-The Arab world is vast and varied, encompassing different lands, religions, rituals, and traditions. But most Arabs are Muslims. And though Arab weddings have undergone significant changes—including the incorporation of several Western elements—over the past 100 years, what can be described as the “traditional Arab wedding” is perhaps most similar to present-day Bedouin or rural weddings. But despite the variations from country to country, region to region, and village to village, the most recurring wedding themes in the Arab tradition are: the marriage proposal; the engagement; henna night; the marriage contract and registration; the reception; and the honeymoon.
The Marriage Proposal
-Islam and Arab culture prohibit premarital sex and inter-gender socialization. Arranged marriages, then, still occur in the Arab world. And traditionally, it is the male’s family that will seek his bride when he is nubile. In modern Arab societies, it is not uncommon for a man to recommend a particular woman to his parents. And sometimes the man and woman know each other beforehand or may even privately agree to marry before their parents are invited to participate in the process. Whichever the case, the man’s family traditionally approaches the woman’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. The first meeting usually occurs at the woman’s house or at a public place and consists of the man, the woman, and their respective mothers. The man and woman, with their respective chaperones, sit separately—but within eyeshot of each other—during the first meeting.
If both families agree that the union is suitable, the bride’s family hosts a reception at their home, the purpose of which is for the groom to officially ask for the bride’s hand in marriage. Traditionally, the groom asks the bride’s father or the eldest male in her family for her hand in marriage. When the father/eldest male agrees, the families read the surat Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an. (The chapter’s seven verses are a prayer for Allah’s guidance). Depending on the region, a sherbet (made of fruit and/or flower petals) or coffee is then served.
-The engagement is typically done within the context of a party or dinner for the family. The betroths exchange rings, each placing a ring onto the index finger of the other’s right hand.
-The henna night occurs the night before the wedding. In traditional societies, the henna night provides an opportunity for both families to get to know each other before the wedding. The wedding venue is decorated, and last-minute preparations are made. The groom’s family dances through the streets (in a tradition called “sahij”) of the village until arriving at the bride’s home. And once there, both families mix the henna, which is used to decorate the hands of the bride and groom. (The traditional decoration for the groom’s hands is his initials and those of his bride-to-be. The bride’s henna decorations are more elaborate). After the groom presents the bride with her “mahr” (usually a gift of gold), the families dance and sing traditional songs.
Today’s henna night is more akin to a bachelorette party: The bride’s female relatives and friends join her in a party of food, music (played by female musicians), and dancing. The bride and her guests have their palms and feet decorated with henna by a female henna artist. The groom also has a party: The groom’s face is shaven by a close male friend or family member. And the groom’s male relatives and friends dance to traditional music before he visits the bride in order for both of them to receive their henna decorations. The groom then presents the mahr to the bride.
Whether the henna night is traditional or modern, the bride dresses in the “itthyab,” a traditional elaborately embroidered gown, while the groom wears a traditional thobe (also “thawb”) and headdress consisting of the “tagia,” “guthra” (also “gutra”) and “agal” (also “igal). (See “Business,” above).
-In some very conservative regions, where interaction between men and non-related women is prohibited, there is the “sahra,” an evening celebration where the groom and his male friends and relatives dance with each other—usually in a garden or in the street in front of the groom’s house. Women are not allowed to attend the sahra; they may view it remotely via simulcast or from a closed-off section of the garden. In über-conservative societies, the sahra is the only way males outside the family are allowed to participate in the wedding festivities.
The Marriage Contract and Registration
-The “katb el-kitab,” or marriage contract/registration, is the official marriage ceremony. The imam or sheik gives a short speech on how husbands and wives should honor each other. The legal documents are filled out, signed, and witnessed, marking the official marriage of the couple. The katb el-kitab is traditionally held in the home of the bride or groom, but it may also be held in a mosque, a courthouse, or at the wedding venue.
-The wedding reception begins with a “zaffe” (variably spelled “zaffeh,” “zaffa,” and “zaffah,” It is called “zapin” in Malaysia). The zaffe is a wedding procession comprised of musicians (especially drummers), dancers, wedding attendants, and the bride and groom. It boldly and with much din announces the wedding and is regarded as one of the most dramatic elements of the Arab wedding tradition. After the zaffe, the bride and groom take their seats upon a dais in front of their guests, as if presiding over the festivities in the capacities of king and queen. Traditionally, as soon as the bride and groom are seated, a sherbet is served, and guests drink to the health of the newlyweds. The bride and groom then switch their engagement rings from their right index fingers to their left index fingers, the engagement rings thus being transformed into wedding rings. And it is with the switching of the rings that the festivities officially begin. In modern societies, the bride and groom have a first dance, then guests join in, men and women dancing in separate areas of the reception hall.
In strict Muslim families, men—including husbands and blood relatives—may not dance with women or even observe women in immodest attire. In such families, only women and children enter the reception hall with the couple; male family members wait outside or in a separate reception room during the dancing portion of the reception. Even musicians must be female under such circumstances. And if the disc jockey is male, he must play his music from a secluded or remote room. The couple and their guests are then entertained, typically by belly dancers, singers, etc. (The cutting of the cake and the tossing of the bouquet are some of the Western elements that are increasingly becoming incorporated into Arab weddings). Thereafter, the bride and groom open the feast.
After the celebration, women cover their shoulders, and male guests are invited into the general reception room to congratulate the couple and present gifts. If any dancing ensues, the sexes dance separately. In some traditions, the bride and groom are lifted onto the shoulders of their male family members and danced about the room.
In rural weddings, after the zaffe, the festivities are held in a clearing under a large tent called a “sewan.” Western traditions such as the cutting of the cake and the tossing of the bouquet are not elements of the rural wedding. There is, however, entertainment, typically by singers and belly dancers. (Given the immodesty in dress and movement of traditional belly dancing, it clearly is an art form that predates Islam). In rural weddings, the bride and groom leave the reception early, their guests continuing on with the festivities.
-Most Arab brides today wear Western-influenced white wedding gowns. Typically, however, their arms are fully covered, even if by a form-fitting fabric; and their headdresses conceal their hair, even if a transparent veil complements the headdress. In the Levant regions of the Arab world, it is not uncommon for grooms to wear Western-style suits or tuxedos. Female guests in such regions typically wear evening gowns, but with complementary head coverings. En route to a wedding in a conservative Arab country, a female guest would cover her evening gown with an “abaya,” the traditional black over-garment worn by women in the public outdoors.
Non-Arab female guests would be wise to observe modesty when attending an Arab wedding—unless the wedding takes place in the Western world and the couple is decidedly liberal. A non-Arab gentleman should wear a dark suit with shirt and tie.
A non-Arab male attending a wedding in a conservative Arab country is not expected to wear a thobe and the headdress. Instead, he is expected to wear a business suit or a tuxedo (or his cultural or military equivalent thereof), depending on the degree of formality of the wedding. A non-Arab lady attending a wedding in a conservative Arab country is expected to dress as ladies in that culture would dress at a wedding in that culture: She should cover her hair, her back, her chest, and her extremities.
-The honeymoon is now a part of the Arab wedding ritual. Arab couples with financial wherewithal oftentimes travel abroad.
-[While most Arabs are Muslims and many Arab nations are Islamic states, there are also many Arabs in the Arab world and in other regions of the world who are not Muslims and/or are citizens of secular nations. And those non-Muslim Arabs and/or liberal Muslims also have their wedding traditions. It is therefore incumbent upon a gentleman attending an Arab wedding to become informed beforehand of the religious and cultural traditions of the marrying couple].