The shopkeeper lightly tapped her pencil on the edge of the order pad, a strained, polite smile pasted to her face. I was a newly engaged, first time bride living in Washington, DC,and purchasing a wedding dress was only one of the many, many details that was making my head reel. There was still a church and pastor to secure, flowers to choose, a photographer to hire, bridesmaid dresses to pick, and I hadn’t even looked at the different menu options for dinner. In contrast with many of my American girlfriends, I was considered a “tomboy” who lacked interest in typical female activities such as shoe shopping or, well, planning an entire wedding. But I quickly realized and accepted that this was part of the excitement and exhaustion of being a Western bride: with nearly limitless choices, you could spend half a lifetime making all the plans and preparations for a wedding tailored to your unique cultural or personal tastes and sensibilities. I, however, like many brides, only had a few months to prepare for “the big day.” Inhaling I pointed to the satin beaded gown. Sharing in my evident relief, the shopkeeper broke into a wide grin and began to take down all the necessary information.
My travels and experiences living abroad in Saudi Arabia and currently Qatar may have taken me far away from that heady time as an American “nearly-wed,” but I have discovered on my journey that there is an anxious and charged bride-to-be awaiting her unique day of celebration in every culture. In contrast to the west, the course to the altar for the Arab bride runs less like a disorienting maze and more like a well-lighted, sturdy path. Their journey begins with the suitor and his family visiting the home of the prospective bride to assess the feasibility of a match; this is followed bythe Khutuba (Jaaha), or the engagement ritual,and the Melcha(Aqed Zawaaj), the marriage agreement, where family members play pivotal roles,culminating with the wedding celebration where the attendees serve as the witnesses to the marriage.
Western wedding ceremonies, alternatively,are particularly known for their diversity in both content and execution. Many couples follow religious doctrines and their prescribed rituals very closely, adhering to all the principles and rites, while others create celebrations around customs that hold personal meaning. Some adopt their own creeds taken from different spiritual or secular sources such as poetry, literature, or music. Likewise, the wedding ceremonies themselves take on various shapes and sizes: traditional church services, simple backyard affairs, civil ceremonies at county courthouses, abbreviated nuptials in Las Vegas, and even lavish “over the top” celebrity weddings held in exotic locations and costing millions of dollars. American weddings literally acquire just about any form, from the conventional to the sublime,whatever suits the couple’s particular tastes and desires.
The months prior to the wedding celebration bring a flurry of activities, events, and final preparations for both Arab and western brides. During the time of the ArabKhutuba (orJaaha)and Melcha (Aqed Zawaaj), it is often customary for the groom’s family to bestow a wealth of luxurious items on the Arab bride such as pieces of gold and ornate jewelry. On the other side of the world, in the U.S., female family members and friends assemble for the “wedding shower” in order to lavish the American bride with gifts that are usually more utilitariansuch as dishware, utensils, blenders, toasters, or bed sheets. Whilethe American bride has her own unique concerns over coordinating thearrival of relatives from out of town and attending traditional gatherings such as the bridesmaid’s luncheon, “women’s night out,” and the rehearsal dinner, the Arab bride and her family and friends are consumed with their ownlast minute details surrounding the elaborate affair in the days prior to the wedding.
My husband, Bishara, and I married in our mid-thirties, not an unusual age for American couples, yet considered “over the hill” for our Arab counterparts. Due to the increasingly common practice of marrying later in the U.S., many American bridal couples tend to be financially independent and, thus, better equipped and content to handle planning and paying for their own weddings. Western family members, therefore,may not play as integral a role in every step of planning the wedding. Arab families, on the other hand, are quickly immersed in all elements of the marriage nuptials, includingthe earliest part of the wedding ritual: the Khutuba (or Jaaha).
In Spring 2008, my husband, who is of Lebanese descent, was fortunate enough to attend his first Arab Jaaha, a ceremony in which close male family members and friends of the bride and groom, along with a religious sheikh, assemble at the home of the bride’s father to formalize the engagement of the prospective bridal couple. With the bride’s father sitting solemnly on one side, the father of the groom settled on the other side, and nearly a hundred male guests sitting in a large circle, the sheikh began the ritual with words of advice to the groom, and audience, on how to have a successful and happy marriage.
While my husband and the other men were at the Jaaha, I gathered with a cluster of women and children, including the mothers of the bride and groom and other female family members and friends, at a nearby ornately decoratedcompound clubhouse where we danced and sipped aromatic cardamom coffee. The occasion culminated with the shrill undulating intonations from several of the women erupting into the night air, signaling the arrival of the bride, groom, and the male relatives and friends. The gathering, expanded with the arrival of men, became a spirited celebration; the guests feasting on an assortment of catered food, mounds of lamb and rice and Lebanese mazah, and dancing to popular Arabic music.
My husband and I also had the good fortune to attend an Aqed Zawaaj (marriage agreement) ceremony, segregated by gender, for a young bridal couple in early summer 2008. The traditions surrounding the Aqed Zawaaj mirror the Jaaha, with the exception that the Aqed Zawaaj concludes with the signing of the wedding agreement by the bride and groom,relevant family members and witnesses. When the marriage was officially announced, female relatives and guests in the adjoining room cupped their hands to their mouths, producing the familiar high-pitched undulations as mother and sisters of the groom chanted good wishes for the bride and groom. This unique gathering of family and friends is immensely moving and serves as a lasting reminder of the way wedding celebrations across cultures are distinct opportunities to recognize these poignant and special life moments.
The special roles and close familial relationships in the Arab world continue beyond the wedding rituals and final celebration. At gatherings of family and friends in homes spilling over with companionship and spirited conversation,in-laws are referred to as Uncle (Amo) and Aunt (Khaltie). In-laws are actually considered to be a second mama and baba to the new couple, tending to create strong family bonds.
There have been few instances in my life where I have witnessed such unrivaled veneration of matrimonyas when I attended another type of wedding ceremony common in the Arab world: a “woman only” wedding. In early Fall 2007, I was delighted to receive an invitation to one of these lavish events taking place in Doha, Qatar. Half expecting to be met with a sea of women enveloped in black abayes, the galawas instead a sensational display of couture-worthy evening wear, beautifully coiffured hair and exquisitely made-up faces that rivaled the work of the finestHollywood make-up artist. Spirited live drumming combined with recorded music and captivating Arab Gulf dancing became the evening’s celebratory backdrop. I was hardly accustomed to seeing such fashionable attire at the many American weddings I had attended. Despite wearing one of my finest ball gowns on this glitzy evening in Doha, I had definite concerns about “not measuring up.” Upon entering the luxuriously decorated hall, I was awestruck at the splendor of the surroundings and the participants as well as at the hospitality of my Arab hostesses.
Lisa, an American expatriate, recounted a similar experience, “Most of the women spoke very little English at ‘the classic’ Arab wedding ceremony I attended. When introduced by a cousin of the bride as ‘my friend from America’ the women shook my hand or hugged me, smiling broadly. They kept repeating something in Arabic that my friend told me was ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ and I did feel very welcome indeed.”
The bride’s lone entrance marked the pinnacle of the celebration at my first “woman only” wedding on that warm Fall evening; she was a vision in white satin and regally ascended the steps of an elevated platform where she sat on a sumptuous loveseat engulfed by the kisses, embraces, and congratulations of well wishers. She seemed serene, reserved, and glorious occupying the center of attention. I found myself captivated by this beautiful and resilient young bride, sharing in what I imagined was her nervousness and excitement on this particular day.
Mary,a British expatriate friend noticed this phenomenon and remarked: “The main difference from a western wedding is that most of the evening is segregated and there’s more focus on the bride; she literally takes center stage and has the chance to shine while everyone admires her hair, makeup, and dress. Towards the end of the evening, there’s a buildup of excitement as everyone waits for the groom to arrive. It certainly makes for a most interesting event!” Women only wedding celebrations normally stretch out in vibrant revelry into the sleepy hours of dawn.
Many times, American weddings also serve as events that unite family and friends who are scattered across different regions of a vast country. Generations convene around this moment, welcoming new members of their family and reestablishing meaningful ties. Across the globe, wedding ceremonies are more than joyful occasions or celebrations. They are important rituals that honor the forging of community out of disparate factions, serving as hopeful reminders of the power of unity and harmony.