A CAIRO BRIDE, 1870. An red packet adorned with a golden crown.
The German novelist Luise Mühlbach observes a wedding procession through the streets of Cairo:
The women accompanying the bride are dressed in long black silk cloth covering their heads. It is ringed with a golden band just above the nose, from which is suspended a veil that covers the lower half of their face below the eyes.
The bride, or rather an oblong packet adorned with a golden crown, walks under a red baldachin. This packet which has no resemblance to a human figure (the arms are wrapped up as well) moves ponderously. The only thing that is visible of her are two points where the eyes are. The bride was certainly not an adult. The red packet was rather small and delicate. It was only a preliminary wedding – we would call it an engagement. Bride and bridegroom stand on either side of a curtain. The parents receive the bridegroom’s proposal and agree to it. Then they ask about the dowry. They argue about it back and forth, and then everything is put in writing by the court officials present. The bridegroom signs, and the bride’s father signs on her behalf.
Some years later, the actual wedding takes place. At this point the bridegroom sees her for the first time, after she is his forever. Well, not forever. Every man has the right to dismiss his wife if she does not please him and send her back home or marry her to one of his relatives.
Weddings are a frequent sight – of course, when every man has the right to take four lawful wives. Of course poor men rarely make use of this right because it would be too expensive.
Mühlbach asks an Egyptian friend about this law. He shrugs.
The Europeans look for all assets of the female sex in their one wife. They want beauty, youth, wealth, goodness, intelligence – everything united in one wife. We Arabs know that that is impossible and are reasonable enough to look in four women what the European cannot possibly find in one.
To be continued.
(Source: Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. My translation)