My little sister Sarah got married when she was seventeen.
I expressed some doubts to my mother. She defended my sister’s decision. “Honey, your sister is on a different path. She’s always wanted a home and family. You want glory and riches.” I was hurt at the time, but I have since decided that it was not a judgment, merely a statement of fact.
Being half American and half Qatari my sister and I are very lucky to have had so many paths to choose from.
If you ask my littlest sister El-Bendari what she wants to do when she grows up, she will tell you without hesitation: marry a boy from our tribe. El-Bendari is five years old this year. Already she has decided that her wedding will be the high point of her life, the funnest and best thing there is. El-Bendari wants a wedding, not a Shetland pony or a career in finance.
There are no astronauts or doctors in my family.
As teenagers, my Qatari cousins and I spent most of our time knee-deep in discussions about our weddings, drawing designs for fantasy gowns and tossing coins over which no-good cousin we’d end up marrying.
I was officially understood to be betrothed to my eldest uncle’s eldest son. I discovered this the first time I came to Qatar by myself. My uncle took me aside for a chitchat. “You know, you are going to need to get married one day,” he said, “and your choices are — my son Amer Jaber.” I was the oldest daughter of my father, Amer Jaber was the oldest son of my father’s older brother; it made sense. Later I confronted my father. Was I really betrothed to my cousin? “Well, yeah, kind of,” he said. “We always match up that way, as long as your blood is compatible.”
My beloved presumptive, Amer Jaber Al-Marri, was known to everyone in the family as Godzilla. I sometimes imagined (not without pleasure) a King Kong–type scenario in which Godzilla clutched me in his chubby fist as I channeled Fay Ray in my black abaya. He squeezed me with his sausage claws as he swatted buzzing helicopters out of the Doha skyline. I had a great view, but I didn’t marry Godzilla. His father, my uncle, a powerful local imam, became impatient.
Godzilla ended up with my cousin Moza.
I worried about them. Godzilla was clearly going to be a lot to handle. I had always liked him well enough, mostly because he was in possession of what seemed to be the only (pirated, of course) English copies of The Smurfs in all of Doha, or at least our tiny corner of it. But his VHS collection did not stop with the Smurfs. One time I peeked into the salah at my uncle’s house to find Godzilla and his brothers watching a video of women practicing all-nude calisthenics before a hairy man in a jumpsuit. I think it was called Gym Nasty, though perhaps I am making that up. But Godzilla definitely had a reputation as the town perv.
I danced at their wedding with extra abandon, having dodged the fastest bullet of my young, eligible life. But everyone knew it was supposed to be me looking elated and nervous and miserable in a spumescent white dress. Only later did it occur to me that each dramatic swerve and hair-flip generated gossip about poor terrified Moza.
Sure indications that a wedding is imminent are the squeals of pain ripping through the cement houses of the lucky bridal family. A shrill female howl of “M-Hagg-Sanaa!” means the halawa lady has arrived.
“Halawa” means sweet. The sweet is a golden glop of boiled sugar water the consistency of thick honey. When the halawa lady rolls in, agitated and late, neighbors in their droves descend on the bride’s house, hoping to get a wax, too. The lucky lady comes first, though, and her waxing is extra-sweet: for her wedding she is allowed her first-ever full-body wax. This takes place offstage, in a side room, with the door locked and the key hidden. But the screams make it exciting for everyone. As do the probing questions from the halawa lady, when it is your turn: “So, are you getting married?” And if that answer is negative, an implied “Then who are you doing this for?” buffeted with a harrumph.
Nowadays some girls do a certain amount of auto-depilation with razors, but this is still controversial. When I moved to Qatar I brought a pink Bic razor with me from Washington and promptly caused a scandal. My grandmother made me take it out of the bathroom and hide it. (Who was I doing this for, indeed.)
After the halawa, the bride has to get the henna. Usually the henna lady is different from the halawa lady. And there are different styles of henna. North African henna is geometrical and closely resembles fish bones. Indian henna is darker (if you mix the henna paste with lemon, it gets dark) and has feathery motifs, like peacocks. Gulfi henna is more rounded and organic. There must be no hint of an image, so it tends to be more floral.
