It was the first day of Emira’s wedding, and the single women of the village were piling into the backs of all the beat-up old trucks the village could muster. The girls numbered a hundred perhaps, accompanied by the older matriarchs of the bride’s family. The younger women all sported their long hair with which they in turn would attract a husband, given the sensuality which Arab culture attributes to long, flowing hair. At this stage of their lives, they were not permitted to adorn themselves: hair, makeup, or otherwise. Their beauty would be demonstrated by their movements.
The wedding week was beginning with a trip to the hammam, or Turkish bath. The object is not just cleanliness. This festive event is both a time for the new bride, soon to become a woman, to celebrate her last few days of youth with her friends, and a ritual cleansing, providing a base from which the new bride would emerge. Sealing off the hammam to outside patrons for an afternoon, the bride-to-be and her entourage spent the afternoon relaxing in the hot, steamy rooms of the bath. During this respite from life’s daily pressures, the women took the opportunity to dance to the rhythms of the darbuka, or clay-and-goatskin drum, which had been brought along. It was a dance of celebration and fun, and playful competition between friends, and a chance to warm-up before the big event. Most of all, closed inside the heavy walls of the hammam, it was an opportunity for abandonment. The hammam was a long process, for it is meant to be savored.
The hammam was a heavy stone structure, like most of the buildings dating back generations in North Africa, the walls made of stucco of an enormous thickness. Inside were different chambers, each a different temperature. Despite the English translation of “bath,” the hammam contains no bathtubs, only steam rooms with stone ledges to sit and stretch out, and taps to retrieve water of various temperatures. After thoroughly steaming one’s self, the “wash lady,” or masseuse, who had been doing this for generations, scrubbed each woman individually.
Interspersed with repeated washings and rinsings, the afternoon was spent catching up with friends. In traditional villages such as this one, just “going to see” so-and-so is not an acceptable behavior. The only chance for the girls of the village to visit is at school and at special occasions, which are rather frequent in Arab society. All of life’s celebrations — engagements, weddings, births, circumcisions, funerals — are complex social situations. Reemerging from the hammam, the hosts fed their guests a lavish meal, consistent with the traditions of Islam.
Sometime during the wedding week, the couple’s family, whether bride or groom, traditionally invites the village to dine. This meal is a huge undertaking, bringing together the older women of the village, and all of the women and girls of the wedding party’s family. A sheep or a bull is slaughtered the night before, and then drained and butchered overnight. At sunrise, the women begin to prepare couscous, the staple of Tunisia, in enormous vats. I cannot stress enough how large these vats are, evoking images of Macbeth. They were obviously a significant capital investment required for the rites of passage which pervade Arab culture. The respective families, like the other families in the village, would have started a year ago preparing the food to be used during this week. Couscous would have been sifted and resifted, then let to dry in the heat of the sun on the cement courtyards in the summer. In the same way, red peppers would have been dried, spices ground and mixed, and olive oil from the surrounding fields would have been harvested and pressed. On the day of the feast, with the collective wisdom of the village grandmothers enough cous-cous was prepared for perhaps 500 people. The married women set places, bringing a plate for each guest, and cleared and reset each place as guests came and went during the day. A constant flow of people came in, took their turn at the large tables, shared in the local news, said “no” to the polite invocations of their hosts to take more food, and left, making room for the next wave of guests.
The evening immediately prior to the wedding was the henna. In the sanctity of the courtyard, behind the gates to the street, Emira, now adorned with henna on her hands and feet, makeup for the first time, and her skin smooth from its first depilation, displayed her new beauty for the first time. Joining her were the young women, as well as the married women and the matriarchs of the village. The women — all the women — danced to the female band. No men, not even family, entered within. This was a night of abandonment and frenzy. Emira emerged three times, each time in a different outfit: the first of gold, the second of silver, and the third the white wedding dress as we know it. The first two times she was led out blinded by drapes of gold and then silver. As she stood for all to see, turning slowly to the beat of the drum, she held out her long hair in her hennaed hands in such a way that her new henna was displayed for all the women. All others ceased to dance as she swayed before them, the dancing resuming as she was led back out to change. The final time, she emerged without a blind, and took her place among her friends and family to enjoy the celebration.
The party went on until past midnight, while the men of the village were having their own party separately in the village common. The groom had not shaven or groomed himself for some weeks. They brought in a woman dancer, who teased the groom and the other men of the village. On the eve of his wedding, he need not fear his actions — in fact, he was encouraged to get up and dance and to react to the dancer. The frenzy did not die until the wee hours of the morning. Tomorrow the final part of the wedding celebration was to take place.
Morning came early. It seemed like only a few hours had passed since the frenzy of the henna party the night before, time enough for a catnap. The henna party had ended only a few hours before. Khalti Fatima got up at the crack of dawn, performed her ablutions and said her prayers before the rising sun, then prepared a tray for her daughter Emira. Breakfast was a small china cup of Turkish coffee, sweet and brutal to the palate, some khubs tabouna, pita-like bread cooked in the earthen oven the day before, and some sweet butter, jam, and fresh figs from the tree in the backyard.
These were to be Emira’s last few moments to relax before being wisked off to the hairdresser, where her hair was cut and styled, and her face fully made up. Meanwhile, the senior women in the family congregated in the groom’s house to prepare the couple’s new residence for their first night. A grand procession from the bride’s house to the groom’s house had occurred the week before to deliver the furnishings and the bride’s trousseau. The clothes, perfumes, household effects — everything that a bride needed to run a house, entertain guests, and nurture her sexuality — had been provided in installments as gifts from the groom over the course of their engagement. Today the house was open to the village to visit and tour and marvel at the couple’s new home.
