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> The Semiology of the Palestinian Face
> Aida Kattan (1): The taboun
> Aida Kattan (2): The Palestinian Mukhtar
> Aida Kattan (3): the Palestinian wedding in the...
> Aida Kattan (4): Henna brought on the bride
> Aida Kattan (5): Nuzha, the summer picnic
> Aida Kattan (6) Traditions from the home courtyard
> Shepherds, Grazing Fields, and Recreational Games
> Nablus' olive oil soap: a Palestinian tradition...
> Palestinian Wedding
> Plant-Lore in Palestinian Superstition
> Tosheh: a Palestinian Villagers’ Quarrel
> The Palestinian Wedding Practices and Rituals
> Privacy and Love in Palestinian Villages
> Feast days in Jerusalem as they used to be
> Washing their hair with herbs
> Chamomile (Babounej)
By Na’ela Azzam Libbes
Folk weddings, some of which are still practised within our traditional communities, have been inspired by rational and ideological influences that are solidly embedded within Arab social values and mores and conventional beliefs. Weddings are an accumulation of rearing practices and moral ethics among the Arabs, both those living in the East within the confines of the Arab World, and those who are spread around the globe.
Wedding practices have been manifestly influenced by religious and social factors. Within the Christian culture, which was widespread in the Arab East before the dawn of Islam, marriage is a sacrament and is therefore indissoluble; it forbids divorce and remarriage for both men and women, and forbids polygamy, which is a practice sanctioned by the Muslim religion. This is done for many reasons: to preserve the balance between males and females within the population and to prevent girls from becoming spinsters, which might lead them to sexual delinquency, considered a taboo in our conservative communities that strictly forbid girls from practising sex outside marriage.
A wedding is the most important occasion to perform many practices that cannot be realized outside the boundaries of this ceremony. It is considered a connection between families, based on a common understanding and mutual respect between the parents of the bride and groom. It therefore becomes an important occasion to “settle accounts” between families, clans, tribes and kingdoms. We oftentimes hear of marriages of convenience that were, and continue to be, arranged by the parents of the bride and groom for the purpose of serving commercial or business interests or other purposes, without investigating the compatibility between the bride and groom or seeking their consent.
These practices, beliefs and values were recorded and preserved within special songs that were repeated at weddings and that have helped create a foundation for new songs based on new practices relevant to modern times. This innovation was achieved through transformations in the form of the songs or through the addition of verses, but this is a vast subject that is beyond the scope of this article.
Both men and women sang at weddings, but the singing of the women outdid by far that of the men because it reflected the gamut of practices related to our heritage (refer to my book entitled “Women’s Folkloric Songs for Engagements and Weddings”). The women’s singing was divided into two different types in terms of performance: the first type is what is referred to in Arabic as al-mardudeh, which is a sort of repartee between the lead singer, known as the badda’a (the talented one) and the group of women present at the wedding. The second type is known in Arabic as the mhaha, which is a solo song performed by one of the women for a particular reason and addressed to a specific person. Although it will be discussed in more detail later in the article, following is an example of a mhaha addressed to the groom the minute he is alone with his bride for the consummation of their marriage:
Hey groom! Here is what I have to say to you
Lest the house should fall upon you
If your bride is still a virgin in the morning
People would end up at you laughing
The groom is first and foremost expected to be the “total man” and in his full sexual prowess in order to succeed in bedding his bride. The lyrics of the aforementioned song should not come as a surprise when one bears in mind that the marrying age for a young man was a mere fourteen years! An example of the women’s mardudeh states:
She appeared from the window to water the potato bed
So and so, just fourteen, will take a seamstress for a wife!
She appeared from the window to water the mlukhiyeh (mallow) bed
So and so, just fourteen, will take a brave one for a wife!