For her wedding the bride gets the whole deal: head and shoulders, knees and toes, all the way up her thighs, like stockings. Her sisters and cousins get hands and arms and sometimes, more recently, an American-style tramp stamp on the lower back. When we talk about our weddings, we are only barely talking about our marriages. The marriage ceremony is a modest affair that usually takes place in the home of the bride, so she doesn’t have to move. It is essentially the signing of a contract, witnessed by family members, sometimes with an imam present but usually not. Tea is served, and cookies. The last marriage I attended was for my stepmother’s brother. Sweetly he brought his bride a pair of lovebirds in a cage, but the poor little budgies died a week later.
When we talk about our weddings, we are mostly talking about the parties. The dueling receptions, male and female. Usually there are two tents set up next to each other on one of the huge swatches of empty lot near where we live. Sometimes they take place at a wedding hall. My sisters dream of having theirs at the Sheraton or the Four Seasons, the men and women in separate air-conditioned ballrooms. But we have never been to such a wedding.
The best wedding I ever went to involved a whole baby lamb splayed out over a hill of rice. The lamb still had its eyes. Out of its back rose a tier of trays with condiments: yogurt, pickles, pepper, salt. The meat was buttery, butter soft; you tore pieces you wanted off with your hands. Usually the food at weddings is disgusting. Gahawah: yellow coffee made from unroasted beans with lots of cardamom. Sour grape leaves. Tasteless rice in hillocky clumps. Cellophane-wrapped wedding favors with shriveled pistachios and sugared almonds in nougat, which sometimes breed tiny worms. Plasticine fruit tarts.
But El-Bendari loves wedding food, especially the tarts. She loves everything about weddings, lives for them, though she won’t be allowed to dance until she’s a teenager. My five-year-old sister’s thoughts about weddings aren’t so very different from those of the eager old women who array themselves about the stage at the women’s tent. A child has the same voyeurial lusts as a widow, we just don’t call them lusts yet. On wedding nights my sister stays awake long after the bride has bid the party goodnight, watching from our grandmother’s lap as the older girls display their tail feathers. This is the main event: nervous virgins and divorcees take their places on a catwalk that is at once auction house, runway, soundstage, and wilderness. Black-robed mothers of marriageable sons move in close in anticipation.
Each eligible girl clambers onto the stage and is announced by the wedding singers, who are always Sudanese. The singers are called daghagat, and they play drums and sing into battered microphones, feedback issuing from the cheap speakers. All the songs sound kind of the same, and yet people have favorites. I have a favorite, but I have no idea what it says or how to ask for it, as the words are almost unintelligible through all the static.
The serious matchmaking happens after dinner, after the bride has been whisked away by the groom and his family. (When the groom comes everyone covers back up and the newly amalgamated family dances around together, the mother of the bride throwing riyals in the air, on her daughter, or on herself, depending on which way the wind is blowing.) Earlier in the night is when the “practice girls” dance, girls who are not especially eligible, or do not wish to be taken seriously. I always dance early, to the consternation of my grandmother.
The female hemisphere of the wedding party is always well lit and bustling long after the men say goodnight. Flesh bursts the seams of silk dresses; the party bursts the woolen tent. The goat-hair flaps can barely shield their glittering secret from the lazy male gazes that peer out from behind the headlights of idling Land Cruisers. It’s a feast for the eyes, all the lacy borders and receding hemlines.
If you were to whip out a camera in the middle of a wedding, the done-up dolls of Doha and their honor-obsessed mothers would gore you quite mercilessly. Security would be called, your film torn out, your memory card burned with a hot incense coal. When I was little there were no photographs at all; the bride had to go to a photography studio, where a woman whose job it was to do so made sure that no one did anything funny with the negatives. These days there are official wedding photographers, usually Filipino ladies. There are no group photos. After the photographer has finished with the bride, unmarried girls swarm to get their picture taken, something to send to their secret cellphone boyfriends.
