By Ghassan Manasra | 22/10/2009
"We came to ask for your daughter's hand on behalf of our son, and we hope that our request will be granted."
At the appointed date, the young man's family, with him in attendance, arrives at the home of the young woman's parents, accompanied by a group of distinguished men. The host family serves bitter Turkish coffee – qahawe sada. The guests place the coffee cups on the table without drinking, and then the master of the house, or the most esteemed person in the host family, invites them to drink. The most distinguished guest present – the imam or the mukhtar or another individual of stature, says: "We shall not drink until you grant us our request."
"Today is Monday," said Amina to herself, on a Monday morning in July, as she yawned, stretched, and began to rise for the morning prayer that she was to have performed at four-thirty a.m.. This morning she must to prepare for her trip to Nazareth to make purchases for her daughter Yusra's wedding. She must also fix breakfast for herself, her daughter, and for the women and men who would be accompanying her to Nazareth, and to ready the donkeys and the horse for the journey – three hours in each direction – from Indur to Nazareth and back. But suddenly [why not: "But as she began her preparations"… suddenly is too… sudden!] she paused, remembering how it all began, and recalling the day when her in-laws came to request Yusra's hand.
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After successful completion of the mission of the intermediary – a woman who visits almost every home to find out who has daughters of marriageable age and who informs the women who have sons to marry off about the girls she knows – and after the men give their consent, the turn of the women arrives. The women set out on a visit to the family whose daughter was recommended by the intermediary, and are received there with due honor: refreshments are served, and conversation ensues on this and that, all assuming a feigned ignorance as to the matter at hand. And then the coffee is prepared. Traditionally, the topic is broached by the most senior woman present or by a woman with a rhetorical gift. Sometimes it is the mother of the young man who wishes to marry, and sometimes it is his sister or aunt. At this stage, the hosts remove the children and the young women from the room, and the women from the young man's family open by saying that they have heard of the young woman who has reached the age of marriage and have come to ask for her hand. Then the girl's mother says: "I will speak with the girl's father and we shall see what he says" (in most cases the father already knows, but the practice is maintained for formality's sake), and promises to return with an answer within a week or two. Sometimes, everything is agreed upon in advance, but the traditional rules of the game are still observed. Not so long ago, before there were telephones, the young man's family would send a messenger to the girl's family, and in the event that her family agreed, she would invite the young man's family over.
At the appointed date, the young man's family, with him in attendance, arrives at the home of the young woman's parents, accompanied by a group of distinguished men. The extravagance of the refreshments and their quality are testimony to the honor that the young woman's family are bestowing on these people who have come to request her hand. The host family serves a bitter Turkish coffee – qahawe sada. The guests place the coffee cups on the table without drinking, and then the master-of-the-house or the most esteemed person in the host family invites them to drink, while the most distinguished guest present – the imam or the mukhtar or another individual of stature, says: "We shall not drink until you grant us our request." The host says to them: "With Allah's help, we will be able to grant your request; state it." Then the guests' representative says: This entire distinguished party has come to ask the hand of your daughter for our son, and we hope that you will accede to our request." The spokesperson for the hosts rises and declares: "Drink your coffee. We shall grant your request. After drinking the coffee, sweets are served, and from that moment, the direct relationship between the families begins.
First, a date for the engagement ceremony is set. The length of the engagement period depends upon a decision by both families, but it is customary already on the day of the engagement or on the following day to draw up a kitab, a written statement declaring that the engaged couple is now married (on paper only), so that the young man can formally visit the house of his fiancיe and become a part of the household. During the ceremony, the young man places the engagement ring on the forefinger [on a finger? Not clear it 'etzba' is general or particular] of the bride's right hand and gives her the gift of a necklace or bracelet. A new practice, no more than thirty years old, is to bring an engagement cake, which the couple cuts together. Afterwards, the engaged couple begins dancing together among the gathering of women. Today, in most families, the men dance with the women, with the exception of religious families that forbid mixed dancing. During this period, the young man heaps presents upon his fiancיe and her family, particularly his mother-in-law, and today, it is also the practice to begin buying items for the shared household: electrical appliances, home accessories, and furniture.
