CAIRO: Shy beneath her pearl-dotted veil, Zeinab clutched Reda s arm as they made their entrance as man and wife for the first time to the raucous cheers of all the other brides and grooms.
Some 200 couples had gathered in a Cairo stadium to tie the knot in a mass wedding organized by an Islamic charity whose main goal is to promote lawful unions between men and women in a bid to save them from sin.
It is firstly a religious duty, said Hamdi Taha, head of Karam Al-Islam and a professor of communications at the prestigious Al-Azhar University, stressing the importance of instilling religious values in young couples.
The alternative, he says, can be disastrous.
Celibacy in Egypt is nothing but a time bomb ready to explode and tarnish the image of my country, said Taha, who is also a member of the ruling National Democratic Party.
He believes that not getting married can lead to deviant behavior such as sex outside marriage, or to even the greatest taboo of all in this conservative society: homosexuality.
Taha s aim is to tackle what he sees as a worrying phenomenon developing in Egypt – the ever-growing number of unmarried people.
For the mass marriage, busloads of brides and grooms head for the stadium to the amused and sometimes confused looks of passers-by.
On arrival, the couples made their way to a rug-covered floor to a singer s repetitive chants in praise of God.
Several thousand family members pack onto the stadium benches watch from behind a police cordon as loved ones celebrated their union.
Since 2002, Karam Al-Islam has organized collective weddings for a growing number of young people in need – 2,300 couples across the country this year alone, including for around 100 Coptic (Egyptian Christian) couples.
Seventeen Egyptian businessmen donated furniture and household appliances for the newlyweds in a country where the exorbitant cost of marriage can delay the whole affair for years.
Tradition dictates that a man must offer his wife-to-be gold jewelry, pay the dowry, buy most of the furniture and also find housing before a father accepts to let his daughter go.
Such a financial tall order for young couples deeply affected by high rates of unemployment often means that tying the knot has to take a backseat in the list of life s priorities.
We offer everything from lingerie to the wedding dress, so that nothing can prevent the marriage, Ibrahim Higazi, one of Karam Al-Islam s patrons told AFP.
The charity says it received applications from 6,000 couples but that it gives priority to the poorest and to orphaned young women in a society where a traceable lineage is valued.
We even had a 42-year-old bride this year, said one of the organizers.
And look, we even have disabled couples, he said pointing to Mustafa Saad, 31, who was paralyzed by polio, and his bride Naglaa Hamdi, whose arm was amputated after a work accident.
Mustafa, an economics graduate, is unemployed, and Naglaa works in a gas bottle factory.
We received a kitchen with appliances, a bedroom set and curtains, said an excited Naglaa, her hair hidden beneath a white headcover like the vast majority of the brides.
Abdelsalam Ahmed 32, and his bride, Sahar Ettawwab, 26, say there was no chance that they could have got married without receiving financial assistance. Maybe in 10 years time, he said with a shrug of the shoulders.
A blast of music saw Hamdi Taha, not only the charity s president but also a star of the event, make his way through the benches to bestow a final act of goodwill for the day.
All those who are unemployed, come and see us in a week, he told the happy crowd. We will find you work opportunities.
The wedding guests filling the stadium cheered for that too. Agence France Presse