Last February, before being frisked by the stern security mama at the entrance to my cousin Jameela’s wedding, I slipped my palm-sized digital camera into my underpants. Over the last five years, my family’s wedding festivities have grown grander, more flamboyant, and more revealing, while my shrinking camera phone has become nearly undetectable. I’d smuggled it countless times before, always to good effect. Sometimes the most perceptive girls would pull me behind the stage and ask to be photographed in awkward glamour-shot poses (pinky finger under chin or head cocked into plastic rosebush). After all, my photographs were free, while the Filipino photographers charge five riyals a pop! But this time I felt an unfamiliar twinge of guilt as I aimed my Pentax camera lens out from under the arm of my abaya at a trio of unsuspecting second cousins.
Each of them was resplendent in carefully chosen colors. Afra swayed back and forth in a beaded tunic that quit mid-thigh and rained glass droplets down to her French pedicured toes. Abrar lounged in a golden tiger number, striped spandex stretched taut over her arms into fingerless gloves. Abtihal, who was turning out to be the belle of the ball, stood tall and slim, her torso and hair littered with crumpled purple ribbon rosettes, misted with lilac scent. All three were wearing colored contacts (blue, yellow, purple) and deep red henna all the way up their arms. I had to suppress an awe-filled sigh at their finery. I photographed them as they commented sardonically on the young and unmarried unsheathing themselves for the delectation of the shrouded older women.
As she stood between her sisters, I noticed that Abtihal had an unusual glow about her festooned head. Just as the strangeness registered, her violet eyes flashed an unfamiliar warning — she’d spotted the metallic gleam of my camera. We all used to laugh at the ugly girls who made such a fuss about the stray snapshots that sometimes circulated around the tribe. Now, suddenly, Abtihal stood there, petrified, stock-still as her sisters gesticulated around her. Meanwhile, shameless in the tall grass, I poached the pristine reputation of my beautiful cousin with every snap.
But every photograph I took of her was inexplicably blurry.
A few weeks later I learned that Abtihal had gotten engaged to our cousin Dheeb (Arabic for “wolf”) that very night. This news explained both her glow and the imperceptible twitching revealed by my photographs. Full to the brim with promises, Abtihal was too bright for me to capture. Lashed to her dignity by the braided ropes of fate, she had been petrified of being photographed and risking the honor of her new family. The official photos of my cousin Jameela and her sisters folded neatly into a pocket-sized memory book from the Al Saad Ladies Photography Company. The bride’s mother took me aside recently to show me the album. Her daughter is unrecognizable behind layers of white foundation and raver-girl glitter. The bride’s face is further masked by the romantic sheen that has been airbrushed on by the professional photographers; I swear the curve of her smile is artificial. In the cover photo, Jameela squints out of a heart-shaped cutout. She almost looks like she’s crying through the Gaussian blur. My aunt dismisses the tears with a wave. “Her eyes were watering from the huge lights — we were lucky her mascara didn’t run.”
As she beams down at the collection of her daughter’s “memories,” she confides in me how happy she is that her daughter’s new husband loves her so much. She tells me about how on the wedding night, as they prepared to leave, the groom removed Jameela’s rhinestone necklace and kissed her powdered neck. “Such tenderness was proof!” she exclaimed. “He loves her so much!”
I wonder briefly about my aunt, her marriage to my uncle. We flip through the rest of the photos.
My aunt sighs again and mumbles something about the Allah-given gift of love. “Aagbalish,” she whispers, giving me a matronly squeeze. “You’ll be next.”
Maybe. But probably not. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I no longer seem to be attracting suitors (or rather, their mothers). I have been to scores of weddings by now, and I know when I’m not welcome on a dais.
The first time I danced at a wedding I was fourteen years old and wearing a red Chinese dress with a shocking slit up the leg. My hair was tied back into Chun-Li style buns, so I couldn’t do any of the “sexy” figure-eight-style hair-flipping moves I had practiced at home with my cousins. Thus restrained, I resorted to a mixture of Egyptian-style belly dance and Midwestern clod-hopping. The mothers-with-sons who lined the stage clapped and squawked in their hoarse gravelly voices, “The American dances!” At first I felt embarrassed to be introduced as “the dancing American” instead of “Safya! Daughter of Mohamed,"or "Safya! Granddaughter of Amer!” But when my father heard about my debut, on the other side of the tent, he seemed proud. Which in turn made me feel triumphant despite my humiliation.
I realized that this was what weddings were for: generating gossip and cultivating infamy.
As my mother might say, my kind of glory.