Alright folks, strap on your seatbelt for the most photos I’ve ever put into a single post. I’ve tried to think of some ways to split this up into several but, anyway I go, I feel it loses the magic of the mood I want to share with you. Here we go!
In the last post, A Bend in The Road, I introduced you to my friend Amer and some of his friends and family. I closed that story with my being invited to join these wonderful new friends of mine to a street wedding. Amer has an older brother, Gamal, whose son was the one getting married.
The night of the wedding, I joined up with Amer and two other people we had met the night before. This lovely couple had just been married and were in Egypt on their honeymoon. Tomas is from Chile and his wife is from Brazil. They would be going with us to the wedding.
Gamal (father-of-the-groom) all dressed up for the wedding.
Amer wanted to get some treats to bring to the wedding so the two of us headed off to go buy them. Down the road from The Bend in The Road, a little stand sells a variety of donut-like pastries; we bought 20 kilograms (44 lbs) of them to share at the celebration!
Beside the sweets stand was an outdoor cafe filled with people drinking tea, smoking shisha, and playing dominoes. Near to where I was standing, three older gentlemen were charismatically slapping tiles down onto a dominos table. I couldn’t help but take interest in this enthusiastic game. One of the men motioned for me to come sit and have tea with them. Since It was gonna be a few minutes for the guys at the sweets stand to weigh and package all of those calories, I was all too inclined to meet these friendly characters. I’ve never played dominos but after studying their play for a few minutes I was beginning to catch the gist of it. Between the disapproving grunts, and taunting shouts of the respective loser and winner, it didn’t take long to see that this game is best enjoyed via loud and friendly provocation.
Marked by the sounds of men talking, laughing, and the random crack of a winning tile being snapped onto thin wooden tables, this little cafe turned out to be quite the social spot for enjoying the comfortable climate of an Old Cairo evening. The wafting aroma of hot tea and Turkish coffee, deep fried bread, and flavored tobaccos from smoldering shishas, all contributed to the vibrance of this scene.
I could have happily spent the rest of my evening sitting with these spry old men but there was a wedding to hurry off to. My friend, Amer, and I each grabbed a plastic bag filled to the handles with sweets and made our way down this bustling street toward the wedding. From over a block away, the sound of loud music could be heard reverberating from out of a side alley. In this ancient part of the city, you find the businesses and habitations of the working class. Its dark and neglected side alleys are not the sort of place I imagined would make for a good place to hold a wedding.
As we came to the entrance of the alley, I was taken aback by the sight of its transformation. Strings of richly colored lights and decorative fabric clung to ropes and wires that were haphazardly strung overhead between the buildings. The combination of loud, pulsating reverberations of local popular music and the swarm of joyful people filling this place resulted in a complete disconnect from this alley’s wonted form. It was beautiful!
To celebrate in some measure of splendor, these hard-working tradesmen, laborers, and shop keepers had pooled for their family and friends whatever resources they had available to them. Everyone brought what they could afford to contribute to this joyful event. Each table had a variety of snacks and drinks set out. Some tables had chips, fruit, and water, while others took more liberty by the occasion to share in the few beers and sweets being passed around. No table was without some form of enjoyable treat.
As a new friend of the Father-of-the-groom, I was asked to sit at the table of the family. Humbled and honored are all the words I can speak to that kind of graciousness. Practically a stranger to most of the people here yet I was treated with the warmth and generosity of an old friend. As a pale-skinned, bearded ginger, there was no way to blend in; I stood out like a sore thumb. At first I was a little concerned about this special treatment but that proved to be a completely unwarranted feeling. The entire evening I was shown nothing but kindness and friendliness by the hundreds of guests in attendance.
Any awkwardness I felt when I first arrived was eroded away by the power of each smile, handshake, and heartfelt “WELCOME” that I received.
About an hour after arriving, the wedding ceremonies began. I was not invited to the wedding to be a photographer nor did I come for the sake of image-making. I came to experience something new and to be with Amer to share in this great joy in his life, seeing his nephew married. I even contemplated not bringing my camera just to show him that I wasn’t coming for the sake of serving my own interests in photography. At the last minute I changed my mind and decided I better bring it. I had a suspicion that a wedding photographer wasn’t going to be in the budget for the wedding. Figuring if I at least brought my camera along and managed to take a few photos, I could later share with them whatever I managed to get.
