It was a pleasant January morning when Riham Adel, a wedding planner, was driving to her office to meet with May and Omar, a young couple set to wed in the spring, to discuss the details of their anticipated wedding. On that day it didn't cross Adel's mind that “this new harsh virus that hit a city in China” she had just heard about in the news earlier in the day, would end up finding its way to Egypt and actually cancel the wedding of the couple she was just about to meet as well as many other weddings, engagement parties and festive events that Adel’s company was already planning for the first quarter of 2020.
Adel had actually thought that this year, being one with "a good number", would be a very busy year for festivities, given that many people would like to have their weddings on a year with “a good significant date.”
May and Omar looked like they were really enjoying the weeks leading up to their expected wedding on 26 March. They were engaged in all the details and following up on every step, “not thinking the virus that hit China and started in the following few weeks to hit other countries in Asia and Europe would eventually force them to drop all their plans all at once,” Adel recalled.
However, on the second week of March as Adel was meeting with the couple to inspect a few decoration details in a five-star hotel hall that was reserved for the wedding “everything had to be put on pause.”
“We were just getting into the hotel lobby and before passing through the metal detector there came a receptionist to check our body temperature; we did not pay much attention,” Adel recalled. However, the receptionist said the bride’s temperature was 37.2, looking a bit anxious.
Adel and the couple were still not worried. They went to the lobby, waiting for the hotel manager to take them to the wedding hall and to take note of their decoration plans. When the manager arrived, however, he politely asked the bride to leave because of her "high temperature."
“He said nobody with temperature surpassing 37 would be allowed in the hotel under any conditions. These, he said, were the instructions,” Adel said.
High temperature is considered one of the positive signs of infection of the new coronavirus. By that time of the year, many public facilities had observed a regulation of not allowing in anyone, visitor or employee, with high body temperature. It was the first time for Adel and the couple to have heard of this measure.
They decided to step out and have coffee at a nearby café to discuss other details. “As we had the first sip of our coffee it suddenly hit us that this temperature regulation could be very problematic. We thought what if anyone, the bride, the groom or their parents would have a slightly high temperature for whatever reason? We did not know what that meant,” Adel said.
Adel then picked up her phone to call the hotel manager to put the question to him. The answer, she recalled, was very straight: anyone with temperature more than 37 degrees is not going to be allowed in.
As she put down her phone on the table, the look on her face had conveyed to May and Omar the complicated situation that they had suddenly found themselves in. Each picked up their mobile phones to call their parents and friends. By the time they were getting the last sip of their coffee they had decided to put the wedding on pause – with no alternative date set.
The plan for May and Omar was to get married four weeks before the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan that started this year on 24 April. On the second week of March they, like Adel, were thinking that this coronavirus emergency “would definitely end in a couple of weeks or so” and that they could have their wedding shortly after Eid – late May.
On 19 March, as part of the measures put in place to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Egyptian authorities decided to close down all hotels and other party venues for two weeks. On that day, Adel started to cancel a sequel of weddings and engagement parties that she was working on. But Adel was not sure about her rescheduling plans “because by the third week of March Egypt was clearly in a situation where it had to take tough measures that were essentially designed to prohibit large gatherings – in other words all my work had to be put on hold with no clear rescheduling plan.”
Last week, the authorities in Cairo announced a plan to slowly re-open hotels that would be allowed to work on 25 per cent capacity base without allowing the resumption of weddings or parties. Adel had then to call May and Omar who were dismayed beyond words.
“It is not clear now when one could have a wedding with a large number of invitees; it was not clear at all; so they decided to forgo the wedding and to just have a small family gathering and a photo session at the house of the parents of the bride and that would be it,” Adel said.
Salma and Ahmed, another young couple whose wedding was planned for right after Ramadan had also decided to “skip planning around uncertainties or to wait for a last-minute disappointment.”
“We accepted that this was just not going to happen; we were not going to have a big wedding with a lot of dance and rejoice and so many photos with families and friends,” Salma said. “I mean even if we decided to delay it for a month, there is no telling that the wedding halls would be operating by then and there is no telling that people would want to come to the wedding or that we would not be worried that one of the invitees would be infected and pass on the infection to many other people – we were planning a wedding with 1,000 invitees; this was not going to be small,” she added.
Having heard from a friend that her "alternative wedding" at the garden of her parents’ house in Tagammu nearly ended in a sad drama as one neighbour decided to call the police and report the big gathering, Salma and Ahmed decided to even forgo a brief morning garden party – “even if the government decided to ease down the restrictions.”
“We are not sure whether or not the restrictions would be eased because one day we would hear that the country would open up completely after Ramadan and Eid and another day we hear that the country might have to go into a total lockdown because the number of the coronavirus cases has been increasing fast,” she said.
Salma and Ahmed settled for just a cake and a photo session at her parents’ house, after the couple would have signed their wedding contract with a visiting wedding registrar. “We are not having a wedding and we are not having the dream honeymoon of south France, south Italy and Spain; we are just going to drive to our new house and we will wait for this nightmare to come to an end before we could throw a big part for family and friends – we are not sure whether or not it is going to be this year.”
Salma might feel a lot more “privileged” than Nada whose late March wedding was cancelled not just because of the hotels' shut down but also because her fiancé who is working overseas cannot come back because the airports are closed. Nada is now waiting for the airports to reopen so that her fiancé can come back for them to get married. “We have no idea when this will happen; we call up the airport authorities and they don’t know; we hear speculations about late June but we are not sure.”
