Best Saudi Wedding Ever (Shannon's Take)

A few nights before Grace’s birthday party (to which I had invited six families), I had a nightmare. Elbow-deep in a bowl of something-or-other that I was preparing, I realized that my guests were already arriving. In formal attire. To my horror, there was no way I’d be able to serve them anything anytime soon, and I wasn’t even sure I had everything I needed. For that matter, I couldn’t remember what I had planned to make. I woke up in a cold sweat.

It’s a good thing I’m not Arab; I don’t think I have the mental constitution to throw big parties like the wedding we attended recently. The first Arab wedding I attended was in Syria in 2004. I was new to the Middle East back then, fresh out of Utah, where wedding receptions are held in church gyms that have bouquets stuffed into basketball hoops and where the catering is done by burnt-out extended relatives who wish they had smaller families on occasions like this. So I showed up to this Syrian wedding in a denim skirt and t-shirt.

Wedding drums. Not as cool as Zeppelin, but decent.
I’m sure my appearance tested the boundless graciousness of my Syrian hosts, although they never gave any sign of noticing. They wore tailor-made sequined gowns, in colors so bright that I had never thought I’d see them draped over a human being. It was like a ballroom dance convention with quite a few women who were not exactly light of foot anymore . . . and without any men to serve as dancing partners, because mingling of the sexes is against the rules.

So now this little account has gone from my dreams to Syria, and I’m bringing you back to Saudi Arabia, and once again in the middle of the night. This time I’m the one in the sparkling dress, in the car, wondering if we’re ever going to find this promised wedding hall, willing myself not to nod off, trying to decide if it would be rude to give up and go home, thinking it a little strange that we’re going to such lengths to please a host we met casually at a carwash, reminding myself that I’ll probably never get another chance to see what a Saudi wedding is like. 

Abu Halen dropped me off at the women’s party, which was on the opposite side of the building from the men’s party. The women’s doors stood behind a stained-glass privacy wall. When I entered, I removed my veil and abaya, handing it to a Filipina woman behind a counter who guessed that I was American. She whispered it to one of the servers, who then sized me up with an expression that was either awe or pity—I’m still not sure which it was.

I knew no one at the party, but Abu Halen had assured me that these were wealthy Saudis—there were likely to be numerous English speakers in the crowd. There probably were. But I didn’t feel comfortable trying to introduce myself to strangers who might or might not speak English. What would they even do if I approached them? Saudi culture is very closed—in the year that I’ve lived here, this was the first time I had ever seen a Saudi woman without a veil and abaya. Given the warm hospitality I have experienced in other Arab countries, I have found it strange that I don’t know a single Saudi personally here. At least among Saudi women, friendships and kinships allow very little room for inclusion of foreigners.

The women and girls all wore elaborate ball gowns. Even babies sported fancy dresses, like these. Women who sat in the chairs and couches that lined the entrance to the ballroom wore their hair in painstakingly sculpted confections. I slipped through the group quietly as they busied themselves greeting others who were entering the room. They smiled and exchanged cheek kisses, which for an American are a social conundrum, especially when you realize that the number and location of expected kisses differs from country to country—I always fear that I’ll mess it up and accidentally end up kissing someone’s mouth. Gross. Here the women exchanged a time-consuming (but most probably sincere) five kisses on a single cheek! Occasionally I saw them throw in a bonus kiss for the neglected cheek.

I made my way to the back of the ballroom and located a table that was mostly unpopulated. Making a gesture at an empty chair, I asked the women (or perhaps girls—everyone was wearing so much makeup that age was hard to estimate) if I could join them. They kindly obliged but seemed a little confused since they didn’t know me. But they offered me a small glass of coffee, which I accepted and set amicably on the table before me. It took only a couple of exchanges before the women and I realized that communication was just not going to work for us—they spoke no English, and I spoke only a smidgen of rusty Arabic (and nothing of the Saudi dialect).

Although I felt badly that I was probably making them uncomfortable because I had no friends, I truly was happy just to be able to sit quietly and observe the crowd of women interacting. There was a lot of kissing, ululating, and dancing. All but the oldest women were unveiled. The aged women wore transparent lace veils in black or white.

A Filipina servant wandered among the tables carrying a brazier of smoking incense, and soon I was immersed in the scent. The female singer at the front of the room sang traditional Saudi melodies to recorded music dominated by drums and stringed instruments. In the middle of the room was a platform that extended from the stage to the center of the ballroom. Here women—mostly young women—danced to celebrate the day’s wedding, their arms suspended delicately below shoulder level, their hands gesturing or holding delicate poses, their hips swaying and dipping gently when the heaviest drum beat fell in the musical rhythm.

Servants distributed fruit juices while Saudi young women carried around trays of sweet-meat pastries and chocolates. Abu Halen texted me on his phone at this point, saying they had already finished a meal and the men were leaving. Amazed at our good fortune at being able to leave less than an hour after we had arrived, I made my way out of the ballroom, exchanged my wardrobe ticket for my abaya, covered myself again in modest black, and stepped out into the night. It was as perfect a wedding as I’ve ever been to in the Middle East.