Friday, June 21, 2013

An Emirati Wedding 2

Emirati wedding group photo

Yesterday morning Mark called and said, “We’re invited to a wedding tonight.” The son of Abdullah, one of the Emirati men on last week’s business trip to France, was getting married, and he’d invited Mark to the celebration.

It would be like the first Emirati wedding we went to, Yaqoob’s daughter’s, with men and women celebrating separately, but I wasn’t going in alone. Mark’s French colleague Alain and his family were also going; I would sit with his wife and daughter.
What to wear?

Syrian dress

I happened to be out passing through a Co-op store, and some dresses caught my eye. I’d been thinking of buying one of these fancy embroidered and jeweled caftan-type dresses just for fun, so on impulse I bought one. I was thinking that I might wear it to the wedding even though I knew it was more of a house dress and an Emirati woman would probably never wear it to a wedding.

Emirati Wedding 005

I didn’t feel like wearing the same dress that I wore to the first Emirati wedding, but I did have one other option – the dress I wore to the US Marine Corps Birthday Ball in November, 2011. It was tight, but I’m a scant few pounds slimmer than I was back then so I decided to try it on. It worked, felt right, I had the shoes and the bag, and a new red coral and gold necklace and earrings that Mark bought me in Dubrovnik. Since it’s so hot – topping 100 degrees F every day -- I decided not to bring a pashmina even though I knew the room would be air conditioned.

Emirati wedding invite

Mark had brought home the invitation, which was in a heavy embossed envelope decorated with a satin bow. Both of the Emirati wedding invitations that we’ve seen listed the names of the fathers and the groom only, and refer to the bride as “daughter of …” without mentioning her name.

Of course, this is curious to us westerners, who are used to seeing the names of all parents and both bride and groom, or sometimes just the bride and groom only if they are older, have been together for many years, or are hosting the wedding themselves.

Something like this, which seems strange to westerners, makes more sense when you think of it in terms of Arab customs and traditions. This is a patriarchal society, a very family-oriented society, and marriages are carefully arranged. The long names that Arabs have translate to “son of” or “daughter of” and then the tribe name at the end. When a girl gets married, she does not take her husband’s name, as we do in the west. She retains her own family name.

In a news story in The National about a double royal Emirati wedding in March, the two brides are referred to as “daughter of Sheikh …” and the wedding photos show only the men celebrating. This is just the way it is here. I didn’t take any pictures of the bride or her guests inside the hall during the wedding; only the professional photographers hired by the family were taking photos.

Emirati Wedding 009

We met Alain and his family out in the parking lot; the wedding hall, which is a permanent structure that looks like a fancy cluster of tents, was easy to find because of the strings of lights. Whenever you see an Arab house covered with lights, you know there’s a wedding. Alain’s wife Patricia and daughter Jeanne looked beautiful in matching caftans decorated with ribbons. The men wore coats and ties, which would set them apart from the Arab men who would of course be in national dress.

Emirati Wedding 010

Alain knew Abdullah well enough that Patricia and Jeanne had been to the henna party, where the women decorate themselves with elaborate tattoos which last for two weeks or more.

As we entered the wedding hall, photographers were there to take pictures of guests. The three of us had our photo taken together, and we were told that we could each purchase a copy for 30 dh, or about $8 USD. Then we entered the main room, went though the reception line greeting the ladies, and chose a table near the back and against the wall where we could watch all the action.

Emirati Wedding 011

Even though this was my second Emirati wedding, I was still awed as I looked around at the ladies, especially the young women, and their over-the-top (to a Westerner) dresses, hair, and especially makeup. Without their abayas and shaylas the combined effect was truly theatrical. I wondered if many were wearing hair extensions, and Jeanne assured me that they were. There was no doubt that the eyelashes were false, the eyebrows heavily painted on, the cheeks rouged. The dresses, no matter the size of the wearer, were tight, glittery, flowing, and magnificent. And they danced. They danced on stage and they danced at the tables, twirling and swaying and glittering.

Not all of the ladies in the room removed their black abayas and shaylas. Many of the older or more traditional ladies kept theirs on, presumably because they only remove them at home and the wedding hall, even though it was filled with only women, was a public place. Others opened the front of their abayas and draped them off of their shoulders so they could put them back on quickly when the time came.

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There were older ladies wearing burqas, the metal or shiny cloth face mask that is a sign of beauty among older, very traditional women.

Maq Crk Sharj Dubai Glob Vill 065

The term burqa is usually associated with the head-to-toe cover that women are required to wear in some Arab countries, but it can also mean the cloth or metal mask. My Emirati friend Wadha told me that these ladies feel that the mask enhances their beauty and helps hide the wrinkled skin and bad teeth that come with age.

