Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Emirati Wedding

Deb, Lucy and I tried to strike an elegant pose, but
our stomachs were so full we could barely stand up.

“We’re invited to a wedding,” Mark said one day when he got home. It’s not every day that expats get invited to an Emirati wedding. Mark didn’t have a lot of information, but that didn’t stop me from firing questions at him. Whose wedding? The bride was the daughter of Yaqoob (pronounced Yah-koob), a colonel in the military; his eldest child of ten. When? January 6th

Only two weeks away! What to wear? What gift? Where would it be? What would it be like? The more I heard, the more I realized what a big deal – and a huge honor – this was. Tom, Mark and Dana were all invited. Are you sure wives are invited? I had done a little reading up on weddings here, and I knew that for at least portions of the wedding men and women celebrated separately. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but the next day at work Mark checked, and yes, wives were invited too.

The invitation was in Arabic and English

Ever since Deb and I shopped for our Marine Corps ball gowns, I’d been window shopping the bridal and gown shops in the malls. There are lots, with the most elaborate creations I could ever have imagined in the windows and on the racks. Deb and I went into one store and when we didn’t see anything we could wear, the saleswoman said “I can show you more,” and she opened a door to a back room that was packed, ceiling to floor, with silk, satin and sparkles in every style, every color. We were totally overwhelmed. I didn’t want to go through that again. After a little research and thought, all three of us decided to wear dresses we already owned. After all, we reasoned, we’re Americans and we need to just be ourselves.

We couldn't resist sampling the dates at Zadina

The other question was whether to bring a gift. On that, we got conflicting information. Yes, a small gift is ok, we heard. So Lucy and I bought a modest but beautiful gift of assorted chocolate coated and nut stuffed dates on a gold platter. But when Tom saw it he said “No! You can’t give a gift, even a small one. It’s an insult. They are showing their hospitality to us, not the other way around.” Whatever – we tasted the dates in the shop where we bought them and, to be honest, it wouldn’t have killed me to have to eat them ourselves. And we all would have wanted to keep the pretty gold platter.

Aida gave us some tips on
Emirati weddings

The day before the wedding, Lucy and I went to an American Women’s Association coffee at Café Arabia, a lovely coffee shop in a villa about half way between our compound and Lucy and Tom’s. AWN holds coffees twice a month; there is usually a guest speaker and this week it was Aida Mansour, the Lebanese owner of the café. Bubbly and charming, Aida did a cooking demonstration and chattered about food and life in the UAE. As things wound down, Lucy and I got a chance to ask her if she had ever been to an Emirati wedding. “Yes,” she said, “many times.” Aida confirmed our feeling that we should wear what was comfortable for us, and she told us what it would be like – play by play.

Ras Al Khaimeh, where the wedding was held, is about three hours from Abu Dhabi, in the northeastern UAE near the Straits of Hormuz. Mark had come up with the very wise idea of getting rooms at the Ras Al Khaimeh Hotel for the night; the wedding didn’t even start until 8:30 p.m. The guys, wearing coats and ties, went down to the lobby to meet Saeed, who is Tom’s deputy at work and is our group’s Emirati ambassador, of sorts. Saeed would escort us to the wedding along with his two oldest sons, who are fifteen and eight. We were expecting Saeed’s wife to be there to act as our guide at the women’s party, but she was recovering from a sore throat.
The Corniche Wedding Hall is impressive

We followed Saeed’s SUV to the Corniche Wedding Hall, where a sea of men in snow-white kanduras was gathered outside. We felt the excitement in the air like electricity. The wedding hall is two identical halls in the same building. One side is for the women and the other for the men. The guys escorted us to the women’s side and we entered the outer reception room where we were offered oud – first from a burner, then oil. We accepted both. I did a little research on, and I learned that oud can be extremely costly. The smoke form is often preferred by Arabs, especially men who don’t want to get oil on their crisp white kanduras. We waved some smoke onto ourselves and put the oil on our wrists.

The bride's mother greeted us
wearing a gown similar to this one.
There was a receiving line. We had shaken only a couple of hands when a beautiful woman in a glittering yellow gown approached us. “Our husbands were invited by Yaqoob,” I said into her ear. She nodded. “I am Yaqoob.” She was the mother of the bride, rushing to greet us as we entered the room. We offered our date platter, which she graciously accepted. We have since learned that Zadina, the shop where we purchased the dates, is owned by the royal al Nahyan family, and their dates are the very best.

Yaqoob’s wife instructed a lovely young woman, her second daughter, to show us to a table. We sat down, Deb between Lucy and me, and we must have looked like three schoolgirls putting our heads together, looking around and talking about what we saw.  Everything was a feast for the eyes. Fifty round tables were set on either side of a runway that led from an elevator to an elaborately decorated stage holding an oversized plush white satin and velvet sofa with a dozen or more pillows. Everywhere we looked, on each table and scattered around the hall, were huge arrangements of white roses.  Each table had its own wedding cake on a pedestal. Everything was silver, gold, and white. Everything and everyone glittered.

The gowns were similar to this: stunning
The gowns were amazing; it was like being at a Hollywood event. The first one to catch the eye of all three of us was a pink gown that looked like it could have been made of frosting – the bodice was all whorls of fabric that looked like roses, melting into a chiffon skirt. There were many others, but there were also many women who didn’t remove their abayas for the entire evening, and some even wore their face scarves. Soon our table was filled by eight of these more conservatively dressed women. Most of them didn’t speak much English but I was lucky enough to sit next to someone who understood a lot of my questions.

