I had the privilege of attending an Emirati wedding this weekend. I still have buzz from all the exuberance that my eyes took in. Although it was not my first, I was stoked when my friend messaged me and said: I have an idea…why don’t you come down to Al Ain the night before so we can go to a wedding?!
But, but…I have guests. It’s not just me, but four of us in all! Not a problem, she says. Elated, I said sure!
Unlike the U.S., and even back home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, it is not out of the ordinary for one to bring extra friends to weddings here. As a matter of fact, the locals welcome and encourage it very much as it is an opportunity for cultural exchange with expats. And what better way to do this than a wedding!
Words simply cannot convey what we experienced, but I’m hoping my story can transport you there. So here’s how it when down….
My gals and I get there a few hours early to give ourselves time to get dolled up. We’re all a little nervous because we heard about the local weddings and how glamourous they are with all the decadent jewelry, ornate dresses, elaborate hairstyles, and extravagant make-up. Somehow we pull it off and, dressed to the nines, off we go and get there on time.
We arrive at the wedding hall and look for the side where the women’s party is, which was easy to identify — just look for where the women are entering, of course. 😉 But we see hardly any cars on that side. Why is that? Because most are dropped off, says my host-friend. There is a huge wall at the part where the cars pull up; this is to ensure privacy. Emirati weddings involve separate ceremonies for men and women, the women have their party on one side, while the men are on the other side doing their own thing. There are other private ceremonies that take place, but there is always one like the one we attended so that the marriage is known publicly.
We park, walk in with nervous giggles towards the pulsating Arabic. This is about to go down up in here – I think to myself, privately giggling. With a cautious walk, I hold up my long dress and trying not to fall flat on my face with my heels. A female security guard greets us and we are offered what I call incense on steroids — Bakhoor. Bakhoor is an Arabic home fragrance used to welcome guests as a gesture of hospitality. It’s also used to boost positive energy and dismiss bad spirits. It reminds me of the thuribles hanging on a chain used by Catholic priests during congregation.
We walk into a hall with about 300 hundred women. There is an erected catwalk and an elaborate stage beautifully decorated with flowers and calligraphy. It reminded of a Quincañera event. As anticipated, it was just over-the top! And my-oh-my the dresses – the DRESSES! MOVE over, Jersey Girls! The women have shed their black Abayas and revealed their alluring gowns. All blinged-out with tiaras, jewels, gold, poufy hair, and exotic make-up. You can’t help but grin and stare at all the dazzling attire. Here you see cleavage, beautiful henna artwork on arms, and gorgeous hair — a sharp contrast from the outside world where they are covered, reserved, and modest
We are warmly received with that well-known Arabic hospitality and seated by the person who invited my friend. Every few minutes a cute teenage Emirati girl stops to offer you a dab of Arabic oil-based perfume. It’s presented in the most delightful large hanging crystal decanter. This is a paid gig for the girls, so I nice way for them to make some income for themselves.
Each table has assigned attendants who serve Arabic coffee/tea/light bites/dates/sweets, and ultimately, dinner – ALL NIGHT LONG! They literally stand there and wait for us to finish and gesture towards a refill. The food is non-stop. Omani Halwa, various sweet puddings, mezza, a delicious ginger-infused warm milk and ultimately the main course. I was stuffed within the first 15 minutes and just had to start refusing, which is a no-no from what I understand. You must at least try a little bit of everything; it’s considered good manners. The food item I most remembered is the Omani Halwa. It’s black, which I had never seen before in that color. A lovely medley of rose, cardamom, pista flakes, saffron, nutmeg, almonds in a tapioca base. Here’s a video of how it’s made:
Little boys and girls are running around playing. The boys in their miniature Kandoras and the girls in their little princess dresses. The boys are emulating the male elders with their play replicas of swords, guns, and sticks — were on the other side the men are engaged in their symbolic and artistic dances, which include poetry and traditional music.
And then came the bride!
I hear an announcement in Arabic and all of a sudden the white room becomes a sea of black as the women swiftly fling their Abayas and Shaylas on. I was like OK, that means something is about to happen and I can only guess a male was about to enter the hall.
Everyone starts looking to the back and in enters the lovely, delicate bride with her two proud brothers on the side. The women begin emitting their zaghareet (the high-pitched warbling noise the women make at weddings). She looks stiff and is not smiling, almost uneasy. Her steps were slow and measured. Her dress is Westernized. A Cinderella-style sweeping gown, very fitted at the waist with layers and layers of tulle. The kind of dress you must have a small waist to wear. It must have taken her an hour just to get in that dress. I could not see her shoes and wondered if she wore glass slippers. She wore a Cathedral-style tulle veil with beautiful lace detail. She was just stunning!
But what I loved most was this. The two brothers were so tender with her. They escorted her like a delicate flower. They’d reach over to tuck in any hair out of place, or when the veil obstructed her view, and to adjust her dress as needed. You can feel the love and pride, and I could not help but tear up a bit.
She reaches her destination on the stage. Next, her female family members come up to greet her, take photos and, of course, more dancing. 😀 Photographers are clicking away and then walks in the groom through the back doors to the stage to meet his new bride. He lifts her veil and gives her a soft kiss on the forehead. And we all say in unison “Awwwwwww”.
I later learn that the reason the bride does not smile is this: It’s normal not see much expression on the bride’s face since it is seen as a sign of her sadness of leaving her family. In essence, a smiling Emirati ride would not be in good taste.
Well, that solves that mystery! I’m sure she was smiling inside because her groom was very handsome. 😀
Soooooooo, just in case you are invited to a local wedding here in the UAE, here are some basic rules of engagement to remember:
1. Do not take pics of the bride/groom or other guests. Selfies and pics among you and your friends are ok, as well as random items.
2. Do not clink your glasses emulating cheers. It is considered haram. 😀
3. Do wear long flowing feminine dresses.
4. No need to bring a gift. It’s not expected at the public ceremony. If you are invited to any of the parties at home, then yes.
5. Do be prepared to be received warmly and pampered all night with Arabic perfumes, oud, teas, and food by personal attendants assigned to each table.
6. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the sight of the most beautiful dresses, makeup, and hairstyles. And interesting cultural customs!
7. There will be no men in sight, except on a large screen in a separate hall having a good ole time doing their wedding dance ceremonies.