As the wedding date approaches (most weddings take place during the summer), a month or two before, the bridegroom begins buying the jihaz – the wedding accessories – for the bride: clothing, perfumes, jewelry and gold, and dresses for his close female relatives. The most important purchase prior to the wedding ceremony is the white bridal gown, as well as large candles. During this same period, invitations are printed and distributed to guests who are not relatives, since this is more respectable. Then the time arrives for additional preparations, such as purchasing sheep… and then the t‘alilah begins – seven days of celebrations (a custom preserved until some fifty years ago in all Arab communities in Israel, but today observed only in some villages), during which the young man and all of his friends sing, dance and celebrate from sundown till late into the night. A few days before the wedding, the women from his family bring the bride her dress in a very beautiful ceremony full of song. They lay the dress on a large tray and decorate it with flowers and perfumes. This is also the time for the henna ceremony, during which members of the bride's family decorate her hands and feet with henna. According to the tradition, it brings good luck to the young couple. A day before the henna ceremony, the young man takes his bride-to-be on an outing during which a photographer takes their portraits in a pleasant setting. The evening before the wedding is "candle night" – leilat a-sham‘a – when the bride dons her wedding dress and dances through the night with girlfriends and female relatives holding candles. The young couple each separately usually also hold a "night of adornment" –leilat a-ziyana – where the friends of the young man dance with him and arrange for a barber to come and give him a professional haircut and shave; the bride is treated to a parallel grooming session. That same night, some of the men in the family bring the sheep to a point near the house, so that they will be ready in the morning.
The Wedding Day
On the morning of the wedding, the two families rise for the morning prayers around four o'clock, and the preparations begin. The men bring the sheep to slaughter; the more prominent the bride's father in his city or village, or the more affluent, the greater the number of sheep. The women prepare rice and yogurt, and set up a food-preparation station. Not so long ago – I remember it well – the women used to bring large stones and place them in a circle. Within the circle they would place kindling and build a fire. Afterwards, they would bring large pots and place them on the flames, and begin cooking the meet and the rice. Everything had to be ready by noon, in order to feed the guests in a timely fashion. Today, however, it is rare to find women who cook the tasty food of yore, and it is now customary to hire a chef. The groom's entire family is busy with preparing the food and setting up the site, while at the home of the bride's family all are occupied with food preparation for relatives and other guests. During the morning hours, the bride goes to a beauty parlor accompanied by friends or relatives, where she dons the white dress.
At about midday, food is served to the invitees at the groom's house, and after partaking of the feast, they present the groom or his father with a gift, a sum of money known as a-nuqut, and the groom's family sends the bride's family a tray laden with rice and meat, pine-nuts and almonds. After the meal, sweets and fruit are served with a cup of bitter coffee, because bitter coffee is good for the stomach.
Upon completion of the feast, the groom is taken to a friend or family member's home to be bathed (hammam al-‘aris). At this point, the men accompany the groom, who is still wearing his ordinary clothes: they split into two rows from both sides of the street, and in the center stands a folk singer who sings a dizzying a cappella folk melody, and the men respond every few lines and clap their hands. The women proceed behind the men, carrying his suit on their heads and singing and dancing, until all reach the house where the groom is to be bathed. Next, the groom's friends dress and perfume him. He makes his way back through the crowd of women, who sing and dance around him. In the villages, it is sometimes customary to invite the groom to shower at a location far from his home, and then the procession winds its way throughout almost the entire village. When it reaches the village square, the singer sings and the men circle around him and join him in song. Afterwards, the groom's father and the distinguished men of the village (or city) set out to bring the bride. Sometimes, the groom comes along as well. The bride's family serves refreshments to the guests, and then a representative from the groom's family asks the bride's family for permission to take her to her new home. Her mother or sisters and some of her friends ride with her in the car, which has been decorated with flowers. Sometimes the car windows have also been decorated with the initials of the bride and groom. According to custom, the bride's brothers also accompany her to her new home.
