Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Qatari Wedding (Arab wedding)

Remember how I was mentioning that a wedding was coming up, and that Qataris don't advertise a wedding too far in advance? Well I received an invitation to a wedding -- and not the friend’s wedding that I had mentioned before, another Qatari was getting married.

I got the invitation two days before the wedding. Yes, two days before. It's okay though, you don't bring gifts to a Qatari men's wedding, all that is expected of you is to show up and congratulate the groom. [As I mentioned before men and women celebrate a wedding completely separate from one another, usually in completely separate venues sometimes kilometers away].

Here's a sample of what the wedding invite looked like. I didn't want to show the whole thing to keep the groom’s identity confidential (I haven't asked him if it's okay to blog about his wedding) but this will give you an idea:

So the evening of the wedding I dressed in a suit and tie and a bunch of us piled into a Land Cruiser and headed out to the wedding tent. Qataris invite almost everyone to a wedding, and for a men's wedding you don't even need to be invited -- one of the guys with us didn't know the groom at all, having recently moved to Qatar only six weeks ago. I'll get into why such a broad invitation is given a little bit later in the blog post. Apparently for the women's wedding it's different and it's usually invite only.

The family had set out a large tent in an empty field to host the men's wedding. Now this tent was easily the size of a large ballroom, necessary to be able to hold potentially hundreds of people, and you need a large space to set it up in for both the tent and the parking for all of the cars. As Qataris are now used to holding such large weddings there is a thriving business in setting up these large tents and the generators for providing electricity for the lights.

So we all entered the tent and the carpeting led us straight across the tent to the other side where the groom and his father were supposed to be receiving the guests. When we arrived it was prayer time so everyone was in the tent praying. We just waited around until they were finished. The groom and his father were easy to spot as they were the only ones wearing a bisht (a thin overrobe that they wear loosely over their white thobe, bishts are typically worn by aristocracy during official meetings and ceremonies but they are also worn by the groom and his father during a wedding). I was with a Qatari friend and I was already primed on what to do -- shake the father's hand and give your congratulations, shake the groom's hand and congratulate him, don't spend too much time chatting as that will hold up the line of other guests waiting to greet the groom and his father, and move on. If you want to chat with the groom there will likely be time later in the evening when things are a bit quieter. Surprisingly the groom paused proceedings for a bit and asked us to all line up next to him and his father for pictures. If I can get a copy of the pictures and get permission to post it I will.

About that time I noticed that there were also a couple of video cameras in the tent. Not handheld ones, real video cameras on tripods, recording the event. There was also a couple of TVs so that if you wanted people could see what was being recorded by the cameras.

Another Qatari that I knew came by for a chat and was holding something belonging to his cousin that he let me hold:

A ceremonial sword, used for the dancing that was to come later. This picture is also good to give you an idea of the size of the tent (you're seeing about a third of the main space). Note that the only chairs are along the walls, I mentioned previously in my blog that in Arab society it is considered impolite at events to sit with your back to someone so chairs/seating are only laid out along the walls. Given that a lot of people will be showing up you need a big tent so that you have space to put all the chairs along the walls.

If you look behind me you'll also see a space that doesn't have chairs, that leads to an entirely separate area where the food will be served. Yes, there is even more space in this tent, an entire dining area.

Then the drums and singers started while some of the guests took their swords and started dancing to the rhythm. I caught a reasonable picture of the festivities:

Now don't get me wrong, most of the guests did not have swords with them, in fact I'm guessing about 20 had swords. Most of the Qataris just hung out in the tent and chatted away or ate some of the snacks that were available. Some gathered around to watch the dancing.

Now the Qatari that loaned me the sword for the picture mentioned to me that in the old days the men's wedding was typically held outside. The banging of drums and singing would carry far across the desert and any man hearing it would realize that there was a wedding so would go towards the drums to find out who was getting married and give their congratulations, and possibly eat whatever food was being provided. This is why even today the men's wedding is very open in terms of who is invited, traditionally you didn't send out invitations as any man nearby could show up.

By this point I stopped taking photos. Looking around I noticed that no one seemed to be taking any photographs aside from the official photographer(s) so I wasn't sure if guests taking photos was a cool thing to do.

Dinner was announced so we all moved into the dining area where numerous trays of whole roast lamb on rice had been prepared (and I mean whole -- head and everything). Most of the platters were on the floor and guests immediately sat around the trays and started eating. There was no assigned seating. The family had set up three tables as well so that guests such as us Westerners would not have to eat sitting on the floor.

Now for this dinner, in a traditional Arabic style, there were no plates or cutlery. Guests reach into the food with their right hand, tearing apart bits of meat and grabbing small handfuls of rice, and eat it directly. Always with your right hand, never with your left. Yes it is messy, yes your hand gets all covered with rice and small bits of meat, and yes there are bits of rice all over the place when you're done but that's the way it is. I'd also been told in advance that's what would happen so simply rolled up my sleeve and dug in. There was also bowls with a Qatari dish called haris, meat blended into a type of wheat paste, which tasted somewhat like plain porridge. Since there was no cutlery you just put two fingers in and scooped some to put it in your mouth.

Off to the side was a large area with numerous sinks and soap for guests to clean their hands once they were done. I also noticed that once men had finished eating and left to clean their hands other men would sit down in their place and start eating. At our table this happened at least four times. Near to the end of the dinner I noticed that many of the men were South Asian and not dressed in suits or thobes, so may have been catering employees or just people who happened to be nearby who came by for a meal. By the time I finished cleaning my hands and wandered back into the main tent there were still a lot of people eating and it looked to me like there wasn't going to be any leftovers.

We whiled away the time chatting, watching some more of the singing and dancing, and had an Arabic desert called halwa that was available on the tables near the seats. After a while we went back over to the groom, congratulated him again, had another picture taken with him, and left. All told we were there maybe 2 1/2 hours. By about 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock the groom would be leaving anyway to go pick up his bride at the women's wedding, though I have been told that many will stick around and follow his car to the women's ceremony like a wedding procession.

All told it was a great experience. I should be going to another wedding soon, I'll keep you posted.

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