's special day, and I didn't feel good about taking away from that.

At some point, Ahmed asked if I would like to hang out with the women, who were being served a little something to eat. As soon as I walked over, the mother of the bride embraced me and welcomed me. I could only think of "Mabrook" (congratulations) to say, so I just said it over and over again. Then I was introduced to the only woman not wearing the hijab, a scarf over her hair.

Unfortunately I didn't understand until much later that she was actually the bride. She sat down next to me and proceeded to try to talk to me in Arabic for at least half an hour. I didn't think she was the bride because, 1. I didn't know the Arabic word for "bride", and 2. she was surrounded by her closest family and friends during a special event for her--why would she spend so much time with a complete stranger?

The answer turned out to be that we outsiders were a source of extreme curiosity, but people also seemed to feel obligated to make everyone feel welcome. This mix of curiosity and generosity was repeated over and over throughout the night. I could tell that some of the party-goers had had very little interaction with anybody from the West. They may have met other Arab visitors, but this may have been the first time that someone like me or Aaron or Will had shown interest in their lives. And I really do think that they did their best to extend their hospitality to us, even if we completely baffled them.

Taking photographs, well, that's a whole different story. I asked the bride and her mother if they would mind if I took some photographs and they both happily agreed. So I went back to the men's area to get my camera. Ahmed, the bride's brother saw it and said, no no you can't take pictures here it is against our traditions and some of the women may not want to be photographed. He was really adamant about it.

So then I asked if I could photograph the men. He said it would be okay to take a couple photographs of the men, but ONLY THE MEN. I had strict instructions to stay on the men's side to take photos.

As soon as I lifted my camera for the first time, everyone was suddenly saying "Sura, sura!" (picture, picture!) and trying to get in front of the camera. I took a few photos of the men dancing and showed them the results on the back of the camera. Suddenly Ahmed was overruled and it was alright for me take photographs of both men and women.

The women, who were dancing in a big group, beckoned to me, saying "Sura, sura!" so I started taking pictures of them. Out of nowhere, one of the brothers started yelling at me, telling me to stop, saying no, it's not alright. He seemed really really upset. So I of course stopped.

I must have looked completely crestfallen, because the mother of the bride hugged me and was trying to comfort me. And then she started clapping and dancing, so I decided to just dance for awhile.

It was weird, but apparently my dancing was quite entertaining. The bride was trying to teach me to dance Arab-style. I thought I was doing alright, but the other women kept giving me dance instructions--move your hips this way, your hands are supposed to do this--and when I tried to follow, the women would just break into giggles. It was actually a ton of fun, but at some point, I felt like I was the center of attention instead of the bride, so I tried to make other women take my place in the middle by pointing at them, then to politely take myself out of the circle, feigning exhaustion from my dancing lessons.

As soon as I sat down, six or seven little boys came over, saying, "What your name???" and as soon as I told them, they'd repeat my name over and over, "Holly? Holly! Holly???" A little chubby boy named Ahmed kept telling me, "You are welcome!" They were all of course adorable. Someone finally shooed them away and dragged me back onto the dance floor.

Some little girls wanted me to take their picture (not unusual for children anywhere). So I obliged and then showed them the photo on the back of the camera. Out of nowhere, a man started asking what I was doing in Cairo. Mistaking his questions for curiosity, I said that I was living in Cairo and that I am a photojournalist. He suddenly got really aggressive and was saying things like, "Who do you work for? What are you doing? Do you work for a newspaper or magazine?" The other women around me got a kind of shocked look on their faces and I started to get distressed. The guy then said he worked for the intelligence service and said it was against the law to take photographs in poor areas. He was in my face and very upset. I told him I was a guest at the party, that the photographs were for my own personal use and that I wasn't currently working for any news organization, all of which was true. This seemed to calm him down, but it didn't shut him up.

Finally the mother of the bride, God bless her, came and rescued me. She grabbed my hand and just led me away, yelling at the man over her shoulder. She took me over to an area with an awning over it, out of the street and was just hugging me and stroking my face and trying to make me feel okay. I wanted to burst into tears at her kindness. I could tell that she was a good person, a strong woman and wonderful mother.

I didn't know that this was just basic harassment, a regular occurrence to working photographers here. I found out later that I can expect to be harassed like this, but that I am not obligated to give the secret police my name, nationality or any other information and that basically I just have to tell them to get lost. (This information comes from a very experienced contract photographer from the New York Times who has been living and working here for two years.)

Aaron, Will and Omar got me all calmed down. Aaron and I had a good discussion on trying to find the balance between being yourself and trying not to offend people, and trying to understand what people are sensitive about in the Middle East. It all turned out okay. However, I thought I had caused enough stress/trouble/entertainment for both Omar and the wedding couple and we all decided it was time to leave.

The experiences I had at the party just reinforced my reasons for traveling so far. Our cultures are very different, but people in the West and in the Middle East are basically decent. Sometimes it seems like we don't know how to talk to each other, but we need to learn.

The bride is the one in the middle with henna on her hands.

Three of the bride's four brothers are on the left, and the groom is on the right. Ahmed is second from the left. The guy on the far left was the one who got upset that I was photographing the women dancing. The guy in the middle was the only one who at the party who told me he loved me, so that's pretty good!


ben said...

wow. this is a great post. what a crazy night. thank goodness for the kindness of strangers (mother of the bride).

robin said...

One thing I've learned is that Mamas are Mamas, no matter where they live. Thank God for Mamas.

Anonymous said...

From your momma to the bride's momma--THANK YOU and bless you for standing for Holly. This post gets a powerful and positive message out about family and culture. Perhaps women (mothers) have more power within the Eastern family than we thought? DJ

Anonymous said...

Grandma said....
Is there Valentine's Day in Cairo? We send our love and glad you made the acquaintance of the bride's momma. You can learn much from such get-togethers, but always go with friends who know the ropes. I heard from Ben the other day, and he will check our Moscow, Idaho house out some day and let us know how it looks 50 years later. Take care, G and G

Holly said...

I want to stress that everyone was welcoming and found a way to show kindness to me and my friends at the party. It was really just the secret police guy who was a jerk, a fact that all the other guests agreed upon.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that is just fascinating. What an eye-opener of an event. ...You had me tearing up about the mother of the bride!