I originally published this article in The Liberator, September 2009.
I turned the wedding invitation over in my hands, caressing its lavender velvet. In the filtered sunlight of the villa courtyard, the gold Arabic script laced over in elegant calligraphy seemed to shimmy, and the tiny mirrored gems sprinkled along the folds winked seductively up at me. I felt a flush of pleasure as I visualized myself, an expatriate Cinderella, finally asked to the ball: a “women only” wedding.
This distinctly Arab ritual united women in unadulterated euphoria, celebrating and honoring the marriage ceremony, a particularly sacred experience in Arab culture. Despite being exposed to many novel cultural experiences during my four years living in Saudi Arabia and over three years in Qatar, attending a “women only” wedding remained a particularly poignant desire of mine. Almost compulsively drawn to places, people, and experiences that swept me away from the conventions and comforts of my western culture, I found this innate kinship with foreign locations and customs responsible for shaping much of my adult life, including my eventual decision to leave Washington, DC, my home of 17 years, and to relocate to Saudi Arabia with my husband.
Only the most traditional of Arab families continue with the practice of “women only” weddings. As the name suggests, “women only” weddings are reserved for females, allowing the bride and her family and friends to celebrate the cherished nuptials free of the restrictions that are faced in everyday life such as wearing the obligatory abaye and headscarf in public. In conservative Arab families it is forbidden for women to be seen “uncovered” by a male other than an immediate family member. Until now, l had lived vicariously through the experiences of my Arab and expatriate women friends who filled my visions of these celebrations with Arab women adorned in lavish gowns, dancing with frenzied abandon until dawn, and feasting upon the seemingly limitless banquet of fine cuisines served late in the night. Feeling like a 16 year-old who had just been asked to the prom, I gently clutched the invitation close to me and hurried inside. The laundry list of my daily errands and chores evaporated in the scorching noon sun as I mentally scanned my closet, what to wear?!
Unlike many American wedding ceremonies where couples find themselves hurtling through meetings with wedding planners, DJ’s, and pastors, Arabs make their way to the alter through a series of very structured, traditional steps. First the prospective bride and groom’s parents must agree to the marriage. Following this, the groom and his parents prearrange a visit to the home of the bride’s family where, in the presence of a religious sheikh, a marriage agreement called the “Aqed Zawaaj” is signed by the bride and groom, the bride’s father, the groom’s father, and two male Muslim witnesses. The marriage agreement stipulates that a fee, agreed upon by both parties, be paid by the groom to the bride as a gift. A portion of this is used to procure the essentials in any wedding: purchasing the bride’s extravagant gown, reserving the wedding hall, and outfitting the hall with flowers, and anything else deemed necessary for the auspicious occasion. This money also goes toward elaborate makeup and jewelry, which are both viewed as indispensable elements in any Arab wedding. Perhaps this speaks as much to the Arabic penchant to indulge in the pure exaltation of the marital bond as it does to the simple fact that women only weddings share an affinity with so many events born out of American celebrity culture: it is a place to see and be seen.
The time between the signing of the “Aqed Zawaaj” and the wedding reception is typically several months, giving the couple time to get to know one another or court. Though, unlike Western dating, a chaperone, typically from the women’s family, remains present on any outing. In addition, the couple may not live together nor be seen alone together in public before the ceremonial wedding reception where the participants serve as witnesses to the marriage. Separate celebrations for men and women are normally held simultaneously on the wedding day.
Free of the worldwide web, “speed dating,” and dating services that westerners employ in search of love or partnership, matchmaking in the Arab world retains the same venerable and effectual art form that has endured through the ages. Female family members, mothers, sisters, aunts are all responsible for selecting an appropriate mate for unmarried males with the pool of possibilities including cousins, friends, neighbors, or a complete stranger; marriage to a cousin brings the greatest security and creates stronger ties within the family. As such, at “women only” wedding ceremonies, unmarried women are given the chance to catch the attention of female relatives of eligible bachelors by flaunting their figures in revealing gowns and proving their “moves on the dance floor.”
The wedding reception was held at the Ritz Carlton on the outskirts of Doha. I was awestruck by both the opulence of the room with its sparkling chandeliers and lush furnishings and the assemblage of women. Women spilled out everywhere, some whispering discreetly in each others’ ears or meandering through the room, reservedly and chastely kissing relatives or friends the requisite three times on the cheeks; others surveyed the room like fashion critics ogling guests on the red carpet. Amidst these assorted guests a core group presided over all of the guests, directing the sequence of events. I was enthralled, spellbound, and a bit unsteadied by the sheer spectacle.
After wading further into the room, I noticed a three foot elevated platform with runway that traversed virtually the entire length of the room. Alongside the runway, a female singer keened to the accompaniment of musicians playing the tablah, or Arabic drum. Dotting each side of the extravagant catwalk were numerous round tables laid out with elaborate gold and burgundy place settings for dinner. A large golden rectangular pot with circular designs spreading from the base to the rim containing an abundance of colorful artificial flowers resided on each table. Ivory pillars rose from the elevated platform, sporting gold inlaid designs with a sequence of curves that melted into each other; burgundy curtains dripped between the columns. Gold and ivory colored stands with exquisitely crafted flowers bordered the stage. In the center, a red velvet loveseat awaited the bride and groom who would make separate entrances later in the evening.
