A Western-style ‘white wedding’ is becoming increasingly popular in Syria, but traditional celebrations live on around the country.
The guests sound cries of joy as a thin, exotically dressed belly dancer enters the wedding hall at the Sheraton Ma’aret Hotel in Sednaya, a town 30km north-west of Damascus. After welcoming the guests with tempting twists and hip lifts, the dancer leads the newly weds into the hall.
“I wanted to have a belly dancer at my wedding because my husband Jean is French and I knew he would love to have something so Eastern and exotic at the party,” Rania Bdewi, 35, who hails from the predominately Christian village of Mesenye in the Hauran, said.
But belly dancing is not the only Syrian feature at Bdewi’s wedding. Piles of Syrian delicacies are spread over tables and the happy couple cut their wedding cake with a traditional Damascene sword.
“Apart from the type of food, music and belly dancing, Syrian weddings don’t differ much from French ones,” Jean-Christophe Canler, the lucky groom, said. “Except that we settle for a simple knife to cut the cake.”
Most Syrian couples today celebrate their big day along the lines of a Western-inspired ‘white wedding’. Some, however, still insist on maintaining their grandparents’ traditional wedding customs. An ‘arada band director – a traditional musical group that sings and conducts sword fights during weddings and other celebrations – from the Old City of Damascus, a grandmother from the Jazeera region, a teacher from the mixed Damascus suburb of Jaramana and a young musician from the coast tell Syria Today about traditional marriage customs in their area.
Party in the hammam
“God help him through this night,” sing the 12 members of the Al-Sham Al-Qadeymeh ‘arada band as they surround the anxious groom. Soon, the excited singers dressed in elaborately embroidered vests, white cotton shirts and loose dark trousers, draw forth their traditional Damascene swords and engage in ceremonial swordplay.
“This is an old wedding custom that still forms an important part of today’s weddings,” Abu Fayyad, the thin and restless 40-something who founded the Al-Sham Al-Qadeymeh band, said. “Today people start their wedding with an ‘arada show. In the old days, however, the hammam came first.”
When the clock strikes five in the afternoon, the groom’s friends knock on his door to take him to his wedding bath. Together, they bathe and celebrate with songs and food until sunset. Traditionally, an ‘arada band would be waiting at the door of the hammam to greet the freshly scrubbed groom. With cheerful songs and drum beats, the band would escort him to his family home where a mouled (a night of religious chanting) would already be underway.
During the mouled, friends of the groom gather to take off the groom’s bachelor clothes and dress him in his wedding suit, all the time singing traditional telbise (dressing) songs. Once the groom is dressed, the band engages in swordplay, before accompanying the groom to the location of the wedding ceremony. Here, the bride is already celebrating the marriage with traditional wedding songs and belly dancing.
“A Damascene proverb says everything needs to be concealed, except weddings,” Abu Fayyad laughed.
Indeed, Damascenes make sure that everyone knows about the wedding by making a mubarake (congratulations party) one week after the wedding ceremony. People who did not attend the wedding can come to this party to congratulate the happy couple and give them a wedding gift.
Blessed by the saints
“She saw it in her dream,” Maya Yousef, a 25-year-old qanun player from Qutelbeyeh, a small village near Lattakia, said. “My cousin Juliette saw the shrine of the saint who was going to bless her on her wedding day.”
His name is Saint Hassan and no toasts were made at Juliette’s wedding before she and her groom had received the saint’s blessing. In fact, no wedding takes place in Qutelbeyeh without getting the blessing of one of the saints whose shrines are scattered around the village.
Yousef, a slender woman with thick black curls, described the blessing ceremony with much reverence.
“The couple enters the shrine with their right foot first,” she explained. “After kissing the walls of the shrine, they walk three times around the saint’s tomb asking for his blessing with heartfelt piety. When leaving, the couple walks out backwards still facing the saint and carefully steps outside with their right foot first. People in the village believe that you should never turn your back to the saint’s tomb as it is a sign of disrespect.”
A long night of eating, drinking and dancing the dabke follows, the party only coming to an end when the sun rises.
Test of strength
Dabke dances, which differ from region to region, are also popular in the Jazeera area.
According to Um Ali, an old woman from a village near Hassakeh, everyone in the village dances together, except for the bride and groom.
“They only dance with the brazava [best friends], never together,” Um Ali said while adjusting the loose scarf on her head dotted with a colourful flower motif.
When taking a break from dancing, villagers fill their stomachs with mounds of rice, bulgur and meat – as long as it is red.
“If the couple is rich they will slaughter a bull or a cow,” Um Ali explained. “They could also slaughter sheep. But offering the guests chicken or duck is a disgrace.”
In Um Ali’s day, the bride would only enter the bridal home with her husband after she was sure she had married a real man. To prove this, the groom was compelled to climb onto their new home, traditionally made of mud brick, and kick off a small chunk of the roof. Unless he could break off a small part, he would not be considered a worthy husband.
“My husband was so manly that when he hit the roof a big piece of mud fell right onto my head!” Um Ali recalled with tears of laughter. “He then threw a big jar full of candy and money from the roof to ward off evil from the house. When the jar broke, all the children gathered to collect the presents inside.”
Children also stay alert throughout the wedding celebrations, keen to snatch any of the bride’s possessions. After the wedding, the groom is obliged to pay the children to get the items back.
A week of celebrations
As I sat with Ali Dakak, a teacher living in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, the piles of fruit and ice cream and cups of juice and coffee continue to expanded in front of me at an astonishing rate.
“I have Bedouin origins,” the stout man said cheerfully. “We love feeding our guests.”
Overfeeding guests – especially foreign ones – is a popular past-time throughout Syria, particularly at weddings. But while most people are happy to serve up a delicious spread on the wedding day, Dakak’s Bedouin roots demand a grander celebration.
“We start celebrations a week ahead,” he said enthusiastically.
On the menu is tannour (bread baked in traditional ovens) and kebbeh. The women gather during the day to cook and everyone sings and dances through the night.
“In the past, women would make around 100kg of bread to feed everyone,” Dakak recalled. “That is why every guest used to bring a sack of flour or rice or sugar or some other food item to the celebrations.”
Henna also forms part of many a bride’s wedding celebration. The bride’s unmarried girlfriends organise a special bridal henna party to decorate her body with the natural dye. Often the bride’s friends snatch some of her henna and decorate their hands as a good-luck gesture to increase their own chances of finding a husband.
The groom, on the other hand, is invited by his bachelor friends to the hammam where, after bathing, shaving and having his hair cut, he is playfully roughed-up and stung with sharp needles in the hope that his luck will rub off on his single friends.
“Grooms from our community often attend their wedding parties covered in bruises,” Dakak said with a grin.
Wearing black trousers, a white shirt and an imbaz (a kimono-like silk gown), the groom fixes a white scarf on his head with a traditional black head band and fastens a dagger to his waist to display at the wedding party. The bride, on the other hand, buys four to nine dresses for the occasion and changes her outfit every hour. When she finally puts on the traditional white wedding dress, it is to signal that the party is over.
“The wedding used to be a fashion show, it even ends with a wedding dress,” Dakak said. “Today, weddings last less than 24 hours. They just have a quick party and then everybody goes home. It doesn’t feel like a wedding anymore.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine