(note: If anyone actually reads this whole thing, I’ll be surprised! Sorry it’s so long – if I could have taken pictures of everything, this would have been a lot shorter!)
The Emirati woman who lives across the street from my friend Heather very graciously invited her to her son’s wedding. Heather mentioned that her mother would be in town visiting at the time of the wedding, and the woman responded, “Feel free to bring her! Bring whomever you want, the more the merrier!” Heather said that her street was closed to traffic for a week while wedding festivities took place. Traditional Emirati carpets were laid in the street and the men’s celebration took place in a big tent assembled at the house. (where apparently they dance with traditional sticks) I thought the women’s celebration, which was scheduled for the weekend following the men’s, would also be at the house. I figured if I attended, it would be easy for me to pass unnoticed. I later found out it was at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Gulp.
After talking about it with Heather, she said she sincerely thought it would be fine for me to come based on her conversation with the woman. The night came and I felt utterly ridiculous for getting dressed up for a wedding I wasn’t explicitly invited to and for people I didn’t know. Backing out crossed my mind several times, but I knew that this was a great honor (erm, for Heather) to be invited. I hated to miss this rare opportunity so I decided to go. We pulled up to the hotel and easily found the venue by the red carpet that was laid out at the entrance. Heather, her mother and I hesitated; we felt out of place. We saw three other westerners arrive, so we hurried along to go in after them. They turned out to be neighbors of the Emirati woman, just like Heather, so we stuck with them throughout the night.
Before we know it, we find ourselves shaking hands with the mother of the groom. This certainly was not part of my “keeping a low profile” plan. We continued with more greetings along the receiving line. These women, sisters and cousins to the groom, were a sight to behold. They looked like they were wearing stage makeup – unbelievably dramatic, colorful and thickly applied. Their dresses were amazing, but difficult to describe. I’ve never seen anything like them. Some of them almost had a medieval vibe, and they seemed to be made of a heavy material (brocade?). They were vibrant in color: hot pink, persimmon, deep emerald green accented with shiny gold or silver decorative patterns on the back and/or along the thick waistband that cinched their waist. Their hands, arms and feet were adorned with intricate henna designs.
After completing our greetings and just before entering the reception hall, a little group of ladies welcomed us with a strange, high-pitched sound. They did this when guests entered and later the sisters did it while people were dancing, sort of like saying “woo hoo!” Here’s a sound clip of the real thing. As I tried to figure out just what in the world that “la la la, la-ing” was, we enter the reception hall to find 50 mostly empty tables of 10. We were definitely the unwitting westerners who arrived close to the time listed on the invitation, while most guests arrived much later.
The room was spectacular – it shimmered, twinkled, and sparkled. The first things I noticed were the stunning, tall centerpieces on each of the tables, countless female servers dressed in ornately sparkled uniforms, a long “catwalk” type of runway that led up to an elaborate white sofa that was placed in front of a glittering backdrop of silver, and a ridiculously big video camera hoisted on a long, rotating arm around the room, the likes of which you might see on a movie set.
Unfortunately, taking pictures was not allowed, which I didn’t know before I arrived. Of course it makes sense since some of the women were not wearing their abayas. Interestingly, most of them chose to still wear it, even though there were no men in the room, and the multiple windows at the entrance of the building were blacked out, preventing anyone from seeing inside. Some even choose to wear their burqas throughout the celebration. Also spelled burgah, this is probably not what you think of when you think of burqa. I had never seen one before coming to Dubai. It’s not very common to see women wearing them, although at the wedding I saw several, including a woman at our table. Here is a picture of one:
Once seated, many servers offered us all sorts of beverages many, many times throughout the night, all of which I tried – mint teas, strong teas I don’t know the name of, Arabic coffee with cardamom, and cappuccino, all served in small, glass cups. Various juices and water were also served. Meanwhile, the sisters and cousins of the groom danced on the catwalk to loud Arabic music. A couple of them also belly danced while we clapped along to the music. The little girls in attendance pulled chairs right up to the runway to admire with wide-eyes the women who were dancing. The announcer interrupted the music every so often and although we couldn’t understand a word he said, we nonetheless found ourselves laughing when everyone else laughed. At one point Heather said “I’m excited and I don’t know why!” 🙂 Heather’s mom and I were wondering where he was, until Heather reminded us that since he was a man, he was obviously not in the room. Duh! He was like an Arabic version of the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz!
The food. Wow. Neverending. It was like 10 meals in one sitting and I was full after the first plate of appetizers (hummus, tabbouleh, black olives, dolma, a green bean salad, and a variety of bread). They served kebabs of every type of meat, a lasagna type dish served in a big round bowl, rice with several toppings like chicken curry, and platters with lots of fried goodies like spring rolls, samosas and several other things which I couldn’t identify. The empty, clean plates placed in front of us signifying more food was coming started to make us giggle. Somehow we still made room for all the deserts: the fried donut-like things I ate at the cultural center, a variety of little cakes, pastries, muffins, cookies, and big bowls of fruit. The wedding cake – five layers separately arranged on a curved stand and decorated with pretty flowes on each of the layers – was displayed near the runway.
The one thing that was universally disliked by us westerners was harees. It looked important because a large silver container of it was served to each table, so we were curious about it. I tried it and wanted to like it, but no. First of all – it looks terribly unappetizing. And it tasted like a slimier, thicker version of cream of wheat. I looked it up and apparently it’s usually served at Ramadan and weddings, it takes hours to make, and people across the GCC really look forward to eating it. It seems to be just wheat, meat, and water, boiled and simmered until it can all be mashed up together to form a porridge. Then some melted butter with cinnamon and cardamom is served on top (although I’m sure there are variations). Honestly, I didn’t taste anything in ours except slimy wheat – it was rather bland. I think it’s an acquired taste. 🙂 Or maybe ours wasn’t a particularly good one. Here is a funny you tube clip of a woman making it. And a picture of a blob of it from the wedding:
During our feast, the women in the “wedding party” took to the catwalk and threw money out to the crowd. The wait staff completely abandoned their duties, depositing large trays of tea and cups on the floor while they jumped and dove for the money. I was a little taken aback by their determination to catch a few dirhams!
When I decided to lessen my focus on the food, I casually looked over my shoulder to see what was going on around me. We six were definitely the only westerners in this room of 500 guests. Again, not the anonymity I was shooting for!
The sisters of the groom were unbelievably hospitable and welcoming. Even with hundreds of guests in attendance, they came to our table, repeatedly, to check in, answer questions we had about the ceremony, and make sure we were comfortable. I was really impressed by their kindness. At one point, we went around the table introducing ourselves to the sister. Thank goodness for the obnoxiously loud music that made clear communication difficult, because I was still feeling self-conscious and paranoid about my lack of an official invitation. When it came to my turn after Heather’s mother, I pointed to Heather to say I came with her and the sister of the groom assumed I meant that Heather and I were sisters! Before I could confirm or deny :), she carried on talking to someone else. Ack!
At last, the bride arrived around 11:30. She entered at the same entrance we did in an amazingly sparkly, beaded, long-sleeved white dress with a cascading pink bouquet. I was surprised to see that they wear white dresses as westerners do. Apparently, the old tradition is to wear a green dress, but most Emiratis now wear white. She inched her way, ever so slowly, up to the sofa. It must have taken her 20 minutes to go from the main door to the seat of honor. An assistant adjusted her dress during her ascent to the throne every few steps so that she looked impeccable for the many photographs that the photographer took of her. She seemed extremely nervous with her mostly serious expression. Once she arrived to the sofa, she sat on her throne, and there she stayed, looking regal and occasionally receiving well-wishers and taking pictures. She didn’t dance or eat, she just sat there and we admired her beauty. (although I did notice that many of the guests seemed to carry on eating and conversing when she entered).
She sat waiting for the groom to arrive, who picks her up and takes her home, where they will officially start their new life together. When he enters, the women in the room are expected to put their abayas and headscarf on again. The interesting thing is that technically they had already been married two months prior to the wedding celebrations. The marriage consists of signing a contract. I’ve heard they must sign it in two different rooms, although I’m not sure if that’s true. Another interesting tidbit – the bride and groom were first cousins! This is a common practice here. We tried to get our minds around the family dynamics. Her mother-in-law would also be her aunt! Her brothers/sisters-in-laws would also be cousins! How strange!
We speculated about how much a production like this would cost. I would guess anywhere from $80,000 upwards. Apparently the UAE government has set up a marriage fund, partly to encourage UAE nationals to marry other nationals (you are not eligible if both bride and groom are not Emirati), partly to offset the cost, and gives couples $16,000 – $25,000 to get married, depending on their financial situation.
We left the reception around 1:30 a.m. and unfortunately did not see the groom arrive, although I think we saw his entourage on our way out. It was quite an evening.
Does this put me in the same class as the Salahi’s who crashed a White House state dinner under the pretence that “they were sort of invited.” I’m afraid it does and I still feel a little guilty about it. On the other hand – I am so grateful to have experienced such an intimate part of Emirati culture. The hostesses were so sincere and generous – it was so nice to see this side of the locals. And, hey, sis, thanks for bringing me along to such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience!