A muslim ceremony in the eyes of a westerner.
The journey started with a flight on December 31 from Paris to Saudi Arabia. Only nine hours later I boarded in a flight to Mumbai. Spending the new years’ eve in a Saudi airport was a very strange experience but old time friends picking me up in Mumbai made the cheap flight worth it.
From Mumbai, l had a four-hour drive to the provincial city of Surat, where the wedding was taking place. The first thing I had to do was meet the bride, Ayesha Malek, and her family. My friend Ali Miyajan, who is the bride’s brother, was really happy about having two of his college friends in his hometown. The next day Ali took me and Filippo, the Italian friend who was there with us, to shop for wedding clothes. As many people might not know Indian Muslim weddings are composed of several ceremonies to which different costumes are required. Spending the day shopping for typical clothes I not only got poor but also noticed that the aesthetics of the shopping mall was quite different than what I’m used to. The ambiance was quite vivid, the American influence was noticeable but the adaptation to Indian culture was even more striking. The food court had several typical restaurants, the clothing stores were full of colored saris, and the main court had a live quiz show for who passes by.
The first ceremony I attended was the Mehndi. The famous henna ritual that takes place just before the marriage. According to the ritual, the bride does not step out of the house after this ceremony. Mehndi ceremony is essentially organized by the family of the bride and is usually a private affair which takes place in the presence of friends, relatives and family members. Meaning that I was completely welcomed into their house and costumes. Alezaa, a 5 years old girl even called me “didi” (sister) that day. I felt at home. This ceremony was responsible for several of my first experiences in India. It introduced me to typical Indian sweet milk tea, to my first hijab, and to my first Indian music jam session. The older women were in charge of playing music, while the henna artists hired for the event were creating beautiful patterns on all the women and children present. Ayesha had her arms and legs completely covered in henna paste. She spent the entire day sitting in “throne” where her arms and legs were safely placed so the henna would not smear. The smell of the herb was very pleasant at the beginning, but it kept me from sleeping at night.
The second ritual was the Haldi Ceremony. With is a mark of fertility, purity, and auspicious into the new couples life while warding off the evils. The ceremony is held in the respective homes of the groom and the bride, meaning that they are kept separate. The family members slather turmeric paste on their face, hands, and feet to bring out the ‘wedding glow’ on the couple’s skin. Ayesha was put in a stage with her friends and family. Filippo and I sometimes got the chance to sit beside her. People one by one came and spread the paste in her body. This ceremony required that people dressed in yellow as a symbolic gesture referring to the turmeric paste. In fact, this event was the most fun me and the bride’s friends got to mock her and each other by spreading the paste everywhere, my hair was yellow at the end of it.
Following the ceremony, the family offered dinner to the entire neighborhood. The family’s men and male friends were in charge of serving the guests. The females and male guests position themselves into a separate tables. Man to the right women to the left. The children stayed with the women, in the best seats, while the men sat of to another side. This dinner had a delicious dish, that me and Filippo were scared of trying at first. It was served on a communal plate. In fact, there’s no table but a metal pedestal to place the communal plate. Every guest received a spoon and cup. I’ve tried everything, every special flavor, by doing so I made good connections with the locals around me. My table differentiated from the locals’, Filippo and I set together at the female section. The gender rule was less strict to us because of the language barrier. At the end, Ali’s friends who were helping to serve, joined our table creating the only gender mix-table in the event.
The following ceremonies were the Barat and Nikka. Both ceremonies are on the same day. Gender plays an important role in this ritual. Men participate in the Baraat, that’s a procession that leads the groom to the wedding venue. He is usually wearing a sahara and saafa, traditional formal clothing and a turban; while carrying a kirpan, typical knife. He is accompanied by family members, groomsmen, and friends known as baraatis. Filippo and Ali were wearing typical costumes for this. While the females wait for the groom to arrive so the Nikah can start. The Nikah is a ceremony in which the groom proposes to the bride in front of at least two witnesses. The bride and groom demonstrate their free will by repeating the word qabul “I accept” three times. Then the couple’s witnesses sign the contract, making the marriage legal in civil and religious law.
I missed part of the ceremony because my stomach was acting out to the previous night spices. Later on the day, I had to go to the doctor. That was another incredible experience. Removing my shoes before the appointment, getting free medicine, and having no insane charge coming to hunt me later (the USA should learn something here). At night, the friends I made took me out for tea in a restaurant inside of the city’s most famous hotel. In fact, this tea was one of the most remarkable moments of the wedding for me, not because the black tea and the milk were perfectly mixed together, but because the women my age weren’t allowed by the elderly women to leave the house. So I was the only woman in a group of 12 men. I felt the gender tension in India since the instant I arrived. The pressure to make me wear a hijab, cover my neck, the looks I got for hanging out with men… This event was what marked it for me. Surat, is in Gujarat that is a dry state in India. Meaning that only tea would be purchased. Most of the men in my group grew up with the ladies there, their families know each other, they are always in each other’s houses, but for some patriarchal reason, they can not go out as a group.
The emotional part of the wedding came with the Vidai. This ceremony is towards the end of the marriage. It symbolizes a new journey for the bride as she departs from her parents’ house to now belong with her husband’s family. It’s a ritual of both joy and sorrow for the bride. The bride’s family formally gives away the bride asking the husband to protect and take care of her. Ayesha was very emotional as were her family and friends. Everybody cried for an entire hour before the music started, myself included. It was a very joyful moment. As usual, we women were together. We had time to play music and properly dance, learn some amazing moves, dance in a circle, and make choreographies. After the happy celebrations we had to walk Ayesha to her husband’s family house, all her loved ones made the walk carrying presents such as chocolates, clothes, cosmetic products, and house gifts all wrapped in transparent plastic so they could look like religious offerings. In arrival we’re received with food and games. Ayesha from there on sleeps in her new family’s home, leaving her role as daughter behind fully becoming a wife from that moment on.
The last event was the Walima Reception, a banquet that is intended to celebrate the newlywed couple. This event is hosted by the groom’s family and the wife’s family are guests. This celebration consists of presenting the new couple. There’s a stage where the bride wearing a beautiful sparkly red dress, jewelry, and dark eyes makeup is placed together with her husband to welcome all the guests and show their happiness. Ayesha’s husband was a bit late and she could not leave the stage without him. That’s something I could not understand. Why would he be late to his own reception, especially one hosted by his family. leaving his wife waiting in a stage. Maybe he was dealing with stomach problems. As we were friends with the bride we were welcome to keep her company on stage. The venue was well decorated, people were using formal dresses, and there was again a big dinner. This time the groom’s family was responsible to serve. Knowing my stomach difficulties from the previous time, me and Filippo ordered non-spicy McDonald’s chicken burgers to be delivered (because you don’t eat cows in India).
A few days later Ayesha welcomed our group of friends at her new apartment, where she’s completely happy. She made sure she showed us all the details of her new home. At our last day in Surat, the friends I made brought me a cake and presents thanking me I don’t know what for because I should be the one thanking their hospitality. Ali’s mom even gave me bracelets and earrings as presents for me and my mom. The next day Ali, Filippo, and I together with some of Ali’s childhood friends traveled on another adventure in India. Putting an end to the colors and joy of Ayesha’s wedding.