Last Saturday, I got to do something I have been dying to do since moving to Kuwait: attend a Kuwaiti wedding.
There is something fundamentally appealing to me about foreign weddings. Having been to about a dozen weddings in the US, I know what to expect. On the other hand, getting the opportunity to take a glimpse into another culture’s beliefs about love, wedding rituals, and style of dress is incredible. While in Ecuador, I went to a wedding and, to be honest, was a bit disappointed. The wedding was great and there was a fun gathering (with delicious cuy [cooked guinea-pig]) following the ceremony, but overall, it didn’t feel much different than an American wedding. I knew that, on the other hand, Saturday’s wedding would definitely be different than any of the six US weddings I have participated in, and boy, was I right.
The wedding invitation came from a student of mine. Actually, three. I teach three first cousins (and this is not unusual in little ol’ Kuwait where I am constantly finding out that two students I had never associated as family are actually related in some way). After being given the gorgeous invitation, written in an Arabic far too gorgeous and calligraphic for me to read, I began asking those who had been in Kuwait longer than I have for advice. The overwhelming message I got was: get glamorous! As an ever-helpful American teacher who is married to a Kuwaiti put it, “Every time I attend a wedding, I think that I’ve gone above and beyond with my jewelry, my makeup, and my dress. Yet, each time, I arrive and feel under-dressed.” When I told my principal, she joked, “Enjoy the Oscars!” With pressure to dress up and no formal dresses in my closet, I was lucky enough to find a teacher kind enough to lend me an evening gown. I also borrowed jewelry from one teacher and a clutch from another! Sounds like a Disney Channel rip-off of the tale of Cinderella, doesn’t it? The only thing I wore that I owned were my shoes (because, honestly, nobody has feet as big as mine!)
Once the clothes were sorted out, Laura, Hannah (the other two teachers attending), and I set up manicures and make-up appointments. The experience of getting make up done professionally in Kuwait was great but also hilarious! Kuwaitis wear far more makeup than us Americans generally do, and once we told the makeup artists at Sephora that we were going to a wedding, they probably piled it on even more than they would have normally. The man doing Laura’s makeup in the picture below spent fifteen minutes on her eyebrows alone.
Even though the makeup felt dramatic to us, we blended right in at the wedding.
After taking way longer than expected in Sephora (turns out having a mask painted onto your face takes time), we rushed home, changed into our dresses, and were out the door. The wedding reception “started” at 8:00, but it didn’t really begin until closer to 9:30.
The most stark contrast to weddings I have been to in the past was that as I walked into the ballroom, I saw nothing but a sea of women. Because this was a traditional Kuwaiti wedding; the men were in one room, and the women were in another. The rationale behind this and the implications of this separation may not be what you think. What I have come to understand about Arab culture and Islam is that while western media attempts to portray the segregation of men and women in this culture as oppressive and unfair, in this case (and in many others), it is done specifically for the women. According to their religious beliefs, Muslim women dress very modestly, most of them wearing hijabs (scarves over their hair and neck) and sometimes even abayas (loose black robes blanketing their bodies) whenever they are in the presence of a man who is not their husband. This ensures that the only person who she wants to look beautiful and sexy for (her man) is the only person who gets to enjoy her beauty fully. You would never believe how stunning some of these women make modesty look. I am amazed by their grace, elegance, and insistence on remaining feminine while, at the same time, refusing to adopt fashion trends that would go against what they believe.
I am used to seeing most of the woman here about 85% covered up because I mostly see them out in public, where there are men, and so they must cover. Because there was not a man to be found in the Ftooh Ballroom, the women were letting their shoulders, knees, necks, luscious locks, and clavicles out for air! It sure was a surprise for me to see as much skin as I did, but I realized that weddings are, for some, the only chance they get to wear strapless dresses, get their hair done, and dance unabashedly, for no men can possibly be watching them and taking in their beauty without their permission. It was understood that no pictures would be taken in the Ftooh Ballroom because any woman who normally covers and is caught in a picture without her hijab would be upset knowing that men could look at her in the photograph. I know I have no photographic proof, but the women at the wedding were the most fashionably dressed, glamorous women I have ever been in the presence of!
