Month: January 2011

Ejo #14 (Part I) – Invited To An Emirati Wedding; An Inside Look At What Happens Behind The Curtains

So, it’s 2011.  Happy New Year!  This year, I didn’t make any New Year’s Resolutions.  Nope.  Inspired by a friend, I sat down instead and came up with 11 goals that I wanted to achieve by year’s end.  11 for ’11 (see what I did there?).  One of these goals was to publish an ejo a month for the entire year, so you’ll be hearing a little more from me in 2011 than you have the last couple of years.  But that’s a good thing, right??

So, Australia has the Logie Awards.  The USA ups the glamour quotient significantly with the Oscars.  But let me tell you folks, both of these events pale in comparison beside the extravaganza known as an Emirati Wedding.

In the Middle East, families have been known to go bankrupt in order to put on the most lavish, the most flamboyant, the most grandiose wedding.  Bank loans are common and prices around the 1,000,000 dirham mark are not unheard of, with some escalating to 10,000,000 dirhams and beyond.  It isn’t just about creating a memorable day for the bride and groom.  It becomes a matter of family pride to put on the best wedding of the year.

As an expat, an invitation to one of these things is as common as hen’s teeth (i.e. not very common at all), so if you do get invited to an Emirati wedding, make sure you go.  It doesn’t really matter if you have open heart surgery scheduled for that day, postpone it.  If you are being knighted by the Queen, send someone else to get tapped by a sword.  And if you’re on your deathbed, well, what can I say?  Toughen up princess!  Get out of bed, shake yourself off, put on your Sunday best and get to that wedding – sandstorm, smog or shine!

What I’m trying to say, in case I’m not making myself clear, is that you should go.  It’s an amazing experience.  One which I was lucky enough to be a part of last week when my Emirati manager Omran invited me to his wife’s niece’s wedding.  In fact he invited all the women that work here in the Air Traffic Control tower – I think he did it as an opportunity for us to learn more about the local culture and traditions, and as always I was a willing student.  So, last Wednesday night I donned by best dress (a knee length, silk, Kate Sylvester shift in case you were wondering), slipped on my highest heels (elevating me to a formidable 6’3”), put on my party face and headed off to the Mina A ‘Salam, a five star resort hotel on the beach.

Now, an Emirati wedding reception is just like any other reception in several regards.  In others it is completely different.  The biggest difference is that the couple has usually already been married for the last couple of months.  The marriage ceremony itself is basically the signing of the wedding contract to make the union legal in the eyes of the law (the bride and groom sign separately as they are never in the same room as one another).  After the contract is signed, they are officially married, however they are not permitted to consummate the marriage (wink wink, nudge nudge) until after they hold the reception.  So usually they want to hold it as soon as possible, but convention dictates that they wait a couple of months. 

Just like at the contract signing, at the reception the sexes are kept apart; the men party in one place and the women party in a completely different place and never the twain shall meet.  OK, fair enough; I get the whole Muslim tenet of keeping women’s modesty protected from the hungry eyes of men.  The other major difference (for me anyway) is that of course alcohol is not permitted.  One of my colleagues sweetly suggested that perhaps they would serve booze on the expat table, “out of consideration”.  Yeah, I’m guessing that our needs don’t feature too highly on their list of priorities, and as I suspected there was no liquor at the party.   Not to worry, a few of us got together an hour before the reception at one of the hotel bars to socially lubricate ourselves, the expat way!  So, when we got to the Johara Ballroom, we were by no means raucous (after all, there’d only been time for two cocktails), but we were certainly far more relaxed and receptive to the evening that lay ahead.

OK, allow me to set the scene: At the door, we handed our invitations to the female security detail and were granted entry into another world.  Thousands upon thousands of white rose petals were strewn along the red carpet (yes, red carpet – and the Oscar’s don’t have rose petals do they!) leading into the main room.  Ah, how do I describe the ballroom?  Well, first of all, it’s big.  Very big.  Probably the size of a football field, with cathedral ceilings.  There were 60 tables, each seating 10 – though we were early so the room was empty.  Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING was white.  The chairs were covered in white silk fabric with big bows tied into the back.  Each table had a candlelit mini-chandelier with a large, basketball sized bouquet consisting of white hydrangeas, roses and peonies in the centre.  Two more similar bouquets adorned each side of this.  There was a white catwalk winding through the tables from the centre of the ballroom to the front stage on which was placed a white leather chaise lounge, looking for all the world like a giant throne.  The entire catwalk and stage area was embroidered with a skirt of countless more white flowers.  The overall impression of the room on first entering was like walking into a big, giant, fluffy pavlova.  Yummy!

Even though most of the guests had not yet arrived, there were a great many female servers, divided into two groups.  The Filipina servers were decked out in white shirts and pants, with cute little sequin vests which sparkled under the light.  The Arabic servers on the other hand were all wearing the traditional abaya but these were no ordinary abayas.  They were disco abayas – a brilliant, bright white, and the shelas (headscarves) were all a shimmer from the silver thread and sequins sewed into them.  They dazzled.  Before long my eyes started to hurt and I wished I’d brought my sunglasses to protect them from the glare, but only a moment later the lights were dimmed and the fluffy pavlova turned into a twinkling winter wonderland.

The Filipinas job was to clear the tables and the Arabic ladies poured the tea.  It became increasingly apparent to me that tea serves a very important role in Emirati life.  Gallons of it were being poured all around the room (into cups of course!).  Mint tea poured into beautiful, embellished Moroccan-style teacups.  Tea, sweetened with condensed milk, (a local favourite) served in tiny, porcelain cups and saucers gilded with silver leaf.  And another local traditional tea, the slightly bitter but still delicious za’atar tea poured into tiny crystal-cut goblets.  Of course Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom was also available.  There was no shortage of refreshments (of the non-alcoholic variety that is), and I availed myself of every single offer whilst we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive.

And this, people, is when the show really started.  Let me explain it this way.  When I put on my $400 dress that evening, I got dressed knowing that the wedding was going to be a glamorous affair.  What I didn’t expect was that my little outfit by a New Zealand designer would be put to shame by the sophisticated confections of sartorial giants.  Chanel, Versace, Dior, Gucci, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Lanvin, Louis Vuitton, Balmain, Givenchy, Prada.  Every single person that walked through that door looked like they belonged on some Hollywood best dressed list.  They looked better than movie stars.  They looked amazing.  I might as well have turned up in overalls.  And guess what?  I couldn’t exactly hide or blend in, as when I stood up I was at least half a foot taller than anyone else in the room.  Damn those 5” heels!

What I’m attempting to say is that these women weren’t wearing dresses or frocks.  They were wearing gowns.  Stunning, drop-dead-gorgeous, worth-thousands-of-dollars, gowns.  They had all, without doubt, spent their afternoons reclining for hours while someone had tended to their hair and make up.  And I’m not even going to talk about the diamonds.  Suffice to say that the contents of that room were worth millions of dirhams – I don’t even want to try to calculate how many.  Let’s just call it LOTS!

So this red carpet parade took a couple of hours, and by 10.30pm, 550 perfectly groomed women had sat down at their tables, the room now a sea of jewel-coloured dresses.  Emerald, sapphire, ruby, amethyst.  A rainbow of couture.  It was beautiful to behold.  But no sooner had I started to admire all the colours than a veritable Mexican wave of black spread over the room from back to front.  The ladies were all throwing their black abayas back on and covering their up-do’s with their shelas.  This could mean only one thing – a man was about to enter the room!

And that dear friends, is where I shall leave it for this month!  To find out what happened next, tune in to February’s ejo.

Bye til then