A Saudi Wedding & Engagement Party

Sometime last term, one of my students told me she was getting married soon. Actually, because her English is terrible, she mimed the act of putting on a wedding ring. At the time she also asked if I would come, and I said sure. The term ended and the classes rotated and while I saw her a couple times in the halls and always said hello and exchanged kisses (Saudi greetings are multiple cheek kisses), I didn’t hear anything more about the wedding.

Then on Wednesday, she comes to tell me it’s the next day! Planning ahead hasn’t really caught on here in many ways. She couldn’t really explain where it was however, so we went over to the AA’s office to get some help. It transpired that I had misinterpreted the wedding ring sign language and the party was actually an engagement party. My AA sent an email with the name of the location in Arabic so we could get it to the driver. Saudi doesn’t use addresses, but this building (I was told) was known to every Saudi in Tabuk because it is used for all the weddings.

Once the times and locations were sorted out, next I had to figure out what to wear. Saudi weddings and engagement parties are a real excuse to dress to the nines. All those stores I pass in the malls that sell decadent evening gowns are catering to the wedding crowd. I myself had no such beautiful gown, the majority of my wardrobe is tailored around the school dress code, or my weekend adventure needs, neither of which is fancy.

Fortunately, I had just found a beautiful black velvet skirt on sale the week before. I had thought it was just going to sit in storage until it was time to go back to the much cooler PNW, but I decided it would be a good choice for a formal party. Sadly, all my non-stretchy blouses that had been sitting in the back of my closet as too hot/formal for school wear had mysteriously become slightly too tight to be flattering. Something about spending the holidays away from home may have led to a serious reliance on comfort food. I managed to find some stretchier tops that could be dressed up decently by the right hair and jewelry, and made a solid determination to curtail my afternoon snacking.

I didn’t have time to go to a salon, so I had to rely on a classic French braid ending in a bun topped off with one of my velvet and sparkly scrunchies from China. Long dangly earrings, and bracelets and rings on both hands finished off the outfit. I went for dramatic eye makeup since it was a late night affair. (It would turn out I had some of the most understated eye makeup there).

My driver was 30 minutes late, which was really frustrating because I had said I wanted to go after Isha’a (the night prayer), and he agreed he would come pick me up as soon as he was done praying. I asked him about what time that would be, and he said 8 or 8:15. He could have said 8:30 or 8:45 and I would still have been fine with it, I just hate waiting! So there I was, sitting around dressed for 30 minutes because I didn’t want to keep him waiting. I miss my car.

I arrived at the place, a huge building, the men congregating around the front entrance, and another gate off to one side with a tiny entrance for the women to slip through. Inside was a large courtyard where I could see dozens of women in various types of dress milling around and moving from one building to another. It occurred to me then that I had no idea where to go, nor did I have my student’s phone number. However, it is a testament to my cultural adjustment that this didn’t bother me, because I knew someone would help me. I was not disappointed. A lovely middle aged lady soon realized I didn’t speak Arabic well, and switched to English. I told her my student’s name and that I was her teacher, and she asked if it was the Bride or the Bride’s sister. This flummoxed me slightly, since I had been told it was an engagement party and not a wedding, but you learn to roll with it.

She led me across to the other building and knocked on doors and made inquiries until my student appeared. Before leaving me, she made sure I knew I was welcome to come and sit with her should I not have a place to sit as events unfolded. I adore the culture of hospitality in this part of the world.

I almost didn’t recognize my student when I saw her. Normally in class, she is a slight girl who dresses as tomboyish as is possible while still wearing a skirt. Once or twice I saw her come to school with makeup and had been surprised by the contrast, but she’s never struck me as “girly”. Now she was dressed in a stunning gown in a dusty red color offset with sparkling patterns of gold thread, sequins, beads and other sparkly bits. Her hair would have made Marie Antoinette sit up and take notice. She had always lightened it to a nice light auburn, but now it was up up up and big with falls of complimenting strawberry blond curls cascading from the top and gold and diamond pins dotting the main part of the do. Her makeup was no less extravagant. Huge eyes with deep khol lining, metallic gold eyeshadow and long false lashes. Her lips were plumped out with a wide liner and beautiful shade of red that complimented her skin and the dress. And her hands and forearms were adorned with intricate spirals of henna.

Taking pictures is very against the culture, and when they are taken, it is for personal use only, so I don’t have any pictures, but you can imagine something like this dress, this hair (but auburn with jewels instead of flowers), this eye makeup, and this henna.

