Cultural Wedding Festivities – Henna Party

Before I even set foot on this sandy ground I’d read blogs about spectacular Qatari weddings. I hoped that one day I could be lucky enough to be invited to one. I waited two years, but the day finally came. Not only did I get invited to the wedding, but there’s a party that happens before the wedding (think shower, but…no, don’t think shower) that is usually reserved for family and maybe some close family friends. I was neither, having never laid eyes on the bride-to-be. My ticket into these events was a friend who is a teacher in a Canadian college here in Qatar. The bride was her graduating student. Her “plus one” at the wedding events – the-lucky-me.

This first party happened on the Tuesday night before the Thursday night wedding and was called a “Henna Party.” Just from the name you can get the idea of what this is about. Or, what the original intention of the party was, at one time. I imagine when these folks were Bedouin, not that long ago really, that a couple of nights before the wedding they all got together with the henna artists and got gussied up for the wedding. As with all cultures moving into the modern world, this event has evolved.

First of all, there was no henna to be found. I’m told that there is still henna sometimes and indeed Honour was invited to a wedding the week later (complete with the insider privilege of the henna party) and she got some beautiful henna done.

We arrived at a beautiful facility; my car was shuffled away by a valet. The event took place on the second floor and only guests (and only females) were allowed on the second floor. This allows the women, who are usually covered, some freedom to relax.

Not being Qatari, we didn’t know that arriving at 7:30 for an 8:00 invitation was really, really excessive. The next people to arrive came, maybe around 8:45 and the bride, not for another hour. It gave us a chance to relax and chat and take the room in. Yes, the room required ‘taking in’.

The entrance had two archways to walk under, pink and green, and a white cloth walkway. The room was the biggest splash of celebratory colour I’ve ever seen. Things sparkled; lights glittered. The decor went right up to and stopped right before the…tacky-Vegas-like point. Let me be clear, it wasn’t tacky. It was clearly party-time glitter. There were pink plush fainting couches, bright green, pink and blue decorations and a catwalk in the middle of the room. At the end of the catwalk was another huge, fuchsia pink fainting couch sitting regally under two more arches of pink and green. This was obviously for the guest of honour.

There were maybe 200 people at this event, and each arrival was a treat for the eyes. There’s no picture taking of women without abayas so have a look at these children and imagine them all grown up. I have often looked at the brightly coloured, sequin adorned dressed at the souq and wondered who buys these and where do they wear them? I’ve certainly never seen anyone in one. It was all coming clear to me now. Here they were, on parade. I was so disappointed because I would have loved an excuse to buy one of these dresses.

*Little side note. The invitations to the wedding were handed out on the Sunday before the Thursday night wedding. Yes, everyone who is a family/friend connection knows it’s coming so they’re ready with their clothing, but us expats are caught off guard. This to me is a reason enough to go and buy one of these dresses, just to be ready for the next time. Justifying myself you say? Duh. Of course.

Each new beauty who arrived was greeted by just about everyone. Each person entering was kissed three times on one cheek. As they are kissing they are saying “how are you?” “are you well?” “you look lovely”. I was triple-kissed many times throughout the evening with this ritual conversation repeated but I never got the hang of how to make that kissing noise while talking. There’s a definite rhythm and I didn’t get it.

I’ve seen this kissing taking place many times in public places as friends are meeting up with each other, but one thing that is scarce in public places is elderly women. So it was a sweet revelation to see them meet. It is a sign of tender respect for the younger (even if you’re 60) to kiss the matriarch high on the forehead or on the top of the head. I’d never seen this and I found it quite moving. The respect for matriarchs is very deep. They are a celebrated part of the culture.

Throughout the whole evening servers (decked in gold dresses and head scarves) were very busy. First they walked through the room carrying bowls of incense. The room filled with the familiar smell of exotic spices. Then came a stream of goodies. Some were to keep and take home, others were to eat. Cookies on sticks, dates covered in chocolate with almonds in the centre, chocolates to die for, nuts, pastries, sandwiches, traditional tea, karak, coffees-a-plenty, a fan of feathers, a pot of jam-type deliciousness called Halwa.