The bedroom received special attention. Voluptuous would describe the decor: satin bedsheets, quilts, and pillows dominating the room, heavy curtains draped over the windows and walls (necessary in the cold, Mediterranean winter), bottles of perfumes crowding the dresser. The house filled with people, men in the lviing room playing cards, and women everywhere else, a few people always in the kitchen escaping the crowd around them. A meal was left for the couple to enjoy on their wedding night, after the hordes departed.
Emira’s family spent the day at the family compound, preparing the courtyard for the crowd which would congregate after dark to receive and celebrate for the wedding couple. A wooden platform had been erected, upon which the couple would sit and be presented to the community. The wall behind their seats were draped with carpets handed down through the family for generations, and palm branches. (The urban middle class prefers to rent theatres with special props and couches for this event. However, where families have large dar arabi, the traditional homes built around an inner courtyard, these homes have functioned for generations as the social center of family activity.)
While Emira spent the day at the hairdresser with her close friends and sisters, her husband-to-be and his entourage spent the day having their turn at the hammam. Dressed in a full, two-piece gold dress, Emira was finally delivered to the family home where the celebration was to take place shortly after sunset, without the groom. In the early hours of the evening, Emira’s close friends gathered to be with her, and as the evening wore on, the courtyard became packed with the women of the village. This was an affair at which women would don their finest wardrobe, and the family of the couple would be seen sporting new coiffes and gowns. Men were present, drifting in and out of the back, so only the unmarried young women of the family danced. A Bedouin woman in takhlilla, the traditional Tunisian dress, sat along a side wall selling sunflower seeds to the guests.
There is no formal ceremony in Muslim weddings, no exchange of vows, only acknowledgement of the community that the couple now has conjugal relations. The wedding contract, or sadq, may be signed at any time between the betrothal and the wedding, often earlier, rather than later. At that point, the couple is considered to be married.
Like the henna the night before, this evening reached a frenzy, or rather, several levels of frenzy. The first guests had begun to arrive when the groom and his entourage came to join with the bride and her entourage. The groom did not merely arrive, he was paraded across the village from his home by the company of drums and his male companions, who carried behind the groom a grand bouquet of flowers to present to the bride. The excitement within the courtyard swelled to a crescendo as the sound of drums reached inside the walls of the compound. The band inside ceased playing, while the crowd congregated inside the courtyard turned their attention to the door to the outside. The village was engulfed by the long, shrill zaghareet, or wail, of the women within and outside of the compound. The zaghareet went on for five minutes, as the older women danced in front of, in and around the procession waving clay pots of burning incense. The crowd closed in on the procession as it entered within the walls of the compound, and the music and dancing resumed. Any men in the procession remained behind at the back.
The event was once again a predominantly female event, although the senior men of the family went forward to be with the new couple on their dias, or sometimes to dance with their daughters. I still have this vision of old men in their grey galabiyyas (the long cotton dress which is the traditional garb of Arab men), black shoes, and fez dancing in their own abandonment, never with any particular woman, celebrating the joy of knowing their children had attained the happiness of marriage. And the young women without future husbands never lost track of the men in their peripheral field of vision, while the young men gazed from the back of the courtyard at the young women dancing.
Young boys wove through the rows of women packing the courtyard, carrying cases of sodas which they distributed to the guests, followed by pastries. A photographer took pictures, poses of the couple with various combinations of family and close friends (translated cousins) by their sides, as the couple received the individual greetings of well-wishers. At this point in the evening, those who were not close to the couple began drifting out, while the frenzy of the evening continued to build.
In the wee hours of the morning it was decided (by whom, I never knew) that it was time for the couple to consummate their marriage. By this time, only the close family and friends of the couple remained — it was an invitation only event. The procession then moved with all of its frenzy to the streets of the village where it wound its way to the couple’s new house. (In the villages at least, a man was expected to provide a new house with the marriage.)
At this point, the zaghareet reached a crescendo, as the couple entered into their new home and the door to the outside world was shut behind them. The zaghereet continued on and on, as every one in the small party gathered in the front courtyard danced about in wild abandonment. Conversation had long since been abandoned. The atmosphere had reached a mystical level of excitement unknown in western culture. The dancing, the excitement, the frenzy, the zaghareet continued unabated until the blood-stained sheet was passed out the door into the night, proof of the bride’s new womanhood. Those remaining slipped out of sight in the darkness to their homes and their beds.
The next afternoon the bride again joined the women of the village for the sbah, our equivalent of a wedding shower. Here she welcomed her female friends and family as a woman, and received their gifts. In seven days, she again joined her close friends and family to model her new wardrobe of day wear and evening wear appropriate for her new status. From now until the end of this summer’s wedding season, she would be given special status and a front-row seat at all weddings as laroussa jdidda, the new bride. She would model her new wardrobe and her beauty as a new bride at each event. Today, however, she shared the secrets of her womanhood with her sisters, her mother, and aunts over tea. But at the end of the day, she would depart as her husband’s wife.
First printed in the W.A.M.E.D.A. Newsletter.
Hanan spent countless evenings attending weddings as part of her Peace Corps experience in Tunisia. Because weddings are such important occasions in Tunisia and only take place in summer, Hanan sometimes attended two back-to-back, celebrating with her Tunisian friends and neighbors until the wee hours of the morning. www.hanandances.com