When she spotted me we instantly became woo-girls, which it turns out is an international language. Not just polite cheek kisses, she embraced me in a full hug and told me over and over how happy she was that I came. We complimented each other’s dresses, I hugged the other student that was with her, and was quickly whisked off to another part of the building. Any doubts I had about attending or my dress or what to do were completely settled by the sheer joy that it brought to this girl that I came. I’m always seriously surprised and flattered when I find out my opinion matters so much to someone, and as a teacher I’m especially impacted when I can see I’ve touched a student’s life.

I was introduced to a whirlwind of ladies, cousins, nieces, aunts, mother, grandmother. I really hope no one was sick because I was subjected to sooo much affection. I was given Arabic coffee and sweets from the table in the reception room. Trying to shake hands while balancing these was very challenging, and between her excitement and my precarious balancing of too many things in my hands, we managed to knock the small cup out of my hand and narrowly avoided spilling it all over our dresses.

Having met everyone I needed to meet in that room, we headed back to the main hall. The room was set up with a stage and catwalk. I couldn’t take pictures, but I found this image online that gives a pretty good idea of the set up. Tables with carafes of Arabic coffee and sweet mint tea and plates of sweets filled the rest of the large room. Ladies filtered in from the reception hall and took their seats, passing around the coffee and sweets. I went through another round of introductions, handshakes and cheek kisses and was offered far more sweets than anyone could eat.

I noticed that only a dozen or so women were as fantastically dressed as my student. Most of the the younger women were dressed not unlike myself, in something fancier than every day wear, but not extravagant. There were another dozen or so all in matching deep burgundy velvet dresses, and a lot of the older women were wearing abaya and hijab, though in stark contrast to the daily all black affairs, these were brightly colored and bedecked with sparkling embroidery or beads.

The entire affair felt like the four corners meeting of the 80s, Disney Princesses, Drag Queens and 1,001 Arabian Nights. There were no actual drag queens of course, but I think that some of these outfits (dress, hair, shoes, makeup) would be right up their ally.

Then the music began. Music is a challenging subject in Islam. It has been explained to me that drums and vocals are generally accepted even in the more conservative parts of the culture, but that other instruments are more controversial. In my experience, its very personal. Some people will listen to anything (East or West, even dubstep), some will listen but only if the lyrics are not haram topics, some will only listen to Arabic music from other Muslim countries, some will listen to only drumming and vocals, and some will listen only to the Quran.

This student had been from the class that begged me to play music and dance any time we finished our work early, so it didn’t really surprise me that there was some lovely dancing music. There’s a sort of modern Arabic/hip hop fusion thing that I’ve heard several times here and am becoming quite fond of. It’s really great to dance to.

The dances seemed to have some meaning, but since my Arabic is very limited and the students of mine that were there weren’t very high level (plus the music was very loud) I didn’t really get any explanations. Some dances seemed reserved for just the fanciest dressed ladies, and others open to anyone. There was one dance where mostly older ladies (all in their fancy abayas) got up and danced with meter long sticks that had been decorated with colored strips of cloth. Other dances seemed to be associated with specific types of dancing depending on the music, some focusing on dancing steps in a circle, others a hip focused kind of belly dance, others more swaying and arm oriented.

All the while, young children frolicked around the fancy dressed ladies. No leaving the kids at home with the sitter, I saw women in fancy evening gowns and salon hair-dos picking up babies and trailing small children as they danced.

After a half dozen or so dances, the lights were dimmed and all eyes swiveled to the back of the room where, just like a western wedding, the double doors opened to reveal the bride. I found out later that this was my student’s sister, making it some kind of combined wedding and engagement party. While the rest of us studiously kept our cameras turned off, there was one official photographer to take pictures of the bride. As they passed by, women who thought they might be in frame quickly donned their hijabs or simply draped them over their heads and faces until the camera passed.

The bride walked very slowly down the catwalk toward the stage, not to any classical music, but to the same modern fusion dance Arabic music we’d been listening to before. She took one tiny step every minute or so, allowing people to admire her, the photographer to take pictures and her attendants to keep the dress in perfect position. All the while her bridesmaids (all those women in matching burgundy velvet dresses) stood on the stage clapping rhythmically and occasionally bursting into cheerful screams.

Once the bride ascended to the stage, she moved to the wide bench at the center and after posing for a few more photos, sat down. People came by to pay their respects, or congratulations, and sure enough, my student led me by the hand and up onto the stage to meet her sister.

Those of you who have been following the blog up to now know about the extreme gender segregation in Saudi. Men and women who are not related aren’t supposed to interact socially (professionally is acceptable with oversight). Weddings are notoriously social events, and of course all these beautifully dressed ladies could never let a non related man see them uncovered. So the men have their own celebration on the other side of the building, do their own dances and celebrate the groom. My understanding is at some point in the night, the men will come over, sending the women diving for abayas, and join the bride and groom together. But in the mean time, the bride gets to walk down an aisle of sorts and spend some time being the center of attention in an uncovered state.

