Quick courtship
Saudis traditionally marry young, and mothers are often preoccupied with finding a suitable husband or wife for their many sons and daughters. A man would tell his mother, sister or one of his relatives what kind of woman he would like to marry. For example, he would say he wanted a lady with big eyes, long dark hair, not fat, not thin, but normal body, and someone who follows the rules of the religion. Finding just the right woman may take about a month or more, with some hits and misses in between. Once a perfect potential partner is found, they'll call the woman's parents and tell them they want to engage their son to their daughter. If the woman's parents don't refuse, they'll set a date for the man to come to their house with his parents.

It does exist that the couple never lay eyes on each other until after the wedding ceremony, but it's more common nowadays that they do, or at least see her hands, hair and face. Sometimes, while the two families are exchanging niceties in the lounge, the girl's father would sit with the man and his father and talk about the man's job, about his income and about the dowry for the woman, etc.

In some instances, the couple will go to a separate room where they can talk in private. The man would ask to see the girl's hands, face, figure, and the colour of her skin, to see if she fits his requirements. If he likes the girl, he'll send her a gift, which would mean he'd like to marry her. She has every right to refuse him, though pressure from the family may make this hard.

Sometimes they'd move in together at the girl's parents until they're married. This can be a month or so, sometimes much longer, as the groom saves money for what could be an excessively expensive wedding, sometimes running into half a million Riyals. This would include the bride's dowry, which can also be paid, in part, in gold and jewellery and is hers to keep.

Henna nights

For about three days before the wedding date, culminating in henna night before the big day, the bride will begin preparing for her wedding. Traditionally, the bride is anointed with all sorts of traditional oils and perfumes from head to toe. Her body is rubbed with cleansing and conditioning oils and creams; the hands and feet are decorated with henna and the hair is washed with extracts of amber and jasmine. She is fed only the best foods, including Saudi biscuits known as Ma'amoul (which used to be known as Al Arous which means bride). Fine pieces of jewellery, perfumes, silk materials and other necessary items are presented to her by the groom, from which she creates her elaborate trousseau called Addahbia.

On the evening before her wedding, the bride is joined by her sisters, cousins and female friends for henna night; a night of more music, dance, food and celebration. In the past, and still sometimes today, the bride would wear a number of dresses, including a traditional type of dress known as zaboun and a yashmak, embroidered with silver thread, over her face. It's a commitment to tradition that says that a bride should not be seen by anyone. The henna night represents the last night before her shift into a life full of responsibilities of a husband and future children.

The wedding
Happy was the day when two friends and I received an invitation to a wedding here in Saudi. The bride was a beautiful, vibrant young girl from Eritrea; the groom a serious-looking Saudi from a conservative family.

Saudi wedding receptions are conducted the traditional Muslim way, which means the men and women celebrate separately. The groom's party will never see the bride, though the groom will make an appearance at the bride's party.

We arrived way too early at the hotel, the Casablanca here in Jeddah. And it was just after 10 in the evening! We sat around for hours, gaping at the lavish wedding decorations and sipping Arabic coffee until it came out of our ears. Slowly the guests started flowing in, each greeting us, the only Westerners there, by hand before flitting off to seek out their friends. Across from us some elderly ladies sat, who were kissed on the cheeks and sometimes on the hand. They turned out to be the mothers and aunts of the newlyweds.

As the women entered the reception room, they handed their abayas in for safekeeping. I've seen Saudi women without abayas once at a women-only fair, but was still surprised to see what was hidden under the black cloaks. The Saudi girls, especially, were dressed to the hilt. Long, figure-hugging dresses covered in beads, sequins, gold lame and lace; black hair piled high with seductive curls; huge, shiny pieces of jewellery on every finger, arm, neck and ear; stilettos with rhinestones, and more makeup than you'll see at a MAC extravaganza.

Apparently the DJ had been instructed to alternate Arabic songs with Eritrean music, and despite resistance from the Saudis, the fun-loving and determined Eritrean clan insisted this was their friend's wedding too. When the Arabic music played, the Saudi women would get up and dance on the ramp, hips swinging and hands twirling, only to take their seats when it was the Eritreans' turn.

The Eritrean girls were dressed equally beautifully, though less over the top, with a hint of traditional African designs in their clothes. They'd dance with these curious little plucking movements of the shoulder. Quite catching. Of course, the three Western ladies joined in on the dancing, both during the Arabic songs and the Eritrean. The music was so loud, conversation was out of the question.

All the while, South East Asian waitresses in black suits with long skirts, black court shoes, hair tied back, and no make-up, would parade around offering guests crystal goblets of mineral water, coke and fruit cocktails on silver trays which we enjoyed with the dates, pastries and chocolates beautifully presented on our table.

