In Tunisia at least, people tend not to get married during Ramadan — a holy month of communal fasting. But in the weeks immediately following Ramadan, weddings abound. Nearly every evening as I’ve walked along the streets in Sidi Bou Said — a suburb of Tunis — this September, I’ve seen cars overflowing with joyful men honking into the night to celebrate a new marriage.
On my very first night with my new host family, I had the chance to experience one of these wedding ceremonies first hand. My host mother had been invited to the third night of a wedding party, and she and her (real) daughter were obligated to go.
To give some background: Tunisian weddings are generally broken into three days of celebrations. In the first one — hamaam — the bride and groom are separated, and the bride and her female friends and family go together to the bathhouse (a practice reminiscent of Roman traditions and the Jewish mikveh). In the second evening, the bride is decorated with harkous or henna (temporary tattoo-like designs on her hands and feet).
The third night, which I attended for the lovely couple pictured above, often includes a wedding reception closer to those practiced in the States. People get together for music, dancing, food, and celebrations. Like most Tunisian weddings, my party did not offer a full meal. Instead, people snacked on baklava, candies, pastries, and other smaller treats in between musical acts. Unlike the “Wedding Crashers”-esque parties depicted in American films, this one also lacked alcohol. Perhaps in deference to the many traditional Muslims in the room, only juice, tea, and coffee drinks were available.
I spent most of the time sitting in a lavish chair watching the spectacle; it was a bit intimidating to dance when I didn’t know any of the attendees. I was also woefully underdressed compared to the other women at the party. Not only were they all dressed to the nines in very detailed and brightly colored gowns, but they also decked themselves out in much more make-up than I tend to wear. Though I obviously stood out, I wasn’t alone in the audience. For many attendees, the wedding was something of a spectator sport. Several different bands and singers performed over the course of the night, as did two belly dancers and a “whirling dervish." There was quite a bit to see.
Indeed, the bride and groom themselves barely stood up the entire evening. In most Tunisian weddings, the most important people in the room spend their time on a decadent bridal couch on the stage at the front of the festivities. They sit on display, holding court over the party, while everyone else dances and celebrates. To be fair, I’m not sure what else this bride could have done — her jewel-encrusted gown looked as if it weighed at least 60 pounds. It was quite a challenge for her to sit and stand every few minutes, much less join in the dancing.
Before this week, I had only ever attended a small smattering of Jewish and Christian weddings (though I’ve watched enough Disney movies and “Fiddler on the Roof” reruns to have some understanding of how they usually run). Because of my limited experience with Muslim or Arab weddings in general, I spent most of the party comparing the ceremony to its Western and Jewish counterparts.
The most striking difference, for me, was that it seemed haral and acceptable for attendees to wear white. In the States, only the bride generally wears white at the wedding — it’s conventionally accepted as haram for anyone else to try to take attention away from her by sporting the same color. Perhaps because the bride was so unmistakable in her elaborate gown at the front of the room in a bridal throne, there was no need to worry that someone else would get mistaken for her.
There was also a different sort of pomp and circumstance at this party than others I’ve attended. All have religious and cultural traditions (breaking a glass, father-daughter dances, etc.), but with slightly different flairs and priorities. My host mother has a few more weddings scheduled for the coming month. Inshaalah, I’ll be able to tag along and learn more about how the celebrations differ depending on the families involved.