Sometime between 9:30-10:00 the bride arrived. The lights dimmed and the music changed and it was obvious something was about to happen. She arrived at the door, under the arches and under the glare of a spot light, dressed in an incredible green and gold-gilded gown. She had on the biggest gold necklace that hung down past her belly button in many strands of gold chains. My host (who has been to over 70 weddings) said “I’ve never seen anything like that!” and an American woman (who’s been married to a Qatari for, I would estimate, almost 30 years) said “Me either!”  Her head was covered in an Omani styled gold (surprised? Are you getting the idea here?) head piece. It was stunning. She walked incredibly slowly across the white cloth floor, to the catwalk and up to the pink couch. It likely took 10 minutes and it wasn’t that far.

After she sat down (by the way, that’s where she stayed for the whole night) a woman dressed elegantly in a white gown came and threw money, bills, one at a time over her head. I learned later that this woman was her mother-in-law-to-be and that throwing money over their head’s was to ward off evil. This woman looked very happy and was close by with hugs and kisses and money to throw throughout the evening.

I asked where the mother of the bride was. I was told that it was customary for the mother of the bride to feign sadness at this event. In days gone by apparently she wore old ragged clothing and sat in the shadows and looked sad. She was losing a daughter after all. Currently she is not required to be in rags, but she is not dressed in a celebratory way, she does not throw money and she definitely does NOT dance. The mother-in-law-to-be danced joyfully all night. I asked if the mother really wasn’t happy? Wasn’t this what they wanted? For their daughters to get married and have babies? Answer: “pfft, of course! It’s just a custom.”

At some point in the evening, young girls began to dance on the catwalk. Dancing up and down the full length of the platform. I learned that these girls were the single ones. Some of their dresses, well, if there were men there, some of their dresses would have been downright provocative. These girls were stunning and I couldn’t reconcile them with the demur, coquettish girls I see in the mall. I’m told that they are dancing, in their gorgeous dresses, strutting their stuff, for the mother’s in attendance who have eligible sons. The mother’s are the ones to make the marriage matches. As the girls dance, older women walk around them throwing money over their heads in a gesture of love, and blessing and warding off that evil.

Lest you think money is now foolishly carpeting the floor, there are people running around picking it up. Originally this money was given to charity, and sometimes it still is, but often, as in the case of this night, it was given to the D.J. in payment for services. (In my mind…I’ve concocted a new retirement plan). The Filipina waitresses also try to snag some of the lucrative snowfall while the D.J.’s representative races them for it. It all seemed to be a bit of a game. The Filipina’s laughed and played while the D.J.’s rep seemed more like a very humourless ninja.

Next, the bride was seated in the middle of the catwalk and a beautiful traditional cloth (you’re getting it now right? brightly coloured, gold and sparkly) was tented over her head. The young single girls all gathered at the edges holding a piece of the cloth while an older women sang prayer after prayer. A prayer for peace, a prayer for financial blessing, a prayer for fertility (of course!), a prayer for protection, and so on. Then she moved back to her fainting couch.

For the rest of the evening everyone danced. Well, almost everyone. Those at our table remained firmly seated but we were warned we would have to dance at the wedding. Ok, fine. But I wasn’t dancing there, not while I was dressed in my…well, in my best party clothes, but really in this company, in these dowdy things. Both my friend and I kept saying “WHAT are we going to wear to the wedding?” I hopefully asked the Qatari-wife at our table, ‘will they wear dresses like these to the wedding?’ Mentally picking out the one I’d buy. “Oh no” she replied “they’ll all be in designer gowns.” Swell.

At about 10:30, eyes sated with beauty and tummies full of goodies, the waitresses began to clear the tables. Whew, this must be a sign it’s coming to an end. The music was so loud you couldn’t have conversation. I saved my questions for between songs and blurted them out semi-automatic style. I admit my head was starting to hurt. A teenage girl at our table shouted, in between songs, “I HATE MUSIC!”  “You do?” I asked, surprised. “Well I do NOW!” haha, yes I was starting to feel the same. The music started again, I hadn’t had the chance to ask my question, ‘was this the end?’ when I saw the waitresses coming out of the kitchen with trays of food. Oh my goodness….the tables had been cleared so they could serve DINNER!

As soon after dinner as was socially acceptable, we said good night. It was nearing midnight and we both had school in the morning.

I summoned the valet dawling, and I was on my way home. Ears throbbing, mind buzzing and very happy.

Next blog post – The Wedding!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Cultural Wedding Festivities – Henna Party

  1. Did you know you have a Camp Old Navy commercial attached to your blog? What the heck?!!

  2. I felt like I was there! Thanks Tracie for another little piece of Qatar.

  3. Tracie, I can’t wait for your rendition of ‘Here Comes The Bride”..

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