I recently went to my first Saudi wedding. The biggest difference between Saudi weddings and American weddings is that men and women celebrate separately. In fact, the men's event can be scheduled on a totally different evening than the women's. So actually, for this wedding that I attended, there were two women's events. The first week on a Wednesday night - Wednesday in Arabia is like Friday in the States, since weekend days here are Thursday and Friday - there was a big party that was held a week before the actual wedding. You might think of this party as something like a bridal shower. It was held at the exquisite villa of the bride's family. The men's party that night was held at a nearby cafe. When I arrived at about 9pm, only a few women were there, but gradually more and more women kept arriving. I would estimate that eventually, by evening's end, there were at least 120 women in attendance.
The event was held in an enormous living room of the home. Beautiful couches and chairs had been set up all along three walls of the room, and there was enough seating for all the guests.
The bride had chosen brilliant turquoise blue and silver as her color scheme for the evening. In the center of the room, mirrors had been laid down on the floor with strings of tiny white Christmas lights over the mirror. Over this were layers of sheer turquoise netting. All around this area were huge shiny silver urns that reflected the lights and the blue turquoise color. The effect was that there was a pool of water in the middle of the room! Behind this area and along the wall, was a beautiful white couch - a throne, if you will - adorned with cushy turquoise blue pillows, where the bride would later sit and receive her well wishers. From the ceiling above the throne hung a flowing canopy of the turquoise blue netting with twinkling white lights. There were also beautiful floral arrangements on either side of her throne.
I munched on nuts and dates, and we were served buttermilk to drink. I was told it is traditional to serve buttermilk (not my favorite). A woman had been hired for the evening to apply henna tattoos to any guest who wanted it. I got my right hand done. I had never had it done before, so for those of you who haven't either, I will explain the process. The woman had the henna in a squeezable tube similar to a large tube of toothpaste. There was a small hole in the end of the tube where the henna came out. The henna itself looked like a deep brown gel. She applied the henna in floral designs onto my fingers and the top of my hand, doing it all freehand and taking about five minutes. I was very careful not to smear or rub it during the thirty minutes that it took for the henna to completely dry. While it was drying, my hand got freezing cold. I was told that the coldness is a normal reaction. When the henna was dry, I could just peel it off and the design remained, having stained my skin. The henna design lasted maybe three weeks or so.
Aside from the henna, nothing much really happened the first few hours, except small talk and meeting and greeting, until midnight, when the bride finally made her appearance. The Arabian music that had been playing on the stereo system was silenced, and then I heard drum beats, singing and chanting. Off toward the main entrance, I could see a band of about five African women, playing various drums and flutes and kazoos. Everyone began clapping along to the beat. Many of the guests began the trilling, called "ghatarif," which women in the Middle East do on happy occasions, where they make a a high pitch "ooooooh" sound while moving their tongues back and forth really fast. I can't do it right yet, but I'm working on it. It's a lot more ladylike than whistling, which I can do really well, but is better suited for a ballgame!
Then at the top of the stairs, I noticed that something was going on. The bride was up there, seated in a "hodujh" - one of those little curtained carriages that sits on top of a camel or elephant, or that slaves would hand carry Indian princesses in. The hodujh was made of shiny bright silver metal with intricate designs all over it. I remember seeing them in the movies and cartoons when I was little and thinking how totally exotic that would be to ride in one. The hodujh - with the bride in it - was being supported by four women dressed in matching Aladdin-style outfits - white blouses and white genie pants, turquoise bolero vests, and turquoise fez type hats on their heads with flowing turquoise netting. The crowd roared when the bride's procession almost fell several times as they slowly descended the stairs. All the while, they were swaying, chanting, dancing, singing, and trilling. Once they set the bride down safely, the troupe sang and danced for a while, while the musical group drummed and played along with them. It was enchanting, to say the least. These women were all hired for the event - they come in, decorate in the theme you have chosen, and put on a show. This particular wedding party I attended was a Moroccan theme.
When the bride dismounted the hodujh, she seemingly floated over to sit on her throne. It was a magical sight, with the throne area and the effect of a beautiful twinkling lake in the middle of the living room floor. The bride, about 22 years old or so, looked like a princess in a beautiful cream colored ball gown, her long black hair flowing down her back and shoulders in soft curls.
