Necessity is the mother of invention, as evidenced by the “creative” solutions Egyptians have come up with to deal with social pressures.
In the latest manifestation of Egypt’s economic hardship, Egyptians are now renting bridal sets, or the shabka as it is known traditionally, a set of gold jewelry that adorns every bride’s neck, that the groom has to offer the bride before the wedding. A man who cannot buy a set is considered unworthy. However, in reality, its sole purpose is showing off in front of friends and family.
Yet, nowadays, the rise in the price of gold, the steep devaluation of the local currency, and the difficult economic conditions have all colluded against the groom, making these sets an unattainable dream for many. Under such circumstances, marriage—an already taxing mission in Egypt—has become nearly impossible.
In this context, a solution has appeared: Rent a bridal set for $30.
A Knight With a Shining (Rented) Bridal Set
Mayar* is 38 years old. She studied nursing, but never practiced the profession. She spent her days waiting for her knight in shining armor to take her away on his horse to the magical realms of wedded bliss.
She waited for long, and one by one her brothers got married before her, and brought her sisters-in-law to live in the family home. At almost 40, she found herself amid a perpetual chorus of questions and comments on when and whether she would ever get married.
But, as fate would have it, one day, a worker in a small local restaurant proposed. Although he has not even completed a basic education, and can barely afford rent, Mayar accepted knowing full well that a bridal set was out of the question.
"The bridal set will not stand in the way of my daughter's marriage," Mayar's mother tells Raseef22. "If I had the money, I would have bought her all the gold in the world and given it to her groom to present it in front of the people—but I don't."
Half the Average Annual Income
Amid the recent price hikes, the price of gold skyrocketed. A gram of 24K gold costs roughly 700 Egyptian pounds ($38), while the more common 21K is sold at a marginally lower price; 600 pounds ($33).
This brings the price of the least expensive bridal set—a wedding band, a ring, and a necklace—at close to 20,000 pounds ($1,100). Yet, this is a figure that, practically speaking, is equivalent to almost half of the average annual per capita income in Egypt, which is estimated at $2,748, according to the Arab Industrial Development and Mining Organization. Even worse, the devaluation of the currency in late 2016 brought down the value of income even further.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and no one knows this better than an Egyptian on the cusp of marriage.
In Egypt, tradition is king, and when you can't afford to buy the prerequisites for marriage, you rent them.
Christine, who owns a gold shop in the Hussein area of Old Cairo, tells Raseef22 that not long ago a groom could afford to buy a decent bridal set at 6,000 to 7,000 Egyptian pounds ($380), but now, this same amount of Egyptian pounds is barely enough to buy a wedding band and an 18K ring.
She notes that a reasonable set of five or six pieces would cost between 40,000 and 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200-$2,500).
However, according to Mayar’s mother, the symbolic cost of dispensing with the wedding set comes with a far heftier price tag. She stresses that this is linked with the family’s prestige in society. "People would perceive it as us having sold our daughter out on the cheap," she adds.
Mayar's groom was able to secure 6,000 pounds, which was enough to pay for an 18K wedding band and a ring. Her mother put together some money to rent the rest of the wedding set; a bracelet, a necklace, and earrings. She gave the set to her son-in-law to present it to his bride on their wedding day in front of everyone.
No More Customers at the Goldsmith
In the middle of Hussein lies a neighborhood of goldsmiths. This is the destination Mayar and her mother venture to, in order to rent the bridal set. A number of shop windows are spangled in glittering gold, but an equal number of others are empty, collecting dust.
Sellers sit outside their stores, calling on the few passers-by, in desperate attempts to lure in a customer or two.
"Do you want to sell gold?" they ask every woman who passes—as though certain that nobody, in the midst of Cairo's most popular gold market, is there to buy.
"The rise of the price of gold has caused a major recession in the gold trade," says Magdy Soltan, the owner of a jewelry store in Hussein.
Renting for Collateral
Fathy owns a store that rents out bridal sets; a practice that is seeing greater demand in recent days.
In the Egyptian psyche, the concern for appearances never wanes, and even if a groom can only afford a simple set, parents may be embarrassed and wish to rent showier pieces, albeit with the full intent of returning them after the ceremony.
For Fathy, renting has helped compensate for the depression in sales. After all, a small but regular income is preferable to none, especially for goods that would otherwise become fading relics on display in shop windows.
He imposes strict rental conditions. To begin with, Fathy conducts background checks on potential clients. If their reputation is sound, he moves to the second stage; meeting with them, and having the groom sign a blank cheque, or taking his ID and the ID of someone he knows, as collateral. Fathy is then paid the rental price, which often ranges between 500 to 700 Egyptian pounds ($27 to $38).
Thus, even as conditions continue to harshen for most Egyptians, tradition remains king. While many luxuries have inevitably been disposed of, in the intricate Egyptian marriage machine, the show must go on.
*Name changed upon request