The ballroom was set up like a runway. Laura, Hannah, and I greeted the mothers of our students and took our seats. Down the center of the room was a huge aisle and along both the left and the right were rows of couch-like benches facing the center. As the women arrived, they greeted the half a dozen female relatives lined up at the entrance (who must have each given out thousands of cheek kisses that evening!) and made their way to a seat while all of us in the “audience” took note of they were wearing. This show of watching exquisitely dressed women arrive and quietly taking them in went on from about 8:45-9:30. At 9:30, the door closed and the reception began. Southeastern Asian women, clad in black, made their way to every guest and offered tiny cups of tea, pastries, and chocolates. While we lazily enjoyed the luxury of being waited on hand and foot, some women exerted a bit more energy once the music began. From the first drop of a beat and a singer wailing the word Habibi (“my love”), women sprang to their feet and confidently strutted to the center. Their dance was simple: a right foot shuffle followed by a left foot shuffle, repeat. However, each woman put her own touch into the dance: some exotically waving their arms to the music, others swaying their already voluptuous curves in ways they never would have dared to in the presence of men. When I finally mustered up the courage to give the simple dance a go, I kept it pretty simple and listened to my own thoughts more than I listened to the music. Don’t step on anybody’s dress! Don’t trip over these 5-inch heels! Try to not stick out any more than you already do. I made it up and down the length of the ballroom before the music cut out and then triumphantly (Look at me, dancing this Kuwaiti wedding dance!) headed back to my seat, still focusing on not tripping.
At about 10:30, the music ceased and all of the guests returned to their seats. The doors burst open and the bride entered. She was wearing a dress similar to Western wedding dresses, but her shoulders and arms were covered in a sheer fabric. She was probably about my age, maybe a little older, and she looked radiant. As she made her way to the front of the room, the women at the reception ululated at her. Ululating is a joyful noise made by women in many Asian, African, and Arabian countries. A clip of the noise is shown below. (It reminds me of my sister-in-law’s turkey impression.) Once the bride took her seat at the front of the ballroom, the music ensued and some of her friends and family gathered around her and danced. It felt like the female relatives were letting her know that they were happy for her, comforting her in a way. Like their presence amid all of the bells and whistles was grounding her and reminding her that they would be with her through everything that was to follow.
Around 11:00, a clear signal came that the women’s only party was coming to an end; the groom and his male relatives were coming in to see the bride. It was as if the sunset of gown colors (reds, pinks, purples, blues) was being overcome by night. Just like when the sky is clear enough to watch the sun slowly dip below the horizon, I stared in awe as the first abaya was put back onto a pair of bare shoulders and the sweep of blackness that followed. Finally, when the last hijabs had been fixed over elaborately woven sets of hair, it was like all of that glowing beauty had never happened. I looked out at Kuwaiti women and saw what I see every day. The first thought that I had was hidden beauty, but then I remembered that no matter how little outside viewers may see, their beauty and grace shines through. The phrase I think more adequately describes why these gorgeous women blanket themselves in abayas and hijabs is protected beauty. They know that beauty is something that should not be taken lightly and given away to just anybody, so they only allow the men they love to see it and enjoy it. Western fashion trends undoubtedly need to learn more about the notion of protected beauty.
Once all of the women had prepared themselves, the men entered and slowly made their way toward the bride, who was also covered in a white hijab. Pictures were snapped and music played. After a few minutes of the male and female relatives being together, the male relatives and friends exited. The only man remaining was the groom. With other men out, his sisters and the wife took off their hijabs and had a few more photos snapped. Finally, around 11:30 pm, our students found us and said, “There is a buffet upstairs.” Our grumbling stomachs led the way and we dined on a delicious array of flavors before finally heading home after midnight and passing out (Remember that I have school on Sunday, so the wedding happened on a school night! All three of the girls had “doctor’s notes” and were not at school on Sunday, but us teachers don’t have the luxury of missing school.)
I am thrilled that I got to attend part of an Arabic wedding. Would I want to go to another one anytime soon? Not necessarily. As interesting as it was to see it once, it was a lot of sitting, watching, and waiting. It felt much more ceremonial and less personal than weddings in the US. And as much as I can understand why the men and women are split up, culturally, I still prefer being able to interact with menfolk at a wedding. Again, attending a Kuwaiti wedding was a great experience, and I wish everyone reading this could attend one for themselves.
Next goal: Indian wedding. To be continued… (I wish)