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The Bedouin Bride

May 10, 2012

“Men have no place in such proceedings,” I was told.  Ma’mun then proceeded to stride over to the balcony, where the other men were sitting in large chairs and drinking Turkish coffee or sweet tea.  He plopped himself down, and joined their conversation, which had nothing to do with weddings, Bedouin or otherwise.  He seemed relieved.

Om Ibrahim, schooling all of us with her perfect scooping technique.

We had been there, on and off, for hours at that point.  We had arrived at a little past one for a huge feast of mansaf, which is a Jordanian dish of lamb over a bed of rice with spices, sour yogurt, and parsley.  The mansaf was served on a large communal platter. The women and men ate in different rooms, which turned out to be a good thing, because no spoons were provided.  Om Ibrahim showed me how to scoop up the rice and meat in my right hand and sort of pop it into my mouth.  I had the scooping motion down after one or two tries, but my pop was all over the place, as was the mansaf. Elle Woods would have despaired.  I know Om Ibrahim did.  After I made a fool of myself for a good ten minutes, spoons were suddenly provided.

After the meal, we washed our hands outside; a young man was there to give us the towel to dry our hands.  We were then told that the entire group was heading to Amman to pick up the bride.  Over an hour there, and an hour back, and that’s if they didn’t stop for hour-long tea (which they would). We decided to leave the party for the next few hours and wait for the bride here, in the countryside.

Fast forward four hours: the bride arrives in the matrimonial car (donated for the day by a co-worker) which was decorated with lots of bright and huge fake flowers adorning the windows and doors.  The car was followed by a bus full of male relatives, and a second bus full of female ones.  All the men wore nice shirts, dishdashas or suits.  The women wore abayas and hijabs, as did the bride.  But hers were covered by sparkly bling and there was no mistaking her.  All dismounted from their mechanical steeds and the bride and her mother dashed upstairs to prepare.

Which brings us to the present.  My boss, Ma’mun, fled to the safety of bro-space, and my female coworkers and I joined the thronging women, waiting to greet the lucky bride.

We were led into a separate doorway to the right of the men’s space into a small courtyard, complete with chickens.  We then threaded our way up the stone steps to the interior. Inside the gaggle of women waited; they chittered like a more beneficent version of the ladies from The Music Man.  They filled the narrow staircase in their finest abayas, lined with colored thread and gold filigree.  Many women’s fingers were dyed orange with henna designs.  Children flitted in and out from behind their robes, mostly girls, but a few little boys as well, who seemed unclear what was going on, but knew it to be exciting and reacted accordingly.

“The bride isn’t ready!” The mother of the bride announced.  A collective sigh went through the crowd.  We filed back down to the second floor, into a sitting room with chairs along the outside walls.  We four Western girls sat, slightly uneasy.  We didn’t know what to expect, not really.  And though Amelia’s and Nim’s Arabic was pretty good, Leia and I were barely treading the linguistical water.  We were the only ones without hijabs.  We were the only ones who had never met the bride before.

Considering I don’t have a photo of the bride, here are the Westerners.

And yet it was the confused Westerners who were allowed to go upstairs and enter the bride’s sanctuary first.

The Bedouin bride was seated on a red velvet couch.  Having cast off her abaya and hijab, she was now resplendent in a long white dress that was generous in showing her ample cleavage.  It was sleeveless, and bedazzled with sequins, sparklies and fake pearls.  There was a large hoop underneath the layers that made it spread out from the bride’s waist like a conical tent, draping over the entire length of the couch.  The fabric was a bit odd, it seemed to be a type of nylon and plastic concoction, almost as if it were from a costume shop.  She wore golden bangles, and two necklaces, one a gold pendant that nestled in between her breasts, and another shorter one that seemed to be made of cubic zirconium and matched her white, sparkling tiara.  Her jet black hair was done up in a smooth and large bun at the back of her head, perhaps with a frame underneath it to give it the loft and size.  A diaphanous white veil was pinned to the back of the bun and hung down to her waist, studded with pearls.  Her makeup was heavy, but skillfully done, with dark pink lipstick and kohl shaped eyes.  She had an intricate henna tattoo on her right shoulder.

We each came in and presented ourselves to her one by one.  She gently kissed our left cheek once, then our right cheek anywhere from twice to five times.  Her cheek was downy with soft makeup powder.  We said, “Mabrook!” or congratulations.  She responded with a wooden nod. Her smile was wide, but her eyes were glassy.  Our Westerners’ nerves twitched.

We were not allowed to take photos; the fact that the bride was so uncovered meant that she was meant to be seen by women only, and her husband, of course.  As we sat in that little room, other members of her family and family-in-law came in and offered their congratulations, kissed her cheeks, and told her she was beautiful.  The bride’s mother asked us if we were married.  When we, two Americans, a French girl and a Dutch girl, all in our twenties, said no, her response was “Insha’allah, soon!” To her, we were old maids already.  We politely responded back in turn, that we hoped we would be married quickly too.

