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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There were older ladies wearing burqas, the metal or shiny cloth face mask that is a sign of beauty among older, very traditional women.
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.
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.”
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.
And that is, basically, what happens at an Emirati wedding party.
This news story in The National contains interesting details about Emirati weddings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.