The Big Question (Engagement Customs in Syria)

It is arguably the most important question you will ever ask or answer: the marriage proposal. So how do young Syrians pop the big question? And have engagement traditions changed over the years?

The tables are filled with guests chatting and munching on sweet biscuits, while a few couples dance lazily to the latest pop hits on a small dance floor. All eyes are fixed on the restaurant’s door. Suddenly, the zaghareed – trilling cries of joy – pierce the air. The happy couple has arrived and the engagement party can begin.

“It all started with a coffee visit,” says the future bride. “My fiancé visited us with his mother to drink coffee and introduce himself. He saw me before at a friend’s house and asked to get to know me better for the purpose of marriage.” More coffee visits followed and after a few months the couple announced their engagement.

Regardless of whether couples meet for the first time over small cups of cardamon-infused coffee, or they already know and love each other, coffee visits remain the most popular way of popping the big question among young Syrians. But what was it like for their parents, or their grandparents? A Damascene restaurant owner, an elderly Christian woman, a grandmother from the coast and a young painter from Hassakeh tell Syria Today about the engagement traditions in their hometowns.

Mother knows best

As I enter a restaurant in the Old City of Damascus, I am surrounded by a hodgepodge of Bedouin tent carpets, old Damascene lanterns and strange plaster decorations that I cannot identify. The stout restaurant owner welcomes me with open arms and a wide smile. Abu Reyyad heralds from an old Damascene family and boasts that he could walk around the Old City blindfolded. His city, however, has changed a lot since Abu Reyyad was a little child – as has love.

“Today, young lovers fill the cafés of old Damascus,” Reyyad says. “I witness countless rendezvous in my restaurant, but it wasn’t always like this. When I was little the couple only saw each other on their wedding day.”

This was how it was for Abu Reyyad. His mother searched for a suitable bride for her son on her weekly visit to the local hammam.

“The hammam used to be the main gathering point for women and therefore the best place to choose a bride,” he said. “In the steam bath, no make-up or fashion tricks can deceive the piercing eyes of the future mother-in-law.”

Once the mother found the right girl, she formed a jaha of women – a group of respected women from the neighbourhood. Together, they would visit the future bride’s mother to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. If the offer was accepted, discussions would move on to settling the naed, the sum of money the bride receives before her marriage, and the jihaz, the new wardrobe of clothes befitting a married woman. Finally, the groom’s father would form another jaha, this one made up of men, who would visit the bride’s father and announce the engagement.

Even though engaged, the couple could not see each other until they were married in court. “Damascenes have the habit of marrying in court weeks or months before the wedding party,” Reyyad said. “This period is considered part of the engagement, so the couple could meet after this, but they did not move in together or experience the dakhle (entrance), the couple’s first night together, until they held their wedding party.”

Once married in court, the groom’s family was responsible for organising a mouled – a night of religious chanting just for the men. The union would also be celebrated with traditional sweets or ice-cream. The bride’s family, on the other hand, would organise a small, all-women’s party to mark the special day.

A test of strength

“I live in heaven,” Najla Salloum, an elderly woman from Enetreyeh, a small Christian village near Homs, says. “We have beautiful greenery, fresh fruits and water every day.” Indeed, time seems to have stopped in the small village where the villagers still wake to the rooster’s crow and go to bed when the sun goes down.

In spite of all appearances, however, many things have changed in this little village – particularly regarding affairs of the heart. While today young couples interact freely in public, it was not all that long ago that socialising between young sweethearts was quite scandalous. And while money and education are the most highly-prized traits of any good suitor today, things were a little different in Salloum’s day.

“Back then the suitor had to carry a big rock or a jar full of wheat to prove that he is a man,” Salloum says with a smile. “Unless he lifted it, his marriage proposal would be refused.”

Once accepted, the suitor brought sacks of sugar, rice and other food items to his future bride’s house. He would also visit the girl’s house with his father and grandfather to officially ask for her hand. Wealthier suitors would also invite the girl’s family for dinner.

Looking at today’s young men, Salloum is sure most would fail to make the grade. “Young suitors today are like nylon bags, they can’t lift anything,” she says.

Love cannot wait

Sometimes, asking for a girl’s hand in marriage can just take too long. After all, if you are in love, why wait? In Mourik, a small village on the outskirts of Hassakeh in the Jazeera area, suitors did not waste time asking families for permission. Men of the desert, young suitors would kidnap the object of their affections and only return her to the village once she was pregnant, forcing the family to accept their union.

“Kidnapping brides was popular and accepted by society up until the end of the sixties,” Abdul Karim Majdal al-Beik, a tall artist with a light beard who was born in Mourik, recalls.

“My grandfather kidnapped my grandmother and even though customs have changed, he told his sons that if they were men they should kidnap a bride for themselves,” he adds laughing.

For those who preferred to follow a more traditional path to marriage – asking the girl’s family for permission – getting engaged in Mourik was a major event. A party for the whole village was expected and the celebrations took place during the day, from 11am until sunset. The suitor’s family would bring large trays made of straw filled with sweets, while the girl’s family would slaughter up to 15 sheep to feed everyone.

“I still remember the dabke we danced in the village’s square,” Beik says. “I can almost hear the traditional music the gypsy bands used to play at every party.”

Keep it simple

Such elaborate celebrations were not popular in all parts of Syria. Coastal villages such as Rama Al-Kabeera, a small village near Tartous, did not celebrate engagements at all. In fact, when I ask Jureyeh, an elderly grandmother from the village, she lost her temper. “Today you can’t distinguish a wedding from an engagement party,” she said disapprovingly. “It’s as if people are searching for an excuse to throw a party.”

Jureyeh tells me that when a man wanted to become engaged to a woman in her village, he used to buy her a scarf and give it to her as a present. If she found golden coins hidden within its folds then this was an ‘alame (sign) that he wanted to marry her.

“God bless those good old days,” she said. “After all, why create such a big fuss?”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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