A mystery to report for this week’s diary. Unexpectedly, with a sharp rap on the door, an unknown Arabic man came into my office on Wednesday. Barely looking at me, he handed me a beautiful turquoise leather scroll, tied up with a white rose, and left. I unravelled it, my hands trembling, to find gold Arabic script and no other explanation. I was mystified, what could this scroll signify? A love letter? A prayer? Instructions to find hidden treasure? But who had sent it to me and why?
Laila translated it and it turned out to be a wedding invitation, but to my bemusement it was to the wedding of two people I had never heard of, and neither had Laila, who knows everyone. We rang the phone operator, but that didn’t solve the mystery, as neither of the people named in the scroll worked at the Health Board. I was entirely flummoxed; so I took a wander around the building holding the scroll, hoping I would see someone else with one. Luckily, the first person I bumped into was the secretary in the Professor’s office, Zara. It twas from her, an invite to her brother’s wedding, to be held at the Celestine Hotel. I hardly know Zara, but she thought it would be an interesting experience for me to go to an Arabic wedding. She wanted to show me her world. The kindness and friendship of the young princesses here keeps me going when all else is paranoia and mischief-making.
Weddings last a few days, and entail various ceremonies. They are huge social occasions, the pinnacle of a young woman’s life. As with everything else weddings are segregated. The men have celebrations on one day, and usually in a large tent in the desert; seated on the floor, listening to drummers. The women meanwhile have their party at a luxury hotel. I was invited to the main celebratory ceremony for the women of the family, and over five hundred women were expected as guests at this wedding.
The night of the wedding arrived. I was tingling. Despite the invite saying arrive at 7.30pm, Laila assured me even going at 9.30pm was too early, but I thought we should go then as being two hours late was making me twitch with my Western obsession of being punctual. Still haven’t quite shaken that off.
Laila and I arrived at about eight o’clock, and sure enough there were only a handful of people and the decorations were still going up. The grand ballroom at the Celestine Hotel, where the wedding party was being held, was transformed into a fairytale palace. The ceiling shimmered with crystals and chandeliers. A long, illuminated catwalk led to a dais and double throne at the far end. Each of the guests’ tables was decorated with a handmade turquoise velvet cloth, hand embroidered in gold. Laila told me, in admiring tones, that most weddings were decorated in pink, or silver, gold, but never turquoise and this was a stylish innovation. The tables were heavy with elaborate displays of white roses, lilies and orchids. There must have been over a thousand roses in the room.
As we walked in we had to leave any phones or cameras at the door, high security. No cameras were allowed, as the women would take off their abayas once the festivities began. By about ten o’clock the women started arriving in the most gorgeous jeweled abayas. These were removed to reveal astonishing gowns; plunging, clinging and every colour of the rainbow. Then, there was the jewellery, massive baubles, and red-gold, intricate. As for the hair and nails… Zara’s nails were red-glitter with ceramic roses, it took three hours to craft them she boasted to me. The women must have spent all day at the salons: the curls, extensions, jewelled hairpieces, feathers, crowns. The make-up was exotic, ‘tiger eyes’ as Laila describes it, lots of kohl and red lipstick, and henna patterns.
I didn’t recognize Zara at first, she appeared so different to at work. At work she is quiet, modest, little girl-like, but here, she was the belle-of-the-ball, with the most flamboyant dress and hair. But, it was her attitude that was so different and made her seem ten years older, a real woman not a little girl anymore. She led much of the dancing and knew she was the most beautiful woman, and so did every other woman!
One of the gorgeous creatures, stepped onto the catwalk and started to slowly gyrate along the glass. She slinked along to the drum beat and rhythmic sounds of the hidden band. This was Zara’s sister. Another woman, joined her as they inched towards the throne. A woman strode onto the stage and threw handfuls of dollars over them. Four maids, in plain uniforms, started to collect the money in plastic bags. Gradually, more women joined the dancers and more women came up and threw money into the air; sometimes first touching it to the heads of the dancers or dealing it like cards into their faces. The money throwing is to ward-off unwanted male attention, the evil eye.
The music started to build, and women clacked their tongues, behind their teeth. Twelve staff dressed as turquoise Aladdins waltzed along the catwalk, a wonderful laser light show played across them, as finally at eleven o’clock the bride arrived.
The hall was bathed in
golden light as slowly, the bride took a step along the catwalk. Her dress was three foot in diameter, with a long train, stiff cream-net, heavily embroidered in golden thread and diamonds. Regal jewels adorned her neck and arms. She held a bouquet of roses and lilies, painted gold. In fact, she appeared to be made entirely from gold and diamonds. It took a full ten minutes for her to totter to the throne, where she sat as the women in a procession danced towards her, throwing bagfuls of notes over her.
Abruptly, all the women started to put on their abayas, and the door to the ballroom was flung wide-open, and with a crash of drums, the groom and his father and brothers arrived. The men were dressed in gold robes and flourished swords. But, as suddenly as they had rushed into the hall, the men ran off into the night.
We followed, and Zara handed me a glittery rose, wishing for me that one day soon I would have my own Arabic wedding.