My neighbour Selwa is a jovial young woman, hefty and assertive, but when she visited the other day she was upset. She and her family live on the roof. Her father used to be the building’s guardian, but he died recently, and Selwa assumed the role of her mother’s right hand. She told me the family was in crisis, because of her brother Ahmed’s prospective marriage. Ahmed, the eldest of six siblings, is 33. He left school at 10 and has since helped support his family. He too became a building guardian, earning around $50 per month.
Recently, Ahmed’s mother arranged his engagement to Karima, a second cousin from their hometown in Upper Egypt. Since Karima’s father is also dead, her brother negotiated the marriage contract, as is customary, on her behalf. Ahmed would supply the apartment, and certain furnishings. Karima’s family would provide other household items, in addition to supplying Karima.
Selwa and her sisters were thrilled to have found Ahmed an affordable apartment ($35 per month) in a shantytown on the outskirts of Imbaba, a relatively central quarter. They secured the required furnishings with cash deposits, and organized the wedding celebration, paying in advance for a band and an outdoor space to hold the party not far from the couple’s future home.
Then, just a week before the wedding, Karima’s brother raised an issue. How could his sister live in a flat with no electricity? Unless a more suitable dwelling was found, the deal was off. Selwa’s distress was equally distributed between her brother’s thwarted chance for happiness and the cash they’d lose if the marriage fell through.
The family gathered, she told me, to examine their options – things like gas-operated generators, which were expensive. Kerosene lamps and candles were more typical solutions, but unsatisfactory to Karima’s brother. They tried to explain that the Imbaba neighbourhood would one day be embraced by the municipal grid and, if not, people would pirate nearby electricity wires. Meanwhile, god had seen fit to position the flat in such a way as to profit from his light throughout the day. The brother remained obdurate and Selwa’s mother, who suffers from diabetes and high-blood pressure, had, in the local parlance, ‘blue genies dancing in front of her eyes’.
‘What can we do?’ Selwa asked. I suggested she tell Karima’s brother once more exactly what she’d told me: that they’d done their best and it wasn’t easy, and if he didn’t like it, he could help pay to solve the problem himself. Otherwise they should drop the engagement. Better to lose money than for Ahmed to marry into a family of unreasonable ingrates. Selwa sighed. I wished her luck and gave her some money that she refused, as is expected, several times before accepting it.
I’d nearly forgotten about her visit when two days later I heard ululations coming from the roof. I figured they’d reached an agreement and Ahmed and Karima would marry after all. I was half right.
Selwa’s mother came by to make sure I’d go to the wedding. I told her I was glad they’d settled things with Karima’s brother.
‘We didn’t,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We found another one.’
‘No,’ she laughed, ‘another bride’. This was a third cousin by the name of Hind, who showed up moments later to introduce herself; a sturdy woman wearing jeans and a headscarf, who had known Ahmed for years and was apparently game.
I figured what the marriage lacked in romance it gained in practicality. Both parties were well past marriageable age, poor, uneducated and unlikely to find a better match, especially considering that their families’ rapport was evidently longstanding and harmonious. Life is a difficult enterprise, requiring reliable partners. It was that simple.
The wedding party took place on an empty lot in a garbage-clogged maze of informal housing blocks. The band played beside a crude brick wall, with a swathe of printed fabric as backdrop. Several hundred people filled the surrounding benches, wooden planks that bobbed up and down as we sat or stood. Men were on one side of the stage, women on the other, with kids swarming back and forth in between. People danced, particularly Selwa, who moved with robust innuendo, as if her whole body was winking.
I slipped away after midnight, following a tight alley to something resembling a street, walking ankle-deep in the ghostly sun-dried shreds of plastic bags, like the skins of moulting snakes. This is Cairo in pursuit of renewal: heroically defiant of the odds, hopelessly romantic after all.