Pictures were taken of us and bride together, all perching on the narrow couch.  In between photo rounds, Nim asked the bride what her name was, how old she was, where she was from.  “Hanan, 16, Amman,” the bride responded.  Nim asked her to repeat herself.  Her answer stayed the same. She was sixteen.  The groom, it turns out, wasn’t much older, though at 21 years of age, he had to appear worldly to his soon to be wife.  They had met only a couple of times before.

Eventually we were allowed to leave the room and scurry back down to earth.  My head was whirling.  Part of me wanted to pass judgment on her age, on a system that allowed two people to marry without knowing each other first.  But most of me knew I shouldn’t, I didn’t understand enough.  So I began to ask some questions.

I found out from Ma’mun that the men had done some wedding talk after all: they joked that they felt for the bride because “the groom was so big that when he peed, ‘it’ was in the toilet.”  I found out that the bride was definitely a virgin, and that if the groom wasn’t one, he was going to pretend he was before this night for the rest of his life.

A bride’s hands, symbolically covered in henna before the wedding.

“What about the henna tattoos?” I asked.  Apparently, a common practice for Arab weddings (not just Bedouin ones) is to have a “Night of the Henna” bachelorette type party (only women, lots of dancing) right before the wedding.  The groom occasionally has one too (though I didn’t notice any henna on this particular groom).

The henna can symbolize several things- historically, women who wore henna were communicating that they were of childbearing years, and that they were now sexually appropriate to bed.  Or as a college thesis I found online put it:  “Henna stains communicate that she is pure, worthy of human and supernatural approval, and an appropriate sexual partner. The fresh dark henna stains denote her readiness, and worthiness, for sexual intercourse.”  The evening before the wedding night, during the ‘Night of the Henna’, all women at the party henna their hands and feet to celebrate the fact the bride is becoming ready to be a sexual partner for the first time in her life.

A henna-wearing bride also has a more modern and cultural significance: in many cultures, a bride does no housework as long as her hands or body is ornamented with henna.  As soon as the henna has completely faded however, it is business as usual, and the honeymoon period is over.

It has now been almost two weeks since I met the Bedouin bride, felt her cheek touch my cheek.  I will never know more of her story, whether she is happy, what her children’s names will be, whether she will ever see a country other than her own.  All I had to share with her was that one tiny moment on a very important day.  I can’t help but to play the outside ethnographer, but I know that, by doing so, I partially cordon myself off from the truth, the core of what it means to be a woman, from a Bedouin background, in Jordan, in the here and now.  I will never completely understand, no matter how much I try.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    May 12, 2012 12:52 PM

    I am an American and will be moving to Amman with my husband in early summer. We will be living there for several years as he will be working on a project there. I do understand what you mean about the differences in marriage in Jordan as I lived in Kabul for several years and did have the honor of being invited to a wedding in Afghanistan. Much different than what we are used to. It was very similar to what you describe. They have huge wedding halls in Kabul. There are halls for the men and others for the women. The women were dressed in their finest and blingest dresses and dancing to the music. The groom did come into the womens hall and sat on the decortated couch with the bride. I took some pictures of some of the women who did not mind, while others did not want to be photographed. There were many girls and a few boys, all the boys seemed to be under the age of five. Surprisingly there were two men in the hall video taping everything with very professional equipment. The women totaly ignored them. Not sure if they were hired professionals or relatives of the bride or groom. Maybe hired as then they could be put on “ignore” as they were being paid??? Not sure on that one.
    I look forward to living in Amman and already have an idea of the culture as it will be similar to Kabul it seems. Long sleaved shirts that cover your hips etc and lots of tea. The problem with the tea in the shops on Chicken Street was that there was not a restroom within miles that one would want to use! So you had to be careful about not drinking too much of it and yet not offending the shop owner. I was like everyones Mom for the first visit to Chicken Street for Expat women. I would remind them to use the bathroom before we left the house. It was very funny to all but good advice! Reminded me of my Mother saying the same before us kids would pile into the car for a drive somewhere.

    • May 16, 2012 6:27 AM

      Thanks for responding! I have not been to Afghanistan, but from what you have indicated it does seem that rural traditional Jordanian culture is on par with Afghani culture, at least in terms of weddings. However, in Amman itself, the culture is less traditional, and becoming more Westernized. Many women wear the hijab or abaya etc. of course, but there are many Jordanian women who I see roaming the streets in short sleeved shirts from H&M. Lots of tea, but also quite a few Starbucks in Western Amman.

      As for you moving to Amman soon, welcome! I have only been here a month a bit, so I am not exactly an expert, but if you have any questions I’ll try to answer them!

      -Luca

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