Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My First Omani Wedding . . . A Distinctive Arab Experience


The Bride’s Love Seat
The female security guard discretely slips me through a side door and gestures for me to sit at the table in the corner. The Arabic music is pulsating and the room is reverberating with the nervous energy of 400 women. Suddenly, the lights dim and everyone turns to watch. A bride, dressed in a Western-style long white wedding gown with matching trailing veil has a death grip on her bouquet of roses as she takes very slow measured steps down the center aisle towards the “Bride’s Love Seat.” Her unsmiling face is devoid of emotion.

Following the bride are several bejeweled “bridesmaids” moving en mass like a swarm of bees following their queen. Rising above the pounding music, warbling female tongues emit the zaghareet, the high-pitched ululation made by Arab women to congratulate the bride. The level of noise is deafening but I am not going to miss a moment of this.

We are at the Millennium Resort in Al Musanaah, Oman for a long weekend dive trip with friends.  Al Musanaah is located in a rural area on the coast of the Gulf of Oman1 hour west of Muscat. We do not see many other Westerners.

The Millennium Resort in Al Musanaah, Oman
Since I choose not to dive because I find it too claustrophobic, I make the most of my time with a stroll around the expansive hotel property. As I re-enter the lobby I see a party being set up in the ballroom. I am told that there is to be an Omani wedding tonight. 

“Do you think I might be able to just watch a little bit from the back of the room?” I inquire of the on-duty hotel manager. 

Expecting a definite no, I am surprised by his accommodating response.

“I am not Omani so I don’t know. Let’s ask the Omani men who are working at the front desk what they think” he graciously replies.

The conversation is in Arabic so I am at their mercy. The answer comes back that they will ask. When I return to the front desk at 9 pm I am told that yes, the mother of the bride has invited me to the wedding but no camera. Muslim women do not want their faces revealed in pictures let alone posted on the Internet. 

It is Islamic tradition for wedding party celebrations to be separated by gender. The women have their party and the men have theirs. The purpose of the elaborate women's party is to make the marriage known publicly and to show hospitality to the guests.

The Groom's party
Photo courtesy of www.howtolivelikeanomaniprincess.blogspot.com
The women’s wedding party I attend is a “white” wedding, which is held in a hotel rather than in a home with the bride wearing a western-style white wedding gown. All this considered, it must be noted that there are many different local customs followed by various regions in Oman.    

I am very content sitting alone at the corner table observing the women happily greeting each other but a young woman dressed in an iridescent green head veil and matching gown is motioning for me to come to her table. I approach apprehensively.  With a brilliant smile, she gestures for me to sit with her group. The women at the table all motion a greeting – no one here speaks English – and anyway, conversation is impossible because of the outrageously loud music. They offer me water and nine very welcoming smiles. We are seated next to the mother-of-the-bride’s table – an honor I discover.

The still unemotional bride reaches the “love seat” that is artfully decorated and sitting on a raised dais at the front of the room. The photographer proceeds to position the bride in multiple poses snapping away. Some look rather awkward but I am sure the photographer knows what she is doing. The bride remains on the dais throughout the party; a impassive guest at her own wedding.

An Omani woman in traditional elaborate dress
Photo courtesy of
 www.howtolivelikeanomaniprincess.
blogspot.com
Throughout the evening I watch three ornately clothed imperious women dominate the flow of the night’s events and surmise them to be sisters or close relatives who are charged with running the evening.  You do not want to have a run-in with these three majordomo women.  

The women guests arrive in black abaya cloaks and hijab head coverings and are quickly escorted to the ballroom which is guarded by a female security person. No men are allowed past the curtains covering the entrance to the ballroom.

By the time I arrive the women have mostly shed their black coverings to reveal some rather dazzling outfits. These women are “dressed to the teeth” in a mix of blazing colors with a ton of bling-bling, crystal adornments and sparkles that are literally blinding.  
 
Bejeweled pants
Photo courtesy of 
www.howtolivelikeanomaniprincess.blogspot.com




The traditional dress is a calf-length, high-low hemmed, sleeved bejeweled tunic worn over long pants boldly encrusted from shin to ankle with more sparkles. A jeweled head scarf is worn more for adornment than as a head covering. Some veils drape down to the floor to form a short train. Very high heels are only topped by the BIG hairdos.  I also see jeweled kaftans and some western-style ball gowns worthy of the red carpet. Gold jewelry is everywhere. Noting the elaborate hairstyles and extravagant make-up, I conclude that in this area, hairdressers and make-up artists do a brisk business.

In sharp contrast to all the glitz in the room, some women, seated towards the rear of the room, are wearing plain black abayas and hijabs. I finally figure out that the most elaborately dressed women are members of the family.  

And what do I wear you ask? 

Bangladeshi tailors at the Ladies Tailoring
Shop in As Suwayq with my dress.
On my afternoon excursion to the local market in the small town of As Suwayq it came to me that I would need an appropriate dress should I get an invitation to the wedding party. Thanks to a couple of nice Bangladeshi tailors at the Ladies Tailoring shop I was properly outfitted in a beautifully embroidered red, turquoise, purple, silver and gold satin tunic with red pants. The only thing I missed out on was the veil – so sad!

My gracious hostess is rising from the table. Taking my hand, she leads me to the dance floor where about 20 women are dancing. So, “when in Rome,” I dance too. In fact, they do not let me leave the dance floor for quite some time. I am honored when the mother-of-the-bride comes to dance with me. And by dancing, we are talking uninhibited gyrating and twirling that would make my mother blush!

Luckily, the Arabic music has a discernible beat that makes dancing fun and we all have a great time. Oh yes, as part of the celebratory dancing, the women are still emitting the zaghareet, that high-pitched ululation, which I master after a few tries. I am having such a great time and I am also pleased to receive compliment after compliment on my flamboyant dress.

Young children are everywhere. Little girls dance and twirl making their ornate little gowns swish and sway as they mimic the women. Young boys (none older than 5 years), dressed in their miniature dishdashas and ammamas, are running everywhere with some delighting in torturing their Umma (mother) and Jaddah (grandmother) by sneaking up behind them tugging on their veils. 

Finally the food is ready and I am released from my “dirty dancing” performance. It is a traditional Arab buffet fare of rice and chicken heaped on a gigantic platters, samosas, Arabic flat bread, hummus, lots of sweets, fruit juices and water. Not an extensive menu but one laden with untold numbers of calories. Seeing the way these women are loading their plates I am tempted to express a word of caution but keep my thoughts to myself and delicately nibble.

Henna painting of the bride’s hands and arms is a
treasured tradition of the Omani wedding.
Photo courtesy of www.travel.nationalgeographic.com 
After we eat, my hostess, whose name I find out is Amaira, comes for me again and takes me up to the “love seat” to meet the bride. I offer my congratulations, – I do not think she speaks English - shake her henna painted hands and retreat back to the dance floor. I think I may be the entertainment for the night. More and more of the family members and guests come to dance with me. I am getting a little winded.

As I dance I sense a shifting vibration in the room. I am not certain what is happening. I see some of the women covering their hair with their veils and can feel a rising anticipation. On the dais, one of the “majordomo sisters” covers the bride’s face with a white jeweled hood. The bride stands motionless looking down at her bouquet.

Traditional Omani men's dress
photo courtesy of www.oman.de
The side doors open and the groom with 20 male family members of all ages enter to the applause and zaghareet of the women. The men are dressed in traditional Oman garb. The dishdasha, the traditional white robe, the ammama, a turban wrapped around the embroidered skull cap called the kumma, and a silver khanjar, the traditional Omani dagger, tucked into the belt.  More photos are taken and female family members go up to the dais to greet the young couple showering them with a rain of Omani riyals (currency). This delights the children who quickly scoop up the loot.

When the male entourage makes a quick exit, the groom remains and the bride’s hood is removed. More photos are taken with family members and at last, the married couple is ready to leave.

The bride has yet to smile.

