Quite unexpectedly, I had the chance to attend an Emirati wedding a few weekends ago. 'Reception' probably does a better job of describing the event. 'Wedding' calls to mind a kind of ceremony with vows and an officiant. That part of things happens privately, at another time completely. There is a contract signed by the bride and groom, usually some family help set the terms, and there's an imam (like a priest) to make it official. The thing I went to is the public party which can happen quite a bit later than the contract signing (weeks, months) and for most of the "wedding" men and women are celebrating separately.
Maybe I should jump back to how I came to be at the wedding of a young lady I've never met. The bride is a ZU student, an advisee of my friend and neighbor, Jess. Jess had plans to to take another colleague, Yulia, and they stopped by on their way around 9:30/ 10 in the evening- things start late compared to most wedding celebrations in the US. Learning that I hadn't yet been to a local wedding, they insisted I throw on a dress and come along. No chance to glam it up and when we got there, I felt decidedly dowdy. But is this rude? Jess bringing a random plus 2 to the celebration? Apparently not. The dinner (at 11pm-ish) was family style, a heaping excess of biryani and more than enough kebabs. Seats weren't going to be a problem in the hall. We were actually seated relatively front and center. I guess there's some cachet to having your teacher come to your wedding and if she brings friends, bonus! The more the merrier, demonstrates how many people want to celebrate with you.
|couch on the stage where the bride wound up|
The hall - a place for weddings and other events- had tables around a stage and on the stage, a white couch sat amidst faux trees covered in cherry blossoms. As soon as we were seated, waitstaff came with trays, offering tiny cookies or chocolates and a seemingly unending array of beverage courses: karak tea (chai), mint tea, heba hunbra (a custardy drink with some sort of seeds, like chia or something), strawberry milk, Arabic coffee, black tea, pistachio drink (milky and sweet)... There were also appetizers on the tables when we got there- salads, dips- and ladies milling about, talking, visiting, and dancing.
It is the current custom and fashion for most Emirati women to wear abayas away from home. Some
of our students let their abayas flop open at school revealing jeans,and long sleeve T shirts or maybe leggings or pants that look suspiciously like PJs with a tunic or something. Fairly modest clothing even under the abaya at least in terms of coverage. Apparently for a wedding, all bets are off! The ladies were in formal club wear, skin tight, cleavage-showing evening gowns. Make up and hair, done to perfection. One especially striking fashionista had a gown that was tea length or longer in back but cut up shorter in front revealing a gorgeous henna pattern down her shins that looked like exotic stockings. These were the younger and almost middle aged guests. The grandmas and older aunties wore caftan-like dresses with traditional colorful trim designs made of braided metallic thread. A few ladies just wore everyday abayas too, but most seemed to use this as an opportunity to dress up.
|milky pistachio drink|
So around the time dinner made it to all the tables, the already loud constant music went up a few notches to signal that the bride was coming out. She wore a poufy white dress with a big train and took mincing steps to the stage while professional photographers snapped pictures. She made her way to the couch on stage where they arranged the dress around her for more photos. Then guests- friends, sisters, aunties, Jess- took turns going up to sit beside her on the couch for a bunch of pictures. There seemed to be a bit of a pecking order as to who went up for their photo with the bride first, second third... Some of the bride's fellow students came and took Jess up when it was a good time for her to go.
|tea, cola, strawberry milk with gelatin bubbles|
After about an hour of this, there was another swell in the music and the DJ (who must have been behind a curtain where he couldn't see the ladies but could be heard) shouted Hamid! Hamid! Hamid! (seems this was the groom's name) Nearly every woman in the place grabbed up their abaya and shayla (hair covering) and threw it on- all the glitter and skin covered in a flash! A couple of women arranged an elaborate veil- more like a hood really- over the bride's hair and face. And then the groom came in escorted by about 5 other men. Maybe his father, some brothers or friends? Photographers took a million pictures and grandmas and aunties, older women, tossed fistfuls of 5 and 10 dirham notes (about $1.50 and $3 values) in the air and the kids there went crazy collecting them. Then all of the guys except the groom left and the bride's veil was removed. The couple held hands and together used a small sword to cut the wedding cake. The old ladies tossed more money in the air for the kids and more photos were taken.
|The groom is in brown- photos of the men were no problem|
The taking of photos was interesting. I don't have very many because I'd been warned, it's not appropriate. There seemed to be a bit of a divide. The table in front of us included about 5 younger women who were not shy about snapping lots of pictures of the bride and each other. When one swung her camera around to our table- there was a speedy reaction. One woman pulled her shayla over her face and held up her hand to block it, another yelled at the young lady, a third walked over to the young photographer and scolded her somewhat intensely. Probably one of the most interesting things I witnessed was one of the photo gals took a snap of the bride and groom holding hands and in the picture, she captured their outfits, but she cut their heads off in the picture. Her friends liked her shot so much, they were taking pictures of her picture on her phone. My best guess was that this is a way to share photos of the dress without being disrespectful or oversharing face and hair which are kept more private.
Fairly quickly after the cake, the bride and groom walked out of the hall holding hands and setting off on their adventure together. Abayas came back off for some, there was a bit more dancing, but the action was basically over at that point. I think there were another few beverages on offer, but the party was wrapping up. We danced our way out the door and that was that!