The dresses that the women guests wore were amazing. Everyone arrives wearing the black abayas (robes) and the black hijabs (head coverings), but underneath are these beautiful exquisite gowns and jewelry and heels. They get all dolled up with the clothes, the shoes, the hair, and the makeup, for other women to see them. One woman with long black hair was wearing a flowing white chiffon gown that had dozens of actual peacock feathers placed all over it. The younger women (teenagers) wore more trendy outfits - I was actually kinda surprised that their mothers allowed them out of the house wearing some of the figure hugging outfits I saw, with very short hemlines and plunging necklines.
The food wasn't served until after 1am. But it was a feast well worth the wait! There was shrimp, several chicken and beef dishes, shish kabob, and choices of different rice dishes, egg rolls, vegetables, hummus, salads, and more, plus amazing beautiful desserts. It was all served buffet style in a large dining room.
I was wondering when my abaya and hijab were taken from me as I arrived, how difficult it was going to be to find my things, since everyone wears black abayas and hijabs. The hostesses simply wrapped a strap of masking tape around both pieces belonging to me and wrote my name on it. It made it really easy to find. We left at about 2:30am and the party was still going strong.
All the women there were really nice to me. Many of them went out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. So many people here speak some English that it has made it much easier for me socially than I had anticipated.
One week later was the actual "wedding." This time I arrived at the site at 11pm. I was one of the first guests to arrive. There are many really fancy places in Arabia that are specifically designed to rent out for weddings. Weddings here are the main reason for partying. This place reminded me of the Signature Grand in Davie, Florida, for those of you who are familiar with it. I entered the lobby, checked my abaya and hijab (I was given a claim check ticket this time), and then made my way to an enormous ballroom where the event was held. It was absolutely beautiful - the tables, chairs, the floral centerpieces, the staircase - a creamy white fantasy of perfection. At one end the stage was decorated with a huge white netting open tent decorated with flowers and lights and huge floral arrangements on either side, a cream colored couch with lots of pillows in the center of the stage and pink rose petals were strewn about the entire area.
Leading from the stage was a "catwalk," like for a fashion show, that extended out into the ballroom, dividing it into two sections. There were stairs at the end of the catwalk. The lady guests would climb the stairs and then dance up and down along the catwalk during the course of the evening. I imagined that some of the younger unmarried women dancing were actually trying to get noticed by all the mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins in attendance who were looking for a possible wife for their available bachelor sons, brothers, or nephews.
I actually sat at three different tables, flitting between different sets of relatives and new acquaintances. The DJ music was playing so loudly that the water in my glass was vibrating! It made it difficult to try to carry on conversations, but I was able to visit at length (during breaks in the music) with several really nice women who had lived in the U.S. for several years and spoke excellent English. Alcohol is forbidden in the country, so the beverages available were all kinds of fruit juices, soft drinks, or water. If I thought the dresses, makeup, shoes and hair were amazing at the more "casual" affair the week prior, I was literally blown away by the gowns, heels and jewels I saw at this event. I felt like I was at the Oscars, seeing one more stunningly beautiful dress after another.
Just before 3am, I noticed all the women getting up, retrieving their abayas and hijabs from the cloak room, and then returning to their seats covered up, so I did the same. My sister-in-law told me that "men were coming" so all the women had to cover up. Several minutes later, a group of about a dozen kids (relatives of the bride) performed a dance routine. Then the groom was presented on the balcony at the top of the staircase. He wore a white thobe with a peachy yellow colored robe over it and a white headdress. Following his introduction, the bride, escorted by her father, joined him on the balcony. The bride wore a creamy beige strapless gown, with tiers of lace and netting covering the fitted bodice down all the way down the full floor length skirt. Her father was dressed in a white thobe topped with a black robe that had gold trim, and the white headdress. While music played, all three of them threw rose petals down from up above, and then they threw a couple dozen single roses down to the female guests below, who were all trilling and clapping. I saw the bride's father gently kiss her on the forehead and then he hugged his new son-in-law. Next, the bride and groom slowly walked down the stairs, and then down the catwalk to their throne area on the stage.
As soon as the couple sat at their throne, at almost 4am, a neighboring ballroom was opened up and all the women guests flocked over to the amazing banquet of food that was set up there. Shortly after I finished eating, I was taken home by a driver. By the time I got home, it was almost 5am.
From what I understand, this is all very typical of Saudi weddings. I have asked several people why they start an affair such as this so late in the evening, lasting until the sun is almost up. No one has been able to give me any kind of an answer - it's just how they like to do it.