The cancellation of weddings in Egypt this spring/summer was not just about the forced closure of wedding halls. It was also about the closure of churches. Unlike Muslim couples who could get a wedding contract signed at home, Copts and other Christians in Egypt can only exchange their wedding vows in church. For six weeks, upon the instruction of the patriarchs of the three churches of Egypt, the Coptic, Catholic and Evangelical, all weddings were called off. It was only last week that the church allowed priests to give their blessings to couples who were willing to exchange their vows with the presence of no more than six people in the church hall.
The economic impact of these cancellations is not at all small for the many businesses related to what is now a whole wedding industry that Egypt’s upper middle and upper classes benefit from. Adel is dreading to start calculating the losses that she and her partner would have to put up with.
After Ramadan, Adel would be planning a few small house gatherings for couples who are settling for home weddings of no more than 15 people. This means a sharp drop in the agency’s revenues with no clear pick-up scheme. She and her partner are now trying to make ends meet in order to keep the staff. “There is no telling how long this crisis is going to take; it is clearly not the few-weeks thing that we had originally thought it to be and my fear is that there would not be a serious breakthrough in the situation for a year,” she said.
Nadia, a pedicurist at a five-star beauty salon in Heliopolis, is also worried about the impact of an elongated coronavirus crisis. “For us, Ramadan is usually a high season with many Coptic brides and the weeks ahead of Ramadan and after Ramadan are also high-season points where we get a lot of extra work and a lot of generous tips; I count on this money to buy myself things I need for my own wedding that I was planning for late this year or early next year; now this has to be put off and I am just hoping that I would keep my job and my salary.”
Nadia is not sure what else she would be doing if she had to put up with half a salary or if she lost her job completely “because the wedding season aside, fewer people are coming in on a regular basis to do their nails because people are really fear getting infected.
"We are adopting extra hygiene and distancing guidelines but we are still waiting to see if things will pick up,” she said.
Hend Nasser, a make-up artist, is also upscaling her hygiene guidelines to “get through the year and possibly the next until, hopefully, this nightmare is over.”
Nasser had already over 20 make-up sessions cancelled since the decree to suspend large weddings came into force on 19 March.
For most make-up artists, the majority of weddings require two sessions – one for the day of the signing of the wedding contract, which is typically held under a month before the wedding, and this includes the bride, her mother, her sister, close friends -- and then there is a bigger session for the wedding which might also include the bridesmaids.
Now with weddings being either fully put off or firmly scaled-down, Nasser said, the demand for the cosmetic skills of a make-up artist is really going down. “It would be just the bride for the photo session and that is all.”
Nasser who worries for her own safety and that of her family is now considering taking the requested reservation for limited make-up sessions after Eid. “If I decided to decline all requests then I would have to close down the studio which had just cost me a lot to set out last winter and to ask all my assistants to go home,” she said.
The alternative is to accept a number of requests every week and to invest more in buying disinfecting material and machines to keep things afloat. “As a professional make-up artist I normally disinfect all my brushes and tools all the time but now I cannot be even thinking that I would count on the simple disinfection techniques, I would have to upscale these techniques,” she said.
Nasser, who has abandoned a safe corporate job to pursue her passion for cosmetics, has to worry about protecting herself and her assistants “because with make-up I have to be really close to the face of the bride.” The one thing she had been firmly requesting of clients requesting small sessions after Ramadan is for the make-up room to have no more than four people: the bride, her mother and maybe a sister, a friend or a sister-in-law – just to make sure that when she gets in with her assistant it would not be more than six people in the room.
Requesting smaller groupings and introducing more limited packages is also an option that Riham Atef, a team manager for hennah nights (girls’ wedding showers) is opting for.
Normally, Atef would be managing an event with no less than 20 women who all get dressed in fun costumes and belly dancing suits for a long evening where the bride-to-be would be wearing several costumes and have a hennah drawing along with her friends who might also be having hennah drawings or glittery face drawings.
On a typical hennah night “pre-coronavirus,” Atef said she would arrive with her decoration and team of stylists to the venue of the wedding shower to start setting up the ornamentation and the buffet and to help the bride-to-be and the other women with their costumes before the arrival of the hennah and glitter drawing artists.
For the coming events that Atef’s agency had agreed to book, she would not be going to events with more than 10 girls in well-ventilated venues. There would be, she said, only one to three costumes for the bride-to-be and no costumes for the other women “because they don’t buy, they just rent these costumes which are flock or movies theme-based.
“We are already buying our own laundry and disinfection machines to make sure the costumes are perfectly sterilised and pack-sealed every time they are used and it would be a very complicated process to do this for more than one to three costumes per bride,” she said.
Atef’s agency is also reducing the preparation hours of each event “because you would not want to stay with the photographer and the rest of the team in a place with 10 people for more than two to three hours; that would be too much even if we are wearing our masks and gloves.”
Atef knows these new scaled-down packages for the wedding showers would financially help her and the rest of her close to 45 staff members.
“Typically in a high season we would be having no fewer than five hennahs per day – some in the morning and some in the evening. We would get the reservations like 12 weeks in advance; now we only have a few reservations for the 12 weeks after Ramadan,” she said.
“Clearly, it is not the same sense of joy but people have to find a way to keep on living and celebrating until this nightmare is over,” Atef said.