It is 1:30 in the morning and we have just returned from an evening as memorable as I have ever had. We were the guests of the PR man (expediter) who serves our office. I in fact have never even met this man as he hasn't been around since I arrived, but he extended an invitation to join with Melissa, May (Hicham's wife) and one of her two daughters, Eman at the women's party. The men had gone to the men's party the night before. The party was in the grand ballroom of the Beach Rotana Hotel in the Tourist Club area, near Abu Dhabi mall. As soon as we went through the outer doors our world changed. ....(to be continued...dozing off)
The men and women celebrate separately as this is a Muslim country and the two do not mix freely. At the women's party there are no men around (with an exception for a short period of time that I will get to later). Not even the photographers. All the wait staff are women. There were men in the live band that provided lively Arabic music throughout but they were in some other room or behind a screen and never saw or were seen. While there was a photographer the world at large will never see the pictures. The ladies were out from under the veil. For the formal photos with the bride the women put on their veils. Melissa and I had schemed about how I could maybe capture a few photos with my iPhone pretending to take a call. But to be there, to be so very privileged to participate in this mystical ritual was such an honor. I would never break the rules and show you these women from behind the veil. We did not take any pictures. You will have to try to imagine from my descriptions. And as hard as you imagine you will only be able to "see" just a glimpse as this was far beyond anything I could adequately describe.
As we arrived in our cab at the Beach Rotana hotel we were directed through a separate entrance into the grand ballroom complex. In the lobby before the outer room May removed her head covering. Eman took off her black long sleeved covering. Around us women began removing their Abaylas and head coverings. Revealed to us were the most gorgeous women you can imagine. Long dresses that you could not believe. Bright gorgeous colors, toile ruffles, flowing long behind in the back. Most of the young girls had gorgeous figures, waists smaller than I have ever seen complimented curvaceously on top. We laughed as we saw many had their cell phones tucked into their cleavage. Each dress was over the top, uniquely decorated and adorned. Their long black hair elegantly piled high on top or cascading down their back. Their faces were elaborately made up which only exaggerated their own natural beauty. And each wearing a big bright welcoming smile. They looked free and happy to be together and allowed to be themselves.
As we approached the ballroom a gauntlet of these beauties greeted us. Watching the woman in front of me for clues I bent forward and cheek pecked alternating sides these girls who welcomed me as if we were long lost relatives. We entered the ballroom and there were at least 30 tables seating 10 each on either side of the center aisle. We were escorted through the room to the very front where we were seated at a long table facing the elevated stage and runway as if we were some special honored dignitaries. Melissa and I were sure they had made a mistake and worried whether we should get too comfortable as they would surely come and move us out of the way when the real honored guests arrived. But we got to stay. May told us later that the rest of the tables were seated by family and we were placed at the "unattached" table which was great because we got to see upfront and personal all the goings on.
I sat at the end closest to the end of the runway which was a little of a challenge as I was the first one the servers approached and had to stumble through sometimes to figure out what I was supposed to do. From my seat it was entertaining to see the young women unabashedly step up on the stage and dance freely with each other to the rhythmic entrancing Arabic music playing through the room. From time to time the trill of the celebratory pigeon call was shrieked out from the crowd. (My sister will remember the first Muslim wedding we attended in Sudan, also the women's night, when this call split the air). Most of the women had elaborately designed henna tattoos running from their finger tips partially or all the way up their arms. So intricate: it must have taken hours to get those on. The jewels were blinding. Tiaras and necklaces glistening through the night. Throughout the evening the groom's relatives came by one at a time to welcome us. One of his cousins, a stunning young woman who had just flown in from London for the party, even asked us if we wanted to dance. Melissa and I joined her on the floor (refusing the stage invite) and other women gathered around us as we awkwardly wiggled our bodies trying to at least follow a beat. We were woefully unpracticed! But they were gracious just the same and I think it made everyone a little more comfortable that we would join in instead of just watch. Melissa and I were the only blonds in this room of over 300 women. These women, who often leave me feeling intimidated by their veiled secrecy and air of elegance, made us feel at home and part of a bigger sisterhood of women enjoying the freedom to be ourselves with no men around to inhibit us.
As we were seated I was approached by the first pourer offering a gold carafe of Turkish coffee poured into a little gold goblet from the tray carried by her assistant behind. This was the first of at least seven (we lost count after five) different kinds of hot beverages offered throughout the night. Each one a different and mysterious flavor. There was a cardamom infused milk, a ginger steeped tea, a thick creamy milk with fine/small caviar sized tapioca floating in it, another mysteriously spiced tea, another equally mysterious coffee. All but one were sweet and delicious.
Running down the table were small dishes of various kinds: fatoosh, pickled eggplant, something like potato salad, others I didn't even see. Immediately plates were placed before us and a procession of servers spooned onto our plates hummus, followed by tabbouleh and a few pieces of hot flat bread. Another small plate was places to the side and a large dollop of something sticky made of dates (I think) and walnuts was plopped onto it. Each of these things was delicious and it was hard not to just scarf it down. But we had been warned about how much food we would get throughout the evening and so we tried to pace ourselves. Then two women came by hoisting a pallet probably 2'x3' loaded with sweet tidbits in wrappers. There were stuffed dates, baklava, garbanzo flour cookies, and other things that had been attached to this pallet in a decorative pattern. I was the first diving into these things: the first to disturb the artistic pattern. It took some restraint not to take one of each as I wanted to taste them all! At least three more times through the evening a new pallet of more and even different sweets was brought by the table. If one of the groom's relatives was standing by she'd come over and make a suggestion about what to try. One grabbed off a treat wrapped in channel patterned foil insisting we try one of these "very good" she said. And it was. Bowls of kibbie (spiced ground meat shaped into tiny footballs) and cheese tarts were delivered.
