Friday, June 12, 2015

Cultural Lesson: My first Emirati Wedding

I went to my first Emirati wedding a few weeks ago so thought I'd post a bit of a cultural lesson on how they work. I've actually been invited to 4 weddings since moving here, but this was the first one that aligned with my schedule and wasn't going to be awkward (i.e. I didn't have to go alone)

Weddings are either arranged by the family or for love. This depends on a number of circumstances and varies greatly from family to family. I've met women who barely meet their husband before the wedding and others who had full rein to choose their partners. In the case of my friend, her family chose the potential husband, but she had some say in the match. In fact, this was her 2nd or 3rd option over the last few years so she was happy with the match.

You may be surprised to learn that technically, the couple is married before the wedding. There is no religious ceremony that I can tell, but instead a document signing that makes the marriage official - the marriage certificate. This is done weeks and often months before what is called the wedding. However, even though the couple are officially married after the marriage certificate is signed, they do not live together or share a bed until after the wedding celebration. In fact, depending on the family, they may still not get to see each other unchaperoned during this interim.

The wedding itself is a celebration of the couple as you would expect. What you might not expect is that the men and women celebrate separately and only the groom and his father and brothers are allowed to visit the bride at the end of the celebration to take her away for the wedding night and then honeymoon.

The men's celebration is eating drinking, dancing, bragging and what you might expect. I wasn't there of course, but 2 of my male colleagues shared the experience. They said it was raucous, loud and not something they need to repeat any time soon! :)

The women's celebration is probably a bit more refined but no less loud and raucous. But let me start at the begining.

The event was held at one of the hotel wedding halls with valet parking for the ladies and a lavish entrance hall. As I walked into the hall, I greeted each of the mothers and sisters of the bride with my pathetic Arabic and warm smiles. They seemed to be truly touched that I had come and I felt very welcome.

Upon stepping into the hall, I was overwhelmed with the scent of Oud (a type of incense) and perfume. I was invited to steep in the smoke of the brazier to get the scent in my hair and clothes and then taken to a long table covered with bottles of perfume. I can't even imagine the amount of money that table represented and all for the use of the guests. My Emirati friend who was with me said this is traditional when you have guests - you invite them to 'freshen up' by offering Oud and perfume. So, when in Rome - I've probably never smelled so good in my life!

Then into the hall which was huge and lavish. No cloth covered conference center chairs you might expect, but silver gilt thrones for everyone at beautiful tables decorated with flowers and gorgeous table settings. I wish I could show some pictures but photos were very clearly and strictly forbidden as weddings are one of the few safe places women can gather in 'public' without their abayas and shaylas. I pulled this photo off the internet - it's not from this wedding, but gives you a sense of the lavish style of the one I attended.

At this point, we sat down and were served lots of little snacks, tea, coffee and juices. And not some bland buffet - full service with lots of waitstaff ready to get you whatever you want.

As back home, the women dress up for weddings, which I expected, but what I wasn't prepared for was the contrast. Remember that I usually see these women completely covered up in abaya and shayla with only an occasional glimpse of hair if we're in the restroom at the same time. Here was full tilt glamor - the gowns, the hair, the makeup and the shoes! It was very fun to watch - I felt like I was at an Academy award banquet or something.

There was very very loud music and professional dancers to entertain during the evening. Some of the younger women also danced and of course the kids were running around dancing, playing, screaming and having a grand old time.

Meanwhile, the bride has been fully dressed and ready for a few hours now and is waiting quietly and alone in the bride's room away from the party. She isn't allowed to enter until 10:30 or later (the party starts around 8:00). Apparently, the custom is that this allows her time to contemplate the change her life is about to go through and some quiet before it all begins. I can imagine it's a bit boring and frustrating to know all your friends and family are enjoying the party you helped plan while you wait. Our bride was busy texting her friends to see who was there and what was going on! :)

Around 11:00 (a bit late because the groom hadn't shown up on time for the wedding photos) the bride entered to what I can only describe as a cross between yodeling and catcalling. Her entrance is a very slow walk "up the aisle" sort of to her special chair at the front where she will sit and receive her guests until the groom makes his entrance about 45 minutes later. And good thing it was a slow walk because the bride has purchased 7 inch heels for the occasion!

At the point, dinner is served. Lots of traditional Emirati dishes including beef and rice, Harissa (a kind of flour and meat mixture - hard to explain but yummy to eat), pasta with mean sauce and more rice dishes. And more juice, soda, coffee or tea (remember Muslims don't drink alcohol).

The groom's entrance was met with more caterwauling and his mother and aunts throwing money at him as he walked down the aisle to meet his bride. The bride at this point was now covered with a white abaya and shayla since the groom would be arriving with his brothers and father. Most of the other women had covered up at this point now as well since there would be men joining and the additional cameras.

An interesting night and one I won't soon forget!

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