Monday, August 9, 2010

A Saudi Arabian wedding celebration

I had been informed that the women like to dress up to the nines for these occasions so a trip was made the week before to downtown Olaya in search of the perfect ball gown. The Saudi women here like bright and flashy gowns with lots of colour and a generous serving of jewels and all things that sparkle, however, I was looking for something a little more subdued but equally as glamorous. I got lucky again and found a beautiful dress in the second store I looked in that couldn't match up with anything in the other stores I went to. I did see some other lovely dresses though so I know where to go back to in the future. Prayer time rolled around so the time was spent window shopping in Faisaliah Mall, where I stumbled across a pair of shoes and bag that was the exact match for my dress (with a price tag to match). My shopping partner even managed to bargain them down a few hundred Riyals, in a retail store, champion! Back at the dress shop more bargaining was done and I left with the perfect outfit for the wedding.


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Fast forward to Wednesday evening (having spent the majority of the week in bed with the flu) and I was back in the beautician's chair having my hair done. I mentioned to her that I was going to a Saudi wedding and she told me she used to style the Saudi girl's hair so would give me a fitting Saudi wedding hairstyle. Half a tin of hairspray later, I was out the door with gorgeous hair and made my way back to the house to gown up and head out to the celebration.

I knew a little bit about Saudi weddings already from reading about Saudi customs so I was aware that the function would be segregated. Upon arriving at the function centre the women went into an entrance on one side of the building while the men went into another. That was the last sighting of the men for the rest of the evening. I heard that they sat around together with the groom and ate, drank ghawa (Arabic coffee) and talked. I think even a little traditional dancing took place, but mainly eating, drinking and talking. The bride never made an appearance at the men's party.

On the women's side was where all the fun was had. Inside the ladies entrance was a foyer where all of the women removed their abayas and veils and primped themselves up in front of a huge mirror placed against one wall. Underneath the all-encompassing black was a rainbow of coloured dresses, sparkling jewellery, meticulous hairstyles and perfectly applied makeup. My phone and abaya was taken off me at the entrance (no photos allowed of course). Looking around, I had a sudden realisation that I had no idea what to do next. The women arriving were making their way over to a line of women who must have been the bride and groom's family and greeting them but my complete lack of Arabic conversation skills made me a little nervous about trying to do the same. Inside the hall the room was divided in half with an aisle down the middle. Women were making their way to the sea of tables on either side. Everyone else looked extremely confident in their movements and here I was, the lone Westerner with no Arabic skills, frozen in the lobby with no idea what to do next. A few moment's later I was approached by a young lady who spoke to me in English and directed me towards an empty table where I sat, conscious of the small children who's eyes were instantly glued to me.

About an hour and a half passed (now 10pm) and the tables had filled and the band began setting up. Three women who spoke very little English sat down at my table and despite our lack of communication skills were very friendly and accommodating. Ghawa and Saudi sweets were served on the table and the women in the room were constantly moving from one table to another, greeting family and friends. The matriarchs of the families could be seen throughout the room as they did not remove their head covering and everyone made a point to greet them and ensure they were comfortable. The band begun banging on drums and singing in Arabic so some of the girls made their way up to the dance floor at the front of the room and timidly started dancing. A few more songs later and the dance floor was sufficiently full and the girls were having a lot of fun.

Something interesting to note here is that these functions are sometimes used by the matriarchs to choose a suitable bride for their sons. In fact I was told that the bride herself had been chosen in such a way. Now cultural differences aside, it is no wonder that the girls go to great efforts to beautify themselves and make sure that they are noticed at these functions and I do know that there were some rather influential families present at this party.

By now it was 11.30pm and the party was still in full swing. The only food that had been served was assorted finger food carried around by the waiting staff. Suddenly they dimmed the lights and everyone rushed back to their seats. The bride was here! At the back of the room was a staircase that lead up into a mezzanine level where the bride was to make her entrance. Two women positioned themselves at the bottom of the staircase with a video camera and some Arabic music was fed through the speakers. The bride appeared, surrounded by four assistants who ensured that her dress was at all times perfectly positioned. She wore a magnificent white dress with sparkling jewels down the front and a sweeping white hat on her head. Its obviously extremely hard to explain but she looked absolutely stunning. The bride stood for a moment and took her first step down the staircase. The assistants smoothed her skirt and stepped back while the bride stood for what appeared to be a carefully rehearsed period of time (about 2 minutes) before taking her next step. The music played on a constant loop and the bride never faltered in her 'step, smooth, wait' pattern. The entire procession down to the stage at the front took about 30 minutes. Once she had reached the front and presented herself to everyone the young girls rushed up on the stage to present her with gifts. After this she disappeared again. This was the only time I saw the bride for the entire evening.

During this time a woman seated at the table next to me leant over and asked me where I was from. When I told her that I was from Australia she explained to me that she had spent many years in America with her husband some time ago. Her English skills were quite good so we chatted a little and she introduced me to her family and explained some things to me about the wedding. After the bride was finished and the lights came back on she grabbed my hand and rushed me towards some doors at the back of the room. It was dinner time! By now it was after midnight and everyone must have been famished because there was a mad rush to the buffet tables. My new friend N grabbed me a plate and piled it high with a bit of everything and we found a table to sit and eat.

After dinner we made our way back to the main room and were greeted by women spraying perfume on my hands (so I could pat it on my skin) and handing out mints. They also came around with a vessel of smoldering chips of oud that the women placed under their hair and veils (if they were wearing one). The music started up again and the dance floor came alive. By 1.30am I was worn out and ready to go but I could tell that the party would go on for some time yet. Outside the men were waiting patiently for their wives and daughters to appear, they congregated in groups and continued the conversations they were having inside. I found my ride and headed home having felt that I got to experience a piece of Saudi culture that many expats never get the opportunity to.