After a few hours our plates were cleared and replaced by a bigger clean one. Silverware was replenished and then several dishes were brought out and placed on the table. There was spicy chicken on grain of some sort, an okra stew, rice pilaf, kebab, lasagna (!) and tortellini in a creamy sauce (??) and..and..and. I just can't remember it all.
That was followed by the dessert courses: trays of brownies, baklava, flan, fruit in syrup. We didn't know a second dessert course was coming: a tray of two bite petit fours, cheese cakes and other small cakes. And if that wasn't enough, then a small pot of a warm creamy coconut pudding with raisins was delivered at each place.
Sometime when all this was going on, a large chest of smoking incense was brought by our table. Instinctively I knew to take my hands and waft it to my face. The incense was brought around to every woman to self anoint. Then the elaborate containers of pure oil essence deliciously scented was brought. The first time the server took the rod out of the container and stroked it across my wrist. The next few times it came by I knew what to do and helped myself. May told us it was pure oil and not perfume as perfume usually has alcohol in it and alcohol is forbidden in Muslim culture.
The girls dancing never stopped. They were so happy and uninhibited. There were all generations of women there. At each family table I observed at least one, sometimes many more older women who did not take off their abaylas. There were pre-teens gazing longingly at the girls just a little older, dreaming of the day when they would be up there dancing. There were very little ones who seemed to not be too closely watched, often climbing up the stairs, tripping up the ladies as they stepped on the long flowing dress trains. All women of all ages not in Abayla were dressed to the nines. Some of the youngest ones, ones that were old enough to sit still at all, were heavily made up and henna tattooed. Obviously a real right of passage. There were also some little boys there. They are allowed up to age six and then they are separated from the unveiled women looking forward to the day when they will have their own wife to unveil.
About an hour into the ceremony there was great commotion and a beautiful girl in a tiered silver/grey gown was escorted down the aisle and up the length of the runway to the gold shimmering settee staged at the end. Pictures were taken. At our table we all commented on how beautiful Abdoulah's bride was (we had never seen her before). She was eventually seated with her entourage at the table opposite. I watched her with amusement as she sat with her friends, elegantly glowing. So we were quite surprised when a while later there was again great commotion and anticipation. This time the real bride made her way down the aisle. (We never did figure out who the lady we thought was the bride was). The real bride was in a white gown with a huge skirt and train that had to constantly be adjusted to allow her to walk without tripping. It took quite a while for her to make it through the room. There were Swarovsky crystals sewn throughout the dress. A diamond tiara and necklace that was blinding. May estimated the dress alone as costing well over $100,000. The bride smiled self consciously, looking just slightly terrified. She was definitely not as free as the other women at the party. From the time she came down to the time we eventually left the party she never came down from the stage. She was posed for pictures, first alone, for a very long time. Then with family and friends.
One of the bride's attendants, the only young lady we saw that had a shorter haircut and looked very westernized, came with a red velvet sack with gifts the bride had asked be delivered to us. She didn't even flinch as Melissa said "just like Santa" and I said "yes like Christmas" as these were very insensitive things to say at a Muslim celebration. Gracious of her. She delivered to each of us a different kind of eau d' toilette in a gold ribbon tied bottle. Mine is called "Famous" according to the label.
As the dessert was coming out there was a distinct change in the room. The women all began gathering their abaylas and head coverings. May translated an announcement over the speaker that a scarf had gone missing and please help to find it so that the last woman could be covered up and the groom could be presented. (Melissa and I did not cover up. We had been advised that we were not expected to. We did not get any bad looks for that. I think these women were confident enough in their own beauty not to be threatened by these comparatively plain looking visitors!). The music turned into this special call out to the groom. May translated the musical narrative. All about Abdoulah finding his bride. Then he appeared, his usual white dish dash covered by a ceremonial black panel with gold embroidery. He was accompanied by his father and grandfather on either side. Both the bride and the groom were very stoic, showing no outward emotion to seeing their gorgeous spouse appear before them. Abdoulah was taken up the stage and placed next to his bride. parents joined on each side. There were no vows or spoken parts. We learned that they were legally married up to two weeks ago as documentation was officially signed. But they are not officially wed until after the parties. The wedding is consummated after all this has occurred.
After dessert May and Eman were ready to go (it was after 1:00 AM) and so we left though Melissa and I would have been game to stick it out to the end. The large tiered wedding cake had not been cut. Not that we needed to eat the cake (we were stuffed beyond our limits) but it would have been fun to see what that was like.
Already the details of the night are fading. There was so much to soak in. But foremost in my mind is how honored I feel to be let in on this rarely seen ceremony with such welcoming grace. The sisterhood these women obviously enjoy with each other is not unlike that I have on the other side of the world with my own clan. What a gift!
18 hours ago