Say Yes to the Dresses: Report from a Saudi Wedding

Consider the number of times you have told a child “No, you have to eat your dinner before you get dessert.” Consider the metaphor you would use to describe the number. Fleas on a dog? Sand in the ocean? The old “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said it, I’d be rich?” (Though come on. It takes a lot of nickels to get to, like $35.)

Dessert is a treat. Dessert comes last. You earn it by doing your duty first. Dessert is your reward for rigid adherence to discipline, for doing what’s good for you before what you want to do. It is a metaphor for maturity. Work first, then play. Homework, then video games. Workweek, then weekend. Grandma’s rat-nasty dry chicken, then pie. No complaining.

So perhaps the best way to blow your well-disciplined western mind open for everything else about a Saudi wedding is to tell you this:

Sweets first.

WHA?!??

Eat that, inner child. You know you always wanted to. So put on your party shoes and go for it. This is the norm for all Saudi entertaining, in fact. Guests are first offered tea and/or coffee and sweets–chocolates, dates, filled pastries or cookies. Don’t worry about spoiling your appetite for dinner. That won’t come for hours.

Saudis are night owls. Duh. Opening my front door at midday right now (August) is not too different from opening the oven door while roasting chicken. Despite the accoutrements of a Western lifestyle (air conditioning! a daytime workweek!), nighttime socializing has been going on here for thousands of years and isn’t changing anytime soon. Saudis don’t really start their evenings until sometime after 9:00, well after the last prayers for the day are over. We arrived a little before 10:00, and the last new arrivals didn’t come until around 11:00. The bride appeared at 1:00, and when I left at a little before 2:00, everyone was shocked. “But you haven’t had dinner!”

I’m good. It’s almost time for breakfast, anyway.

But let me back up to where the evening started. Maybe a good way to introduce it is with my best picture from the evening:

The inside of my purseThat’s the inside of my purse. Remember, in public Saudi women are completely covered in black, with scarves over their hair and drapes over their faces, so in a gathering without men, where the covers come off, cameras are as forbidden as men are. When I came in the door a woman collecting abayas kept her hand on my arm and said something a few times that sounded like “Obah.” My abaya? “Obah, Obah.” Then it clicked. Mobile! I was handed a claim number and my phone went into a great tray of them. I saw plenty of people inside who did have their phones, and I was the only non-Saudi guest, so who had to give them up versus who didn’t…I have no idea. But nobody betrayed the trust–no groups of girls laughing for the camera, no selfies, no fake-text stolen snaps.

Which is a shame. Because they looked great. I’d been prepared—shop windows at the malls are filled with gowns. Fabric stores here don’t even carry cotton—everything is sparkly or shiny or sheer or bright, with pinned and draped gowns in the windows. And of course, I’ve been to the Princess Souk, where the castoffs end up. (Check this post and this one to see what I’m talking about.) But as it turns out, shopping at the Princess Souk to get a sense for what kind of dress you’ll see at a Saudi wedding is a little like going through the dumpster behind a restaurant to figure out what eating inside would be like. I mean, yeah. It’s the same stuff. But you TOTALLY miss the context. At the souk, I see dresses that are gaudy, sheer, with plunging necklines, slits to here, and bizarre color combinations. Looking around the wedding hall, I thought well, this is a lot tamer than I expected. Then I gradually started to realize that there were a number of dresses walking around that would catch my attention at the souk, but…in the room, on actual women, they kinda worked. I mean, who am I to judge? I was wearing one:

A dress for the weddingSure, it’s a beaded bag. It’s a little less of one since I took the shoulders up, though. (Fitting beyond that was more time or effort than I wanted to invest.) Let me assure you it’s heavier than sin, but it was appropriate. Lesson learned: When shopping at the souk, don’t be so distracted by the gaudy that you fail to get a few things that are not ridiculous. For once, I was glad I had that one in my closet, at least, rather than this:

souk circus dressIn the West we tend to dress rather narrowly. You’ll see a fairly similar collection of dresses at a garden wedding, or a black-tie affair, or a cocktail party. At a Saudi wedding? Anything goes. Red carpet gowns, grande dame costumes, cocktail dresses, ballgowns. And colors? No prohibitions against wearing white, or black, for that matter. Or red, orange, emerald, gold. In floral prints, polka dots, damask, taffeta, satin, tulle, feathers, beads, sequins, and even a hoop skirt. The sheer chaos of it all made everything, suddenly, kinda great. I’m looking to up my game if there’s a the next time.

There’s a dual purpose to the dressing up, though. Saudi weddings also serve as the closest thing to singles bars, where mothers and sisters of single men ready to marry have their eyes out for prospective brides. Single women are conscious that you never know who’s watching, and are are anxious to look their best, dance their best, and get noticed.