I asked about photography. I had talked with Aida about it, and asked Yaqoob’s wife as well. I was still confused. Can you take photos? No, no, yes, yes, it’s OK, but only of you. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to take photos of just us, without worrying that I was breaking a rule or committing an offense. Aida had said that she took photos of her table at a wedding once and someone had complained. I looked around and nobody was taking any photos, even of themselves and their friends, although many of the young women in beautiful dresses had cell phones. I wanted more than anything to take photos of everything I saw, yet I felt even more powerfully that I was in a powder keg and my camera was a match. So I took no photos, not a single one.
The table was set with hommous, bread, and salads. Immediately, beverages were coming: trays of coffee, tea, and juices. More food was served, starting with sweets; this was a surprise. The most interesting was a sticky orange candy. Then hot appetizer pastries stuffed with meat or cheese were served. There was a thick, soupy oniony pudding-type dish that was very popular with everyone; people gobbled it up. Then, platters of meat on beds of rice: chicken, lamb, beef, and goat. The food kept coming and coming: fries, fish sticks, vegetables. The guys said they had a delicious meat which Mark had several helpings of that they found out later was camel meat. I don’t think we had that one at our table, but nobody is sure. The woman sitting next to Lucy kept heaping food onto Lucy’s plate, which was very funny to watch. When it came time for the cake, she grabbed Lucy’s plate, scraped it off onto another dish, and dished her portion that was about a third of the whole cake.
Wedding chocolates.
All this time, servers were bringing around platters of wrapped chocolates; I had seen these platters in stores and specialty shops. The woman next to me plucked one from the tray, then another, three, four, six. Ok, I get it! Each time the tray came around, and it kept coming, we took several and stashed them in our purses. They were rich and creamy chocolate which tasted great later when we debriefed with the guys over a beverage.

There were gifts for each guest. Each place setting had a CD of the Holy Quran, and later the servers gave out bottles of scented water. “For the bed,” my friend in the next seat told me. “Spray it on the pillow.” The woman next to Lucy said something, and the whole table began to giggle. “Did she talk about husbands?” I guessed. Yes. “She has no husband; she said it should come with one.” We all laughed.

During dinner a young woman played a violin to recorded music. Yaqoob’s wife and daughter came often to check on us, making sure that we were comfortable and our needs were met. We were so touched by their graciousness. I asked about the other children, and she brought them over and introduced them: little girls in white dresses, and a small boy in a suit. The other boys were probably with the men. All evening, she was holding her cell phone and talking into a little microphone, choreographing the event.
The bride descended in theglass elevator

We heard an ululating sound similar to the one we used to make when playing cowboys and Indians as kids. This is traditional at Arab celebrations, particularly weddings. We all looked up as the bride emerged onto the balcony; she was alone, as is traditional. Her dress was a beautiful traditional white bridal gown with a very long train; she wore a tiara.  Professional photographers were the only ones taking photos. There was a large video camera on a boom, and three or four still photographers. Every few steps the bride stopped while attendants adjusted her train and photos were taken. When she reached the glass elevator she stood in it for several moments, and she reminded me of a beautiful doll in a glass case. Then the elevator descended and she slowly proceeded up the runway to the stage, stopping every few moments while attendants placed lit sparklers in the flower arrangements on either side, and rose petals were showered over her. She stood on the stage for a long time, and finally sat down on the couch. What a spectacle!
For the next hour or so, photos were taken with family members and friends. The couch was big enough to hold about a dozen adult sized people, so even with all of her little sisters and cousins there was plenty of space. The young women in their spectacular dresses joined the bride for photos; those girls had obviously been practicing posing. They looked just like models or movie stars.
We went back the next morning and
were allowed inside to take photos
All of this was proceeding exactly as Aida had described; it was very helpful that we knew what was happening. Finally the music stopped and a male voice began speaking, in Arabic of course, over the sound system. Is the groom coming? Yes. Suddenly all of our table companions stood up and put on their shaylas. Are you leaving? Yes! You don’t want to see men? No! And they were gone. We looked around; a lot of other women were leaving as well. Again, Yaqoob’s wife came to check on us, and she and her daughter came and sat at our table. The excitement was building, and we had the honor of the bride’s mother sitting at our table. She was beautifully composed, but we could see the emotion.

The groom’s entrance was just as much of a spectacle as the bride’s. Several young boys – perhaps the groom’s brothers and cousins – danced and twirled batons. Then the groom came up the runway with the fathers on either side. They all stood facing the guests, the groom and the fathers shook hands, and the groom took his place next to the bride.
Thus they were married.
It was time to leave, but not before we had our photos taken. In a separate room off of the outer reception room, we each posed for a photographer, first seated on a settee and then standing in front of a backdrop. Our two gracious hostesses accompanied us, and they posed for a group photo with us. What amazing hospitality. Yaqoob’s wife said, “I will send you the pictures, inshallah (if God is willing.)”

UPDATE 6/19/2012 We have received the photos you see below.
Still hoping to get pictures of the bride, inshallah.

We got the "red carpet" treatment.
We were giddy as we stumbled out the door on our high heels to meet the guys. And that was without a drop of alcohol! How was it? Unbelievable! What about you? Ours was pretty unbelievable too. Did you eat the camel meat? I think I speak for everyone when I say we won’t ever forget that wedding.

Yaqoob has assured Mark that we will get the wedding photos and when we do, I will update this post to include them, inshallah.


Mike Farrell said...

Great post and a fabulous event. I learned the groom's name, Amahd, from the invitation but
the bride's name was not even mentioned in it.
Do the
Emirati women have names?

Anne Schreiber Thomas said...

Her name is Fatima.