Years ago, I shot traditional church weddings, Japanese weddings, and simple beach weddings. Let me tell you right here and now, that none of those would prepare me for what I was about to experience when the bride and groom walked into that little alley.
It’s said that an image is worth a thousand words. Let’s see if in these next images I managed to capture for you how they do things here in the back alleys of Old Cairo. Mr. DJ, QUEUE THE MUSIC!!!
When the bride and groom started their walk down the densely packed alley, you could have powered half of Cairo from the electricity emanating from all the overwhelming expressions of joy from the crowd that gathered around them. Shouting, dancing, and jumping, everyone who came to witness this event offered en masse their approval of this union.
I’ve never seen a prouder, happier bride in any wedding I’ve ever had the privilege to photograph.
To the young and old alike, dancing and clapping was this evening’s call.
Amer and his brother, Gamal, embrace the satisfaction of seeing the young man of their family enter into this joyful marriage.
The groom cuttin’ some rug for his audience of friends and family.
Gamal, the proud father to his newly married son.
And then the dancing horse showed up! Seriously?!?! A dancing horse?!?! This just raised the bar for what it takes to qualify as a great party. Powerful ethnic beats blasting from a tower of speakers gave the rhythm for the horse and its rider to perform. I was amazed by how calm the horse was throughout its choreographed prance down and back up the crowded alley.
The culture here deeply and profoundly embraces the relationship between a father and son. Both the joys and sorrows of life are uninhibitedly shared in this bond.
The bride and groom approach the end of the alley where a pair of chairs have been staged for them to take their place beside each other for the crowds to witness this expression of their union.
Once the bride and groom’s walk was finished, a DJ and team of MCs kept the crowd pumped up until the early morning. I was asked not to photograph the knife dancing between the young men but I can tell you that it was quite the spectacle. As vigorous a dance as it was, no one got cut or stabbed by the exceptionally long and sharp knives they skillfully wielded. This type of dance is called tahtib and in modern form is performed to a style of music called tekno-shaabi. Take French techno and put it in a blender with Egyptian music and you’ll have an idea of how it sounds. This style of music and dance has become popular amongst Egypt’s culturally expanding youth. It is their expression of freedom, rebellion, and celebration.
Following the opening ceremony, friends and family ate, drank, danced, and sang together until the wee hours of the morning. While we ate, kids darted between tables looking for any empty cans or bottles that they could collect and later sell for a little bit of money.
The thunderous, elating cacophony of this celebration was, for lack of better words, overwhelming. At no point did I have a clue what was happening or where to be for anything so I just did my best to shoot what I saw. I was washed from one side of the alley to the next and from one end to the other, seemingly not even carried by the power of my own legs but by the energy of the music, the people shouting and dancing and this mass of excitement that surrounded the happiest bride I’ve ever seen. Her smile lit every corner of the alley, moving me to tears behind the viewfinder of my camera. Don’t tell anyone: I’ll admit to you that I’ve quietly had a bit of a cry at every wedding I’ve photographed. I can’t help it. It always takes me back to the day I married the love and joy of my life. What can I say? I’m not an emotionless tough-guy. I think for the marriage of two people who are truly in love for all of the right reasons, their wedding represents the beginning of the happiest, most rewarding days of their lives.
What I experienced in that alley was a pure emanation of unconstrained joy that manifested in such a dramatic way that I’m sure to remember it for the rest of my life. That night, I witnessed this unprivileged throng toss to the side the heavy yoke of their daily hardships so that for the span of a few hours they could lightheartedly celebrate the obvious value they have for family and friends – the things that matter most in life. That I was invited to take part in something so special to them, I am eternally grateful.
For those interested: I shot this entire event with a Sony A7RII and a $15 Minolta MD 45mm f/2 manual focus lens. Both the camera and lens performed very well under such crazy conditions of poor lighting, cramped space, and constant movement. Setting the camera to shoot black and white (RAW+JPG), I used red focus peaking (medium setting) to aid in rapid set of focus as I was carried along the alley by the tsunami of people. The contrast of the red peaking against the monotone image in the viewfinder really does help with setting focus in a quick and efficient way, yielding a high rate of keepers.
P.S. Upon completion of processing all of the photos from the wedding, I went back to the neighborhood to put on a slideshow for the family and their friends. I also gave the family a copy of all the images (many more than what I posted here). That was a really fun evening, showing them all of the photos – another story in itself.