Southern Egypt tribes maintain a distinct way of life
Aswan - Abu Ubaida Essa would not have been allowed to see the woman he was preparing to marry before the wedding night had she not been one of his relatives.
“I don’t know what I would have done if my wife had not been a relative,” said Essa, in his mid-30s. “The idea that you get married to somebody you had never seen before is not easy.”
Essa is not the only one to respect a tribal tradition in southern Egypt that prevents a man from meeting his future wife before the wedding night. Such a tradition is one of many that distinguish tribes in the Halayeb triangle, a barren mountainous area near Egypt’s border with Sudan in the south and the Red Sea in the east.
The area’s residents have been bucking Egyptian social trends for hundreds of years. By preserving their traditions, language, cuisine and cultural beliefs, they have enhanced Egypt’s cultural diversity and richness.
Halayeb tribes have lived in the triangle for hundreds of years, depending on agriculture, hunting and guiding trade convoys through the southern Egypt desert to earn a living and maintained their own special identity.
“Most of the tribes here are strictly conservative,” said Nasser al-Bashari, a chieftain of Basharia, one of many tribes in Halayeb. “We have our own culture, which in most cases is different from the culture of other Egyptians.”
Halayeb, a 20,500 sq. km region has been at the centre of border disputes between Egypt and Sudan for more than two decades. Sudan has threatened to turn to the United Nations in its attempts to prove ownership of the territory, which has been considered part of Egypt for hundreds of years.
A man is sometimes allowed to see his future wife once before marriage but often the first time they meet is on the wedding night. He is to propose first to his female cousins but if his uncles do not have daughters of marrying age, he is allowed to search for a wife outside family circles.
Marriage among the Halayeb people, Essa said, is about union between two families or two tribes more than between a man and a woman.
“This is why the physical beauty of the woman is far less important than the position of her family or tribe,” Essa said. “Every woman has her own beauty but here beauty doesn’t matter.”
Strangers rarely see Halayeb women, who wear loose-fitting, colourful robes and head covers. They are only glimpsed moving from one house to another.
After marriage arrangements were finalised between his parents and the parents of his fiancée, Essa had to build a home. A bridegroom of his stature has to offer several camels to his fiancée as gifts to her parents. The camels are a dowry the family seeks and the size of the request reflects the standing of the bride’s family in the tribe.
After the house was built and furnished, the wedding date was set, allowing several days of wedding festivities. A great number of guests from Halayeb, where about 20,000 people live with most being interconnected by tribe links, showed up to share the joy.
Essa and his friends danced and sang until the early morning. He then entered his new home to find his wife waiting for him.
“It was an unimaginable moment for me,” he said. “The woman I had been waiting to come close to for months was finally beside me and under the same roof: Me and her alone.”
Essa did not have his wife to himself for long because of a tribal tradition requiring newly married wives to stay at their parents’ homes all day in the months that follow their wedding. When they get pregnant, the wives have to stay at their parents’ homes until they give birth.
Ali Doura, a researcher on southern Egypt’s culture, said Halayeb tribes have kept their traditions intact for centuries.
“Even those from the new generation have to abide by these traditions and also pass them onto their children and grandchildren,” Doura said. “This is less about marriage and more about the peculiarity of this magnificent part of Egypt and its people.”