The female family members gather around the couple and escort them out the door to applause and the eerie wailing shrieks of the zaghareet. I thank Amaira and the women at my table. Oh, but they are not done with me yet. Everyone wants their picture taken with me. I accommodate all requests handing out my email address in hopes someone will send me a copy but, to date, I haven’t received one.  

When I am finally released from the ballroom, I head for the hotel elevator. To my surprise, I find the bride and groom pressed against the back of the elevator by the entire entourage of female family members who have loaded on. The elevator is not cooperating and hotel maintenance is working on it. No one in the elevator dares to make a move to disembark. The bride is still expressionless while the groom reflects a tad of annoyance. Finally the elevator doors close and take the smiling - except one – passengers up to the wedding suite. 

I am not certain what all the women are going to but my wedding wish for the couple is that they finally find some peace and privacy and the bride discovers something to smile about.  

Postscripts . . .
Why wasn’t the bride smiling? . . .  The mystery of the unsmiling bride was settled by my Muslim friends Holly and Linda who explained it is quite normal for the Muslim bride to be expressionless as a sign of her sadness in leaving her family. A smiling Muslim bride would be in very bad taste. Ah, mystery solved!

Traditional Omani mantoos wedding chest
Photo courtesy of www.gatewayantiques.cu.uk
Muslim wedding ceremony . . . In Oman, the Muslim marriage is a sacred union with the contract signed by the father of the bride and the groom and witnessed by an Ormani judge or an Iman at a mosque. This ceremony is called the melkah.  The time between the melkah and the wedding party is like an engagement period with the bride living with her parents and the groom visiting her.  The man and woman only live together as husband and wife after the marriage is officially announced at the wedding party. The mahr – the dowry – paid by the groom is given to the bride in a mandoos – a wedding chest and remains her property to do with as she likes. The amount depends on the status of the bride’s family, the bride’s beauty, her ancestry and if she is a virgin. 

Want to learn more about Oman? . . .  in my research I found an outstanding blog "How to live Like a Omani Princess." It is very well written by three women in Oman and gives great insight to the customs and traditions of that country.

Millennium Resort Mussanah . . . The very gracious Millennium Resort in Mussanah was an absolute delight. The rooms were very spacious but it was the cordial staff and the amazing meals that made our stay so enjoyable. The property has a 54-berth marina and two swimming pools. When we went in August, they were in their soft opening so still to come are the gym, the health club spa and tennis courts. The web site boasts “Oman’s premiere PGA Championship Golf Course” but I did not see that. Roger and I give this hotel a BIG thumbs up and would go back in a minute.

Daymaniyat Island, Muscat Dive Trip . . .  Many thanks to Roger’s diving buddy Michael Cowan for sharing his beautiful underwater photos of the dive trip. 




33 comments:

  1. Nice article, however, the "Mahr' is dowry rather than "bride price".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the correction. Sometimes the Internet research just doesn't quite get it right. I have made the correction.

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    2. and to photograph them watching the sun setting from the same spot later in the evening. wedding photographers guide

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  2. OMGosh, what an incredible experience, Katie! Way to be there! Roger missed out. This is unforgettable!! Thank you so much for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I put on that dress for the wedding Roger just rolled his eyes. Better he wasn't on this experience!

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  3. What a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing it. Your explorative spirit always finds wonderful happenings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Arabian peninsula is full of wonderful things to do and see. Roger and I have such fun exploring. Stay tuned more to come!

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  4. Sounds like a fabulous time, you are so lucky to have been able to take part.

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    Replies
    1. So glad you enjoyed the story. It was a stroke of luck and the tradition Arab hospitality that made it happen. If you ever get an opportunity - take it!

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  5. MashaAlalh you are very brave. When I was a little girl living in an expat-mainly community I always wanted to be invited to an Omani wedding but was too shy to ask, lol, not knowing Omani women LOVE to share their weddings (with other women).

    Now, in days when a girl gets too many wedding invitations to go to them all (tribal culture and all that) I laugh at that little girl.

    Have you done to an Emirati wedding yet? They are almost identical.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed the wedding post. I an dying to go to an Emirati wedding but alas so far no invitation has come my way. Also want to go to an Indian wedding. Hear they are a blast too!

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