The sun is sinking to the west. We’ve been traveling north down the Nile, towards Luxor, for the better part of the day. There are two other passengers on the boat. A British couple, both named Sam, they invited me to join them the day before after we had hit it off at the ruins of Abu Simbel. Manning the small felucca are Mohammed and Osama (“Like bin Laden!” he insists, laughing at his own joke and the awkwardness it inspires in the rest of us).
The ripples on the water catch the sun and transform it into a million sparkling fragments. I’ve been keeping an eye out for Nile crocodiles or hippopotami, hoping to catch a glimpse of the second and first most dangerous Egyptian animals, respectively. Though I’ve seen a few things that could be either logs or crocs, I haven’t spotted any hippos, and given their aggressive nature that’s probably for the best. A lone crane winds its way lazily overhead. I idly wonder whether it’s going to rejoin its family, searching for better fishing grounds, or has some other, ineffable bird purpose in mind. I’m wearing a floppy cloth hat; I still haven’t got my trademark bush hat yet, but it serves well enough to keep the lowering sun out of my eyes.
As the sun nears the horizon, Mohammed informs us of our sleeping situation for the night. We’ll be docking at his village, a small hamlet of displaced Nubians who had to find a new home upriver when their ancestral homeland was flooded by the building of the Ashwan dam. We’re welcome to stay on the boat, but we are also invited to dine with him and his very large family. I can’t imagine why anyone would stay on the boat, so of course we all join him.
His family’s compound is a large ring of connected stucco-like buildings framing an inner courtyard. We are ushered into one of the buildings, while laughing children run about and tug on our shirts, asking us eager questions in Arabic. One asks the only question I understand: holding out his hand, he says “Baksheesh?”, Arabic for “tip me?”, and grins a gap toothed smile. An elderly man scolds him for this, and he runs off laughing.
We’re ushered into a small sitting room, filled with friendly Arabic men, who are watching a very grainy Egyptian comedy on a tiny, ancient television. The TV isn’t plugged into the wall, but instead a long extension cord disappears out the door and around the corner.
Mohammed’s family is happy to have guests, and prides themselves on their hospitality. They ask us many questions, some in broken English, some in Arabic which Mohammed translates. Osama is a friend of the family, and greeted even more warmly than we are, while girl-Sam’s presence seems to only be tolerated out of respect for our weird Western ways. I notice I haven’t seen any women this whole time.
A large, ornate hookah is brought in, loaded with shisha, the apple flavored mixture of molasses and tobacco, as well as some Morrocan hashish. We all smoke together, growing more giggly and amused by the minute, until it’s time for dinner.
Glancing out the door, I can spot where at least some of the women have been: preparing dinner, around the corner. I wonder if they’ll join us for the meal, but predict they won’t, and my prediction is borne out.
Dinner is amazing. It consists of a flavorful mound of grains topped with a single drumstick of what is to this day by far the best fried chicken I have ever tasted, bread, a salad of diced vegetables, a spicy orange potato soup, and a yellow-green soup with the consistency and appearance of raw egg whites. I spend ages trying to ask what the soup is made from, but never succeed. Later I’ll learn that it’s made from the mallows that grow alongside the Nile. Whipped and mixed with sugar, made into a sort of meringue, is the original recipe for marshmallows.
After the delicious dinner, as we are all relaxing with more hookah, one of Mohammed’s relatives shares with us his exciting news. His cousin is getting married, that very night! Apparently (and I’d been told this before coming to Egypt by friends who’d been here before) it is considered good luck among the Nubians to have foreigners at your wedding, so if we would honor them with our presence, we are invited. Who could possibly say no to that?
We make our way to the main village square, where the pre-ceremony festivities are well under way. There is a large, elevated platform near one end of the square, which has throngs of women dancing in front of it, and taking turns going up and singing to the rapturous crowd. In a semicircle crowning the dancing women are the men, laid out on blankets and carpets on the dirt floor, smoking hookahs and drinking sweet mint tea brought around by a young man with a kettle. Running through all of this are dozens of small children, laughing and playing, to the delight of the adults watching them.
Mohammed and his relatives find a set of unoccupied rugs and invite us to sit down with them, so we do. The next few hours pass in this fashion, smoking and drinking tea and talking, laughing at the antics of the children, occasionally getting swept up in the music when a particularly good singer takes the stage. I notice that none of the men ever dance, so I resist the urge, though I feel it several times.
As the night goes on, the young man with the kettle comes by again, this time with a mischievous grin on his face. I must have a look of confusion on mine, because the other men there laugh and insist I have more. To their endless amusement, I cough upon drinking what he pours me: the smooth, sweet mint tea has been replaced with harsh, fiery whiskey!
This continues for several more hours, until the bride arrives. Her outfit is not nearly as ornate as a western white wedding dress tends to be, but its shiny golden yellows sets her apart from the crowd just as effectively. Carried on the shoulders of her female ancestors, she is taken to the stage, where she takes over the singing for the evening.
The groom arrives not much later. Wearing the shiniest suit I have ever seen, he makes his way through the crowd, shaking the hands of every man in attendance, including me, while another man follows him with the largest video camera I have ever seen. It doesn’t seem battery powered: like the television, an infinitely long extension cord protrudes from the back and winds its way through the crowd, disappearing into the darkness beyond.
The spectacle continues like this for longer and longer. I don’t know what time it is, but surely it’s well past midnight by this point. I admit that I think I must have dozed off at some point, because I can’t for the life of me recall the exchange of vows. All I remember after shaking the groom’s hand is stumbling back to the felucca in the early morning pre-dawn light, and then setting out on the river again, catching up on missed sleep during the course of our journey north.
Photos are by me. The best way to attend a Nubian wedding is to make friends with some Nubians. Taking a felucca ride with them is as good an introduction as any.