We noticed a group of western women at a nearby table greeting the Emirati ladies and speaking English. They were teachers, as were the ladies they were speaking with. One of the Americans, a gorgeous young black woman from Texas wearing a red sheath, laughingly told us that she was having trouble recognizing her colleagues from work without their abayas and shaylas!

The wedding seemed to go by quickly. The bride proceeded to the stage, smiling happily and pausing for the photographers. Our table had been set with mezzes, Arabic appetizers, and we were now served platters of goat meat and rice, pasta with cheese, mixed grill with skewered lamb, beef, and chicken, and some side dishes. I told Patricia and Jeanne, “The men will be done way before us. They eat really fast, and then they all get up and leave.” Just a minute or two later, Jeanne received a text from her brother: “Fastest meal ever. 10 minutes.”

I have read a possible explanation for this, although I can’t say if it’s completely accurate. In the time of The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, the guests would stay for many hours, and could not be asked to leave. This caused a problem for the groom, who needed to consummate the marriage within a certain number of hours or it would be null. So it was written that guests must not overstay their welcome, and it looks like the men have been adhering to this ever since. Apparently, though, the women are not so worried about it, because I’ve been told that they sometimes party far into the night.

Mark told me that he and Alain sat at the same table with Abdulla and as non-Arabs they were treated as honored guests.  After the meal was consumed, most of the men went outside while the hall was cleared of the leftover food, which was given to the needy. Workers who were waiting outside came swarming in and emptied the trays of meat and rice into plastic bags they had brought along with them. When the room was cleaned up, those who hadn’t already left returned, and a group of men danced the traditional men's dance.

Emirati Wedding 008
Back on the ladies’ side, the ululating began, which meant the men were on their way to unite the bride and groom on the stage. All of the ladies put on their black abayas and shaylas, tucking their hair inside.  We watched as the men proceed to the stage, greeted the beaming bride, and her new husband stood beside her.

Then it was time to meet Mark, Alain and the boys, who were waiting for us outside the men’s hall with Abdullah, the groom's father, speaking in French with Alain and his sons. Abdullah is Emirati, but he lived in France for 30 years.

And that is, basically, what happens at an Emirati wedding party.
This news story in The National contains interesting details about Emirati weddings.


Al Ain 001


We went to another wedding on July 5th. This time, it was the engagement of the sister of Abdul Aziz, who works with Mark and Tom. Dana was out of town, so the three of us went. The party was  about an hour or so from Abu Dhabi in Al Ain, the oasis city at the foot of the Hajar mountains near the Omani border. It didn't start until 9:30 p.m., so we booked a suite in a hotel for the night so we could relax, sleep in and enjoy the hotel pool and swim-up bar the next day.



Al Ain 008

The way we understand it, in Muslim weddings, the engagement is when all of the important business is conducted. There is a dowry paid to the bride and her family, and a contract is drawn up stipulating the terms of the marriage. The bride can require, for example, a certain amount of money per month, or that she be allowed to work, or that she not have to live with her mother-in-law. If the agreement is broken, it would be grounds for divorce.


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Once the papers are signed, there is an engagement party which is almost exactly like the wedding celebration. The only difference that I saw was that the groom was brought to the stage and presented to the bride by the mothers of the engaged couple -- who happen to be sisters.


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Yes. If you were paying attention, you noticed that this means that the bride and groom are first cousins. This is not at all uncommon in the Middle East, and it's increasing. In Saudi Arabia, where the groom is from, the rate of cousin marriage is upwards of 50%. The bride and groom undergo genetic screening in hopes of reducing the risk of genetically linked abnormalities and diseases, but it is still an increasing problem in the population.(Source: Wikipedia)


I sat at a table in the front of the room with the bride's co-workers from Mubadala, a large investment and development corporation established by the Abu Dhabi government. I sat next to a young American woman from New York but, unfortunately, the music was so loud I couldn’t really talk with her.

Al Ain 004


If the engagement follows the customary pattern, now that they are engaged, the bride and groom will be allowed to see each other during chaperoned visits, when they will get to know each other. In a few months they will either celebrate their wedding or decide to go their separate ways, but in reality they are all but married now. Although it sounds strange to us westerners, the way the Arabs we have talked with describe these marriage customs is very matter-of-fact.

I was, again, a bit underdressed for the wedding, but it didn’t matter. Some day, inshallah, if I attend a wedding where I know the bride, I will wear a sparkly gown worthy of a movie star.

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