One of the most bizarrely enchanting experiences I've had here in Qatar is attending a female Qatari wedding party.
The invite consisted of a lovely Qatari female employee asking me if I'd ever attended a Qatari wedding. I hadn't. She said "ok, tonight I will send my driver and he will pick you and your daughter to come with us so you can see." I was caught off guard. While I do socialize with a number of Qatari women, it is usually work related.
I asked whose wedding I was going to.
She stopped for a minute, and I could see her eyes crinkling under her Niqab as she struggled to find a way to explain the relationship to me in English.
"It is the wedding of the daughter of the sister of the sister-in-law of my husband's cousin."
Me: "Are you sure it's ok? They don't even know me."
She: "Of course. She will be happy. Bring your daughter. Come, come. I will send my driver."
Me: "Uhmmm, ok. Shukran. That would be lovely. What time should I be ready?"
She: "He will pick you up at eight o'clock."
!!!!!! (We are usually in bed by 7:30 p.m.!)
Me: "Ok, but I'll take my car, just in case kiddo gets too tired."
I spent the rest of the afternoon at work finding out what kind of gift I should bring (none), what kind of clothes I should wear (formal), and what time I could expect to be there 'til (late, very, very late).
Went home, showered, did my hair, and chose a pair of black pants and a sequined top that I thought was appropriately conservative enough so as to show cultural sensitivity and defer the spotlight to the bride, yet classy and dressy enough for a wedding. My daughter was very excited to be going to a fancy wedding. A first for her in Qatar. Oh, and any excuse to dress up like a princess!
At some point in the evening, a driver showed up at our door and dropped of a gold-gilded wedding invitation, beautifully etched in Arabic and English, truly a piece of art. Its content much resembled that of a Western wedding invitation, but its design was exceedingly elaborate. Apparently it would be needed to enter the reception hall.
Oh, and did I mention that it specifically mentioned "no children or nannies" at the bottom? So I called my friend. "It says here that no children should attend; I think it's best if I leave my daughter (who was five at the time) at home?"
She was adamant in her protest. "La, la (No, no), she must come."
So I kissed Smilin' Vic goodnight around 8:00 p.m. and headed off with kiddo in tow. The simple fact of me driving after dark in this city is worthy of mention. It's just something we don't do in this traffic-mad town.
I made my way to the venue, and called my friend to see if she was already inside. This wedding was not being held in a hotel as is often the case. It was being held at a local wedding hall. There was nowhere in the building to 'hang' and I didn't feel comfortable going in on my own.
My friend hadn't yet left the house. So I parked outside the hall for 45 minutes, watching the curious and constant ebb and flow of diners entering and exiting the Ponderosa down the street. Ponderosa is a thriving business here, as are most North American chain restaurants (but I digress ... subject of another post).
Anyhow, my friend finally showed up, and we made our way into the hall. We were greeted in the lobby by a group of female security guards. They asked to see my invitation and my bag, and promptly confiscated my Motorola mobile phone (my pre-iphone days!), slipped it into a numbered envelope and handed me a matching tag so I could collect it at the end of the evening.
I must have looked confused; they explained that no picture-taking devices are allowed inside the hall.
We proceeded into the lobby, and I saw a few ladies milling about, abaya-free and dressed in elaborate Victorian-like dresses, the kind that cinch at the waist and define but barely confine surprisingly voluptuous and heaving bosoms. I realized quickly that I was sorely underdressed. My daughter stared unabashedly at the opulence and splendor that greeted us. Plenty of other little girls ran about in equally ostentatious mini ball gowns.
My friend told me to wait a moment, she would be right back. She headed for the restroom.
Now bear in mind that I work with this woman; until this point, I had never seen her without her abaya or Niqab. Occasionally, I will glimpse the bottom half of her face when the girls share breakfast and she lifts the bottom half of her veil to scoop food up. Needless to say I had no idea who she was when she emerged three minutes later ensconced in a red velvet bead-encrusted dress, neck and arms draped in gold, burlesque makeup, and hair done up in an Arabic bejeweled take on the bouffant. Until she spoke directly to me, I hadn't the slightest clue who this smiling and very confident young lady might be. She seemed very pleased at the surprise that obviously registered in my eyes.
She grabbed my arm, and the three of us headed into the wedding hall, stopping along the way only to catch a glimpse of the professional photo studio that had been set up to capture the excess and extravaganza. A lady lounged seductively on the velvet settee as a female photographer took a series of snapshots while other wedding-goer's lined up anxiously awaiting their turn. The photos would be available for purchase after the event.
We were greeted by females from the bride and groom's families as we entered the hall. Each as elaborately dressed as the next, with a token elderly aunt or grandmother thrown into the mix, some of the latter choosing to maintain their modesty even amongst females, still wearing their abaya and Niqab or veil.
Even though we were almost two hours late, very few people were yet seated. Younger girls scurried around the room, exchanging greetings (three kisses on the cheek for friends). Some of the more elderly ladies were already seated, most of them along either side of a catwalk which extended the length of the room. I would find out later that this was a strategic position allowing women with eligible sons to catch a glimpse of a potential future daughter-in-law as a bevy of unmarried girls swayed and sashayed down the runway to the beat of very tribal-sounding drums.
We took a seat towards the back of the room, far from the loudspeakers (thank goodness). Waitresses milled about, serving small sweets and savory pastries and an assortment of chocolates and teas.
The music (seriously loud) started not long after, and women determinedly made their way to the catwalk, many removing their stilettos and moving up and down the stage in what seemed to me a dance of very primal origin; kind of combination belly dance and indigenous rain dance, undulating their arms and wrists to the thumping beat, often bending at the waist, swaying their hips, bowing their heads and swinging long tresses left to right in a primitive fashion. Occasionally they would literally start to pulse to the beat.
The bride came in at about 11:00 p.m. The lights were dimmed, and a video screen showed her extremely slow entrance into the lobby, following her protracted journey through the wedding hall, down the catwalk, and to a dais set up at the end on which she would sit until the end of the evening. This was her 15 minutes of fame. All eyes turned to follow her laborious procession.
Her smile appeared frozen; her steps seemed painful ... I was told this was quite possible given the height of her heels and the weight of her dress. The walk took no less than 30 minutes, during which she covered maybe 150 feet. At every step, a photographer leaned in to take a picture, and a bevy of young Philippina girls would lift and arrange the voluminous train to allow for the next step and the procession to continue.
Once the bride was seated, the lights were turned back up. Guests began moving up to congratulate her and kiss her accordingly. This was pretty much it for focus on the bride. The dancing resumed, this time with money being showered on some of the girls dancing as a compliment to their skill. My daughter joined a bunch of other little girls on stage; she thought it was a blast to have people give her money to dance. Much to her dismay I sent her back to the stage to re-deposit the wad of cash she'd accumulated over the course of three songs. Apparently the money, which was subsequently collected by one older lady, was meant for the band.
Finally, it was time for the groom to enter. This was announced by the band, and all ladies in the hall except me (being the only Westerner) and the bride covered their hair and any exposed flesh. The groom was accompanied by his father, and I believe a few brothers and uncles. It took him perhaps a minute to make it to the front of the room where the bride was seated. He sat there for about thirty minutes with the bride, and the older female members of the groom's family came forth to congratulate him.
After he left, the veils and shawls came back off, and it was time to eat. We went off to a separate hall to collect our food from an elaborate buffet and returned to our table to partake in the meal.
It is at this point that I met my friend's very beautiful and young sister. My friend informed me that she was the only daughter in the family who had not yet married. Apparently no suitor suited her, and her parents would not force her to marry against her wishes. I was told that princes and paupers (and a few very established cousins!) from Qatar, Saudi, Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain had been equally unsuccessful at securing her hand in marriage. She wondered if perhaps her sister was pining for another unattainable love. She told me to keep my eyes open and my ears peeled, on the off chance I might know of someone with potential. I admit that at this point the conversation was all getting just a little too surreal!
Our duty done, I picked up my now sleeping daughter, extended my thanks, and bid my farewells. I collected my phone on the way out, and paused just along enough while getting into the car to see the throngs of Arabic and Asian night-owls still making their way to Ponderosa's at 1:30 in the morning.
I must admit there are moments when I truly struggle to understand what lurks beneath the surface in this Land of Sand. The truly odd juxtaposition of an American steakhouse icon and an Arabic wedding hall; steak and potato salad buffet on the one side - moutabal, masboot and hummus buffet on the other. Abayas and sandals at the one - Pompadours and stilletos at the other. Young couples out for a late-night soda at the one - young ladies trying to secure their future through tribal dance at the other.
It certainly wasn't the first time the surrealism had left me intrigued and slightly baffled. And it certainly hasn't been the last. But weddings in the ME definitely rate right up there with some of the more enchantingly bizarre experiences I've had.