Together with others in tow, they travel, caravan style, behind the bride's car. As they draw near the house of the groom's parents, all of the cars begin honking, so that the residents of the neighborhood and the groom's family know that the new bride has arrived, and they prepare themselves for her arrival. Sometimes, the bride's brothers accompany her to the house, and sometimes the groom himself sets out to meet her, and after he lifts the veil from her face, they both enter the house, a custom that testifies to respect for the parents and to the fact that the groom is still a bachelor. It is only after the joint party that the couple is permitted to move into their own home. Before the groom and his bride enter the house, an elderly woman greets them, bearing a jar decorated with flowers and filled with water, and she allows the groom to drink first, followed by the bride. This symbolizes that they have both drunk from the same source, and will continue to do so for all of their shared life together. Upon arriving at the gate of the house, the bride is handed some dough prepared by an elderly woman with many children (she may not be a widow), and the bride sticks the batter, with green leaves placed in it, on the wall at the entrance of the house: this signifies that she is adhering herself to this home, and remaining therein.
Waiting for the couple at the entrance is the groom's father, who places his right hand on the groom's head and his left hand upon the bride's, and reads a prayer out loud. Afterwards, he kisses them both and allows them to enter. In the living room, or in the corridor, is a stage built for the couple to sit upon. The women crowd around the stage, and when the couple assumes its place, an elderly woman comes and taps their heads three times, to symbolize that they shall live together in happiness and anger, in good times and bad. The three taps also represent the beginning, middle and end of their lives together. The couple is given something to drink, and afterwards, they stand and switch their rings from their right to their left hands, and then they dance together with relatives and neighbors. The groom leaves the women and goes outside to the men. The friends and family members rise to encircle him, and begin singing and dancing, and sometimes bear him on their shoulders. Then the groom re-enters the house and the couple is photographed with the family, after which the young man receives permission from his father to take leave, with his wife, and to set out for their new home. The young couple enters the house and closes the door behind them, on which hangs a sign: "We promise to live in happiness for the duration of our shared life together."
Leilat a-ziyana – "the night of adornment," and leilat a-sham‘a – "the night of candles," have survived the march of time– "the night of adornment," and leilat a-sham‘a – "the night of candles," have survived the march of time
Over the years, many elements of the traditional Arab-Moslem wedding have changed. This process can be discerned in the villages and the cities alike, although in the cities it is more pronounced. Among the changes:
Until some twenty years ago, it was the practice to hold the wedding in the neighborhood or in the village; the wedding celebration would begin in the afternoon and end in the evening. Today the main wedding celebration is held in the evening, at a festivities hall.
Also retired is the tradition of scheduling the wedding on a Thursday, as a blessed day that basks in the holiness of Friday. In most places, the ta‘lilah, the seven days of festivities prior to the wedding, is also not observed in the traditional manner. All that remains of this week is leilat a-ziyana – "the night of adornment," and leilat a-sham‘a – "the night of candles," on which the bride dances with her friends. The custom of the ta‘lilah has been preserved in its entirety only among a few families in Nazareth and certain villages.
There are also traditions that have entirely passed from the world of the Arab population in Israel. For example, it was the practice that when the groom's family went to bring the bride from her parents' home, upon their return a few strong young men would block their path and request a sum of money from the groom or his father, as a kind of ransom. After receiving the money, the convoy was allowed to continue, and the money was given to the bride.
An additional custom of which no trace remains today is a visit by the groom's close family and friends on the morning after the wedding to the home of the young couple. During this visit, the groom's associates would bring breakfast and sweets; the purpose of the visit was to inquire after the wellbeing of the young newlyweds.
Ghassan Manasra is an author and journalist.
Translated by Gessica Bon