Inside, the room was set up like this, courtesy of a few autoshapes and my not-to-scale design eye. In your head, add a bunch more tables and sofas:wedding hall diagramA center promenade (catwalk? runway?) was flanked by front-row sofas and led to a stage at the far end of the room. Behind the sofas, filling the rest of the room, were ordinary round banquet tables—tablecloths, flowers in the center, white-draped chairs. Here’s a fully decked-out (though fancier) room:

Food service went on through the evening, with servers (Filipina women who work for the reception hall and do this every blessed night) coming around the room in waves, offering trays to each table or group of women. Wave #1, chocolates. Wave #2, pretty pastel shaped candies, dates, mystery sweet things in little wrappers. Wave #3, finger pastries. Wave #4, savory canapes. Wave #5, back to the chocolates. (In my purse when I got home: a chocolate-covered oreo. Life is good.) Wave #6, fruity drinks (non-alcoholic—remember where we are). Arabic coffee, chamomile tea, and cups of water were at the tables. With as much confidence as I would have telling you to expect barbecue at a barbecue, I can 100% promise you that dinner would have been kabsa (meat on rice). But because I’m a middle-aged American who usually goes to bed about the time this party got started, I must confess I didn’t actually see it.

The only music expressly permitted in Islam is voice and drum. For this event, a male singer and drummer somewhere outside the hall were being piped in, while two women sat on a sofa on the stage, with microphones, singing backup. It turned out to be impossible to find something like it on YouTube, but if you strip out the strings, this gives you the flavor:

I am not, shall we say, fluent in the language of dance. I was a little worried about being called upon to make a fool of myself at an event like this, but to my eye, it looked like a lot of shuffle-ball-change and understated arm-shoulder moves. I was willing. Whether I pulled it off I’ll never know, but I was comfortable enough joining in.

Meanwhile, this is what was going on in the men’s celebration (cameras welcome there):

Finally, about 1:00, the singing stopped and the bride entered. Despite their devotion to tradition, Saudi women love Western fashion, and that extends to bridal fashion. Wedding dresses are full-on, TheKnot.com, top-of-the-cake affairs, right down to the bouquet. The bride walks v-e-r-y slowly down the center promenade, while a photographer and/or videographer captures every movement. At this point, I got a pointed reminder of the cultural divide I was attempting to bridge as women at my table casually picked up the hem of the tablecloth or held their handbags between themselves and the runway to eliminate any chance that their faces would appear in the pictures. I heard ululations, as tribal women have used to express celebration or grief for thousands of years. From women in ballgowns and hairspray, as the stage lights and video equipment backed between them.

It’s important to keep in mind that a “Saudi wedding” isn’t technically a wedding. The marriage itself has already happened, in front of an Islamic judge and witnesses, where the marriage contract was signed. In some events, the groom and his close male relatives will come into the hall to join the bride, to a great flurry of abaya-donning and tablecloth-tugging, for more photographs and to escort the bride out, but often will never be seen with the bride. In our event, the bride held court on the stage while guests came by, receiving-line style, to greet and congratulate her. At some (much) later point she would leave to meet him outside the hall. You know, after that dinner I didn’t stick around for.

Still, I haven’t willingly stayed up that late since…high school prom? And at nearly 2:00 I left more out of concern for the husband who was waiting for me than any weariness of my own. I was having a great time. But for me it was a novelty. The groom’s parents each come from families of 12 or 13. The smallest family in either of those branches now has 7 children. The groom has 225 cousins. This is not uncommon for a Saudi family, so events like these are going on constantly, week after week, year after year, always the same. Fancy dresses, sweets, dancing, bride promenade, dinner, home at 4:00 a.m. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Not attending is not an option. Ours was on a Sunday night, and let me assure you that I see crowds in front of reception centers (which are everywhere) every night of the week. Meshing traditional Saudi social obligations with business world work obligations has not worked out well yet in this country.

But my question is…can we mesh a few Saudi ideas into our business world working lives? Here’s what I want: I great, big, fabulous party for JUST THE GIRLS. Fancy dress. Sweets first. No-shame dancing. And okay, maybe a splash in your fruit drink, but no getting blasted, okay? Just women, being beautiful, having fun together, without any preening for the boys. I don’t like planning big parties, though, so work out the details and send me an invitation. As long as you stick to the weekend, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

10 thoughts on “Say Yes to the Dresses: Report from a Saudi Wedding

  1. Shereen Al-Ghamdi says:

    Great post! You’re lucky the bride came out at 1am, at some it’s more around 2! Too bad you didn’t stick around to at least view dinner. Most likely it *wasn’t* lamb and rice – at least not for the women. Nowadays young women don’t want the lamb and rice and instead offer up lavish buffets of a variety of dishes, mixing Arab foods and western favorites like lasagna. Plus more sweets of course! If your interested in trying out another let me know. We have one coming up in January. Since we (the groom’s family) are half Saudi/half American and the bride’s family is from Makkah it should be interesting, lol. It would at least be easier to cover since I could insure you some access to your phone 😉

    Like

  2. Destiny Nicole says:

    I am absolutely loving your blog. I haven’t stop reading since I found it. Your writing is so detailed, informative, and genuine. I recently met many Saudi men while vacationing in the Philippines and they were such a delight to spend time with . They were very respectful, family oriented, and endearing. I am traveling the world and currently living in China and considering my next living destination. I am completely fascinated by the culture and rituals in KSA and I am really enjoying reading your blog.

    Like

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