For Arabs, the next few months are the most sociable months of the year. As the harsh weather cools down, many are preparing for the ‘Mabrook, 3aqba lik‘ aka the Wedding season.
“What’s the wedding hashtag?” “Who’s your wedding planner?” these are just some of the questions you will hear endlessly.
But wait. In modern times, do giant hotel ballrooms, designer dresses and colossal flower decorations really cut it? I mean, we all live in a globalised society, with many diverse influences… however, wedding ceremonies in Arab countries are becoming increasingly similar to every other place in the world.
Want to separate yourself from the overwhelming beige-ness of Pinterest-inspired weddings, and delve into something a little more special? Why not look into some long lost Arab traditions – after all, the Middle East and North Africa are overflowing with them.
Weddings in North Africa used to last seven days until recently. All the family was involved in pastries and food preparations; the process today remains relatively the same, albeit shorter.
A visit to the Hammam (traditional bath) is still a must for the bride-to-be. With friends and family in tow, she uses a Kessa (traditional glove) with black soap to enjoy a full-scrubbing session. The following day will be the Henna ceremony, generally attended only by women.
Despite strong similarities, each country or region has its specific rituals.
In el Chamal (northern Morocco) in the region of Tetouan and Tangier—in addition to the henna night—brides are the centre of attention of the Bouja. During this ceremony, women are hidden in a palanquin box, in which the family will have put an old key and a piece of bread symbolising happiness. Men of the family, surrounded by a walking cortège, will transport the dissimulated bride to the doors of the nearest mosque, in front of which the Fatiha prayer will be read.
Very different traditions depending on the regions.
In the mountainous Kabyle region, prior to the wedding, the bride washes herself in a big pottery plate. Eggs representing fertility and stinging nettles (symbolising the awakening of a new life) are added to the water in which the woman showers.
In the old medieval capital of Tlemcen, during the wedding night, women of the family hide the bride in a white silk cloth called a Hayek. They draw red circles on each of the bride’s cheeks with white spots that are soon removed by the groom once he meets his future wife.
El Hout 3alik (the fish on you), in Tunisia, fish are traditionally used to ward off the evil eye. Accordingly, fishes are naturally used in wedding folklore in some regions.
In the northern city of Bizerte, as a symbol of good luck, the bride should knot a fish on her ankle and walk through the house during a full day.
In Sfax, the Tanguiz ala hout (jump over the fish) is one of the most anticipated parts of the wedding ceremony. The new couple needs to cross over the fish seven times to avoid any bad luck.
The majority of Libyan brides will tell you about the Tishniya, which literally means “the fact of making you ugly”. Despite its name, the ceremony is all about embellishing the bride-to-be (who should remain without make-up and wearing a traditional pink Libyan dress) while undergoing beauty treatments before D-day.
Brides need to be ready for laughs and some tears, as there’s a well-known tradition that pinching the bride on her wedding day brings good luck.
In Upper Egypt, before moving in, newly married couples used to take their furniture on a horseback or donkey parade to make their union (and their wealth) visible throughout the village.
Nowadays, it is still common for women to gift their husbands a set of silk pyjamas.
Sudan has a rich afro-Arab influenced history that’s especially visible in the Dukhan. Future brides are asked to be naked and then wrapped in a thin piece of fabric before standing on top of a hole filled with oud and bukhoor.
The old Bedouin traditions have become more and more diluted into lavish luxury receptions. Food has become more sophisticated, and traditional dresses are swapped with designer gowns.
In the Hejaz, the Ghomrah night (which is equivalent to the ‘henna night’ in other countries) remains very important to several families, especially in Madinah. On the wedding night, when the groom unveils the bride’s face, he places golden foils called Ghazya on her forehead and cheeks.
Al Zakarah happens on the first day on the wedding celebration. Several guests gather at the bride’s house with bands, ululations and drums. The mother of the bride prepares a shathab (a small lucky charm comprised of salt, verses of the Quran, needles and black cumin). The bride is invited to stay under a tent called an Al Mashara with coloured candles, eggs, flour and roses.
One week after the wedding, the bride’s mother invites family and friends to the Shekma party. Music and sweets are shared in the final wedding celebration party. Brides wear traditional dresses and silver jewellery adorned with fresh leaves.
Iraq is a real mosaic of religious and linguistic communities with different traditions. Some rituals are similar to Iranian customs, especially the Mez al Sayed (a decorated table during the religious ceremony). Several elements must be on the table: a Mirror, a Quran, almonds, walnuts, pomegranate, red apples, decorated eggs and rose water. In addition to this exhaustive list, you will find the Sinye-Aatel o baatel which is a tray of seven white food items that symbolise purity (usually sugar, flour, rice, cheese, cream, milk and yeast).
The bride is also instructed to keep some cardamom pods between her fingers and put her feet in a bowl of water with green leaves.
Levantine weddings—especially Lebanese weddings—are a competition of themes and more and more sophisticated destinations. Urbanisation and political issues that have lead to the movement of the population (Lebanon, Palestine and Syria) have really changed the traditional rural traditions.
Let’s focus on Syria where despite the harsh situation some traditions have remained. For example, there is no Damascene wedding without the Arada band and traditional troop performing sword dances.
A few decades ago, in some villages, the groom had to pass a test of courage before starting his new life with his spouse. He was asked to climb on the top of the traditional mud house and kick off a small chunk of the roof to prove that he was man enough.