After a few more formalities, the dancing resumed, and my student led me up on to the catwalk to join her in some dancing. Soon the other students that were there at her invitation joined in and we had quite a good time being silly and dancing. It’s amazing to me how not-body-conscious the women there were. I had felt uncomfortable getting ready because I wasn’t as sleek in my dress clothes as I wanted to be, but there were women of all body types there, dressed in figure hugging dresses and dancing their hearts out with clear joy. From talking with some of my larger students, they are interested in loosing weight, but it seems to be more health than beauty oriented, and they certainly don’t act or dress the way I do when I’m feeling fat, or the way I’ve seen many American women do when they are told they’re fat (eg loose/baggy/slobby clothes).

After some dancing, it was time to eat. My student led us over to another room where the floor had been set up with the traditional lamb kabsa. Squares of plastic sheeting were laid down at intervals, and a large platter of rice and roast lamb is placed in the center of each one. Side dishes and drinks are placed around for guests as well. Again, I have no pictures of my own, but this is a fair representation. Kabsa is meant to be eaten with the hands only, but my student politely provided us with spoons. I was seated with another of my students from the advanced class and was able to ask a few questions, and get some help understanding the comment’s from the bride’s mother who stopped by to check that I had everything I needed and opened up some new side dish containers for me.

I am a sucker for lamb, so I always enjoy kabsa. This one was interesting because there were also large chunks of lamb fat, not just the bits stuck to the meat. I encountered this first in northern China. There’s a tendency of poorer, rural areas in the colder months especially to consume animal fat in equal or greater quantities of actual meat. And lamb fat, when cooked well, isn’t tough gristly stuff, its creamy and rich, so much so, I tend to enjoy it in very small bites, but I think I could happily spread it on toast. It seems strange to a lot of Westerners, since we’ve become obsessed with lean meat, low fat diets, and while I wouldn’t want to eat it every day, it’s certainly a delicious addition to special occasions.

By this point in the evening, it was nearing the time I’d asked my driver to return for me. Since I wake up at 6am, and haven’t yet mastered the art of afternoon naps, I’m usually in bed by 9:30. Tonight I’d asked the driver to pick me up at 11:30, hoping this would give me enough time to enjoy the evening and not leave so early as to offend. I guessed well, since dinner seemed to end a little after 11, and there were many other people gathering their things and heading out. When I went back into the main room to find my student and bid her farewell, I noticed that the bride was no longer seated at the dais. I wondered if the men had come to carry her off like I’d read about or if she’d simply joined her new husband in private somewhere before heading off to their honeymoon suite.

I found my student and let her know my driver was on his way. She didn’t seem surprised or dismayed, which was a relief. She came out to the waiting area with me and tried to talk again once we were out of earshot of the loud dance music. She showed me pictures on her phone of the young man she was engaged to. He was handsome in a boyish way, and his smile contained kindness and humor, so I hope that turns out to be true. She asked me again if I was happy, and I told her I was so happy to be able to come, and to see her looking so beautiful. She seemed to harbor some apprehension, and told me shyly that she was going to meet with him that weekend. In Saudi, an engagement is a contract similar to marriage, so the couple are allowed to spend time together.

I asked her if she was nervous, but she didn’t know the word. So I asked if she was happy, and her face showed my first guess was right. I put my hands over my heart and made a fluttery gesture, and she made a fist over her chest and pumped it like a fast beating heart, nodding in agreement. I smiled and hugged her again. I remembered some of my first date anxieties, and I’ve spent my whole life socially interacting with boys. I can’t even imagine how scary and exciting it must have been for her, but we had no words to communicate these things, so we just hugged and smiled. It seemed to help.

As I donned my abaya and hijab to go, she told me she was sleepy too and would be going home soon. And after a final round of hugs and happies and beautifuls, I headed off to the parking lot to find my driver and get home.

Recently, I’ve been finding myself despairing of the location I’m assigned to. Tabuk is a small town, and many of the things I miss or find frustrating aren’t problems in cities like Jeddah or Riyadh. Expats there can easily get wider choices of food, better exercise and entertainment options and easier travel options both in city with Uber or taxis and out of country because they are major international airports. Just like living in a small town in England or America can be boring or stifling compared to London or New York.

But nights like this are the real reason I love to live abroad. Being able to make connections across cultural and linguistic barriers, to be accepted into people’s lives and make a valued positive impact means so much more than a better grocery store or bigger mall. So, while I might miss out on nighttime walks by the sea (Jeddah) or easy taxi access to the Diplomatic Quarter (Riyadh), there are some trade offs that make spending a year of my life in a small town a totally worthwhile experience.

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