Laila, the mother of the bride, greeted me and my good friend, Sameerah, when we entered the room. Though I had met her several months earlier at a sheesha café in a newly renovated souk in Doha, I abruptly passed right by her in the ballroom, mistaking her for just one of the many bejeweled and gowned guests. Gone were her long black abaye and head covering. What stood before me now was a vision that could easily pass forHollywoodroyalty.
Laila gazed at me with impeccably made-up eyes – hues of blue covered her lids and shimmering black outlined her exquisite ovals. A lavender dress clung to her curvaceous form that ended with a magnificent train; silver adornments glimmered in the artificial light of the luxurious chandeliers. Laila’s hair was piled high atop her head; delicate ringlets framed her face and cascaded along the side and back of her head. Struck by Laila’s splendor and extraordinary luminescence I felt at once wistful that these Arab women were not permitted to let their natural beauty radiate in this way more often, and yet I understood and respected the desire to maintain and honor the deeply ingrained traditions and customs that dictated their reality. In a constant state of frenetic, yet gracious motion, Laila played the roles of skilled director, choreographer, and consummate hostess; she indefatigably welcomed her guests and ensured that not only was everyone comfortable, but supremely happy—a staple of Arabic hospitality.
After many years in the Middle East, I had undoubtedly become acclimated to seeing traditional Arab women enveloped in black, seemingly bereft of identity and barely present – one ebony form identical to the next. I had to squelch any outward signs of sheer disbelief at the exceptional beauty of the women collected in the room as Sameerah, the veteran of such gala events, coolly guided us to a table adjacent to the stage. We settled in amongst a throng of haute couture gowns with glittery and colorful embellishments (many with trains), plunging necklines, unconventionally stylish miniature top hats garnished with striking colors and glistening silver sequins rakishly tilted to one side, atop flawlessly coiffured hair. I met the eyes of many women, ringed with deep and rich shades of green and blue, their lids traced in thick sultry black liner. Henna scrollwork artistically ran up and down hands, arms, feet, and legs. I conspicuously surveyed my own couture gown, ornate multi-tiered silver necklace with matching earrings, and painstakingly applied makeup, and lost all hope of blending into this opulent jewel box.
Not long after we entered the hall, the room began to pulsate with music blaring from mammoth speakers mounted to the walls. Along the stage, frantic, rhythmic drumming resonated in the room while a singer belted out traditional Gulf melodies at a pitch that strained every nerve ending. Several young women in the audience sprang onto the stage, leaping and gyrating along the platform simulating the traditional Gulf dance, a dance performed in countries along the Arabian Peninsula, in a zealous and ritualistic fever. I watched with a tinge of envy at the dancers’ sheer lack of inhibition and was brought back to an image of myself at that age, painfully shy, filled with a consuming dread when first asked to dance to the comparably tame strains of Chicago by my future husband in the bar of the Hilton Hotel outside the University of Florida campus.
Sameerah caught my intent gaze, her eyes playfully prodding me to take the dance floor. We both adore dancing, but neither of us knew how to dance the traditional Gulf dance. I bit my lip and shook my head, not wanting to risk exposing my two left feet. My love of dance, however, won over my full fledged trepidation of not measuring up to these graceful and bewitching creatures. I could sense legions of eyes, laser rays boring holes through me as Sameerah and I made our way up the stairs to the stage. My gaze anxiously swept the platform taking in the hapless yet harmonious arm movements, inexhaustible and whirling hip action, pivoting shoulders and necks, and swirling fans of long, silky, coal black hair slicing through the air. Seizing the fleeting sympathetic smiles from compassionate observers, I desperately tried to imitate the mystical moves, willing my body to sway and whip in the same mesmerizing fashion to no avail. I finally succumbed to the more familiar belly dance that I had learned from my husband, his family, and other Arab friends, slipping comfortably into the oscillating circular movement of the hips and letting my arms billow out to the side, joyfully losing myself in the dance. Sameerah persisted heroically with a blended version of Gulf motions and belly dance. Our inspired, yet futile, efforts were met with charitable applause from the audience. Emboldened and giddy over the audience response, Sameerah and I made a second vain attempt at the nuanced movements of the Gulf dance. The most I could muster were inept leaps and helpless flailing arms. I felt challenging stares as my spirit deflated. Once at the security of our table, I caught a twinkle in Sameerah’s eye as she leaned over and whispered that she had overheard several of Laila’s inner circle comment that the westerner and her friend might prefer belly dancing over the more traditional Gulf moves. To our delight the next song was a Lebanese melody, perfect for belly dancing. Sameerah and I were back on the stage to the obvious appreciation of the audience.
Several enchanting young children, fixated on their older sisters and cousins’ expert movements, gingerly climbed the stairs to the stage to imitate their revered kinsmen. From time to time, older women completely covered in black from head to toe, save for their worn eyes, made their way onto the stage to throw paper bills over the dancers. The scattered money would be collected at the end of the festivities to tip the singer and musicians. The bills twirled and fluttered across the stage in the same way the dancers cast their bodies about the platform. The women tossed out their money, cupping one hand over their mouths and crying out in shrill undulating tones. I was intrigued and baffled by the incongruity of the scene. Only moments before, these nondescript women shrouded in black had appeared devoid of personality. Now, they shared the stage with such dazzling, spellbinding figures. Both sets of women, generations colliding, drew the eyes of enraptured onlookers. Perhaps these women cried out in sheer joy for their younger sister, given over in marriage; perhaps theirs was also a wail daubed with mourning, recalling a time and place that was only a distant memory for them.
Finally the time arrived for the bride, Fatima, to make her anticipated entrance. Muted sighs rippled through the room. A viselike grip throttled my senses as I caught sight of a vision in white satin floating past me on the carpet. Fatima sparkled in a resplendent white modern wedding gown and veil, her figure in full display. Her serene eyes gazed regally, deep pools of black framed by sumptuous multi-colored shadows and lids heavily laden with charcoal black eyeliner – an Arabian princess. With each step an attendant smoothed out Fatima’s intricately embroidered train while other ladies showered her in rose pedals. Fatima stepped up onto the runway and proceeded to the red velvet loveseat where she sat, composed, reserved, and glorious, with barely a smile. Around her, the scene erupted as many well wishers kissed, embraced, and congratulated her while photographers clamored to get their shots of this stunning beauty. The sight of the lone alluring figure surrounded by rapturous family and friends tugged at my heart; it was a most joyous moment and yet behind the beguiling eyes I sensed a young girl unsettled over entering a distinctly new chapter in her life, removed from the security of her family into the role of wife and mother. As I gazed upon this lovely bride, I silently shared her excitement and trepidation, willing a kind of mute solidarity with her and wishing her a life of happiness amidst inevitable challenge and change.
The audience commingled, as fierce drumming accompanied by piercing intonations reverberated along the foundations of the hall. Fatima received her guests for nearly half an hour when a low murmuring filled the room. The mood shifted and a curious tension began to swell. The fluid and graceful movements of the dancers were exchanged for fitful and spasmodic gesticulations. Disquieted and fleeting glances ricocheted through the space, and an apprehension hung in the air. Flustered and unsettled, I furtively scanned the room, struggling to unearth the source of the unease. As if on cue, the aggregation of women stealthfully and nimbly masked their exposed skin with abayes and black headscarves. Sameerah tugged at my scarf and covered her visible kneecaps. The groom’s arrival, along with his father and brothers, and the bride’s father and male siblings, was imminent. Their entrance transformed the activity and energy of the room, bringing a sense of order and male authority to what had previously been an orgiastic celebration of women, pleasure, and decadence. The groom majestically and purposefully strode to the platform, climbed the steps, and made his way to his bride with the male family members dutifully following behind, faces implacable. I caught my breath as a black curtain was draped around the bride. Sensing my bewilderment and consternation, Sameerah dropped her head and in a hushed tone divulged that custom dictated only the groom, his father, and the bride’s father and brothers were permitted to see and congratulate Fatima; she must remain out of sight of the other male members of the groom’s family. Camera flashes popped around the room like little sizzling bolts of lightning. The once divine and radiant bride became indiscernible to much of the audience, disappearing even further beneath the throng of family and friends who engulfed her in congratulations.
By nearlymidnight, the male population had whittled down to its one distinguished member—the groom. Elsewhere, the illustrious gathering became briefly distracted and preoccupied with luscious culinary delights; a buffet laden with what looked like an infinite array of Lebanese mezzah – hummus, tabouli, fattoush, babaghanoush, moutabel; lamb, fish and chicken skewered or braised in rich sauces and garlic, swimming in copious measures of parsley and mint, and flat, oval leaven bread piled high in baskets. This was followed with indulgent and heavenly Arab sweets; baklava, knafeh, and mabroumeh. Trading snatches of conversation over the wonderments of the evening, Sameerah and I put our heads together like excited school girls, feeding our bodies on the sumptuous cuisine and our minds and spirits on the remarkable celebration.
Sameerah and I decided to forgo the dancing and celebration sure to continue unabated through the wee hours of the morning. We would collect our tired, but happy bodies and ruefully wonder what twinges or aches might greet us in the morning, the physical souvenirs of such a spirited evening. Shortly after midnightthe bride and groom unobtrusively made their way to the door amongst a cluster of attendants. Before exiting, several women delicately cloaked Fatimawith an abaye and black head covering. This alluring Arabian jewel, like so many others, would now be just another ebony silhouette amongst the featureless masses. But not to me; I would know differently.
** Both photos were taken at mixed-gender Arab weddings, as it is prohibited to take personal photos at “women only” weddings.