Finally, around two in the morning, we noticed the girls, mostly the Saudi women, scuttle to the reception desk to fetch their abayas and headscarves, wrapping them around them to hide all the voluptuous beauty we'd been privy to all night. Some even put their face veils and gloves on. It was a sign that the bride and groom were coming.

Next to the Al-Kowshah(the wedding throne) a huge screen flittered to life as a live videotaping of their arrival outside the hotel came streaming onto it. For another painstaking half hour we watched as they made their way to the wedding hall in tiny little steps. Finally, they were there. The groom, serious and bespectacled and dressed in traditional Arab male dress; the bride beautiful, radiant in pure white, and awfully nervous.

First they took their place on some steps at the back of the hall where the groom, slightly irritated with/embarrassed by his new wife's "joie de vivre", pricked a huge balloon which released thousands of rose petals as well as the wedding ring, which was tied to a white streamer. He slipped it on her finger, but there was not kissing of the bride.

The two then moved towards the wedding cake. The groom held his bride's hand carefully and together they gripped a huge knife with which they cut a small piece of the cake. First the groom fed the bride a piece of it, then she in turn fed him a morsel, and everyone started to cheer. The cutting of the cake symbolises that the couple have started taking care of each other.

Formalities over
This formality done with, they approached the ramp which divided the two families, and slowly made their way to the wedding throne. There they sat, looking awfully uncomfortable yet quite proud, while the groom's young sister did a seductive Arabic belly-kind of dance to traditional Arab music. The pair sipped what looked like strawberry juice from a huge, round, long-stemmed glass, while the guests clapped and ululated. At some weddings, guests would be entertained with a videotaped 'documentary' of the bridal couple's life, from when they were children, up to the day of their wedding.

The bridal couple then indulged in a lengthy photo opportunity with friends and family, and we managed to sneak one or two too, taking care not to photograph the Saudi women. By this time, were it not for the thundering music and copious cups of coffee, we would have dozed off at the table. When the groom finally departed, the women discarded their abayas and veils, and the dancing started up again. At about half past three in the morning we sat down to a buffet supper (or was it breakfast!), which included delicious mix of both Eritrean and Arabic dishes. Once we'd eaten, there really wasn't much life left in the Western girls and, after congratulating the bride, dancing to one more ditty, and thanking everyone for the lovely night, we drew straws to see whose husband was going to get out of his warm bed to take us back to the compound.

At the more lavish weddings, female wedding singers are often paid thousands to perform for the guests. But despite public demand for a professional wedding singer, some religious scholars are less than charmed by the idea; one Jeddah Imam saying in an article for the Saudi Gazette that music is not allowed in Islam and the women should be killed. True, one Saudi wedding singer fled to Lebanon after her brother threatened to have her killed for making her living as a wedding singer. For more information on Islam and music, read this article at Sunnipath. Another taboo is taking photographs, which is why I don't have one of the Saudi guests to show with this story.

While the women have their party, the groom and his friends would be having a party of their own at a different location, where they'd gather after prayer at the mosque. There'll be lots of eating, possibly a spot of dancing; traditional dancing that is, with swords and arms interlocked; lots of chattering, drinking coffee and fruit juices and enjoying a banquet that could be a whole roasted sheep with rice, flatbread, a variety of vegetables. When the rich and royal get married, things go quite spectacular, with imported sound and light shows, flame throwers, groups of dancing men, parading horses, and food that could feed a crowd of thousands. Have a peak here.

In the early hours of the morning the bride and groom will meet up again, and be driven off to their new home. Sometimes the groom's friends will drive behind them, hooting and shouting to announce the happy union to all who are already up that time of the day.

The actual ceremony
Just a note, the actual "wedding ceremony" is a private civil and religious contract that takes place in an office and not in a mosque, and is concluded days before the wedding party. Which means the couple could have quite legally consummated the marriage before the wedding day. The agreement would have been negotiated ahead of time by the groom and the bride's guardian or closest male relative, though not without her consent. The couple comes before a religious sheikh (an Islamic magistrate) with three male witnesses (or two female and one male) to grant the marriage. The magistrate will ask what the groom is giving the bride as dowry, which will be her "insurance" for the future. Hence the popular Arabic saying "The father of many daughters is a wealthy man."

These are the basics of a wedding in Saudi. And what a privilege it was to see it all first hand.

Tonight, South Africans in Saudi will be celebrating Freedom Day at various events organised by our consular staff here in the Kingdom. From me, on behalf of all the South Africans here, love, appreciate and make the most of your hard-earned freedom!

If there's anything in particular you'd like to know about life in Saudi Arabia, or if you'd like to comment on this article, send me an email at lauraofarabia@gmail.com.

South Africans in Saudi, pop in at the South Africans in Saudi Expat forum where you can post questions or answers and connect with others in your area of the Kingdom.

Laura of Arabia