A confirmation of a groom’s sexual abilities, whether he is fourteen years of age or older, is verified at his ziyaneh, which is the traditional groom’s party on the eve of his wedding day and is the equivalent of a stag party in some Western societies. It is a very important ritual during which his parents brag about his beard, a symbol of manhood, which needs a good shave if he is to succeed in taking his bride’s virginity. During the ziyaneh, one of the most popular songs performed is the following:
Spread the news among his cousins of the same age
Who greet him with drums and wind-pipes
And parade to him with enticing stallions
And a dance of swords
This particular song was performed at the wake of a young bachelor who had been stabbed in the back, and it was not until the 1930s that it was performed at weddings. The explanation is that the young man who got killed treacherously would have been a groom, and his burial, primarily announced to his male cousins, involved a ritual that is befitting a groom. However, unlike a wedding announcement, the announcement for his burial was not pre-determined, but announced instantly after the killing, and his burial procession was distinguished from that of a wedding by the performance of musicians, parading horses and sword dances.
This interchangeability between songs is due to the paucity of songs at contemporary weddings where song themes and occasions for them to be performed got confused as people moved from agricultural societies that generated these folk songs to modern societies that eschewed the circumstances for their creation; and there are many examples regarding this issue. In the first song, the manhood of the groom as well as his sexual abilities constitutes the most important theme, and this is typical of wedding songs. Also, it is assumed and expected that the bride is a virgin to be soon deflowered by the groom, at the risk of him becoming the laughing stock of the expectant attendants. The crucial issue becomes the provision of proof of the bride’s virginity.
One of the common customs, which was practised not very long ago and is still practised within a few communities, is a vigil held by a few women close to the scene of consummation while the groom is attending to his bride. These women stand behind the locked door singing and ululating until the groom, having accomplished his mission, comes out with a cloth stained with the virginal blood. His mother takes the cloth and dances in front of the group of women and passes it on to the father of the groom who, in turn, expresses his pride in his son’s manhood.
The virginity of the girl was one of the most important gauges of her reputation. Women pondered on her integrity through song, praising her timidity and reserve symbolized by the fact that she never stepped beyond the doorstep of her father’s house and shunned the light of day. One of the songs sung during the tijlay, or the coming out process states:
A girl so shy we never see
Not even at the doorstep of her father’s house
A girl so shy we never encounter
Who shuns the sun lest she be seen
We oftentimes hear the saying that a woman leaves the house twice in her life: the first time is to go to her husband’s home, and the second time when she dies and is carried to the cemetery. This saying does not apply to the peasant woman who is involved in most agricultural work, but it implies that a girl should be patient and tolerant with her husband no matter how harsh he is and she should stay at home no matter the circumstances.
The word tijlay means to come out, appear or emerge. The ritual of tijlay is practised when a bride appears in the presence of her groom for the very first time, because in the old days, the bride and groom were forbidden from seeing one another before the wedding. One of the most common songs sung during the tijlay states:
In the name of God, go to your quarters, oh Zeina!
You, a rose in the midst of the garden
You, a stalk of carnation, a bride
Swathing us in roses
The bride is expected to seclude herself in her new quarters with her groom on her wedding night. In the past, when night fell, women would accompany her to her new home, where her groom would be waiting. The house could be at the far end of the village and, it being dark, they would carry torches to light the way for the bride so she does not trip and fall. Today, when this ritual is enacted, the torches are replaced by candles.
In Christian rituals, the use of candles as well as many other practices is inspired by the manner in which the church describes and discusses the Virgin Mary and the different ways She is represented within the various churches. One of the important rituals associated with weddings is when the bride sticks a piece of dough on the lintel of the front door of her new home. The dough is a symbol of wealth, munificence, blessings and a large progeny, and it means that a bride should bring good fortune to her groom in terms of money and children. One of the songs sung during this process goes as follows:
We welcome you as you enter your home
As roses, jasmines and flowers bloom
We pray to the Heavenly Father, the Almighty
To defeat your enemies and bless you with many boys
Let everything we did for you become blessed
And arid land turn green at your feet
Had I not been shy before your kith and kin
I would kneel down and kiss the ground at your feet
Another important ritual is the henna, which is practised by both the bride and the groom, although the bride’s is much more significant and serves a different purpose. The bride’s henna is essentially cosmetic and compliments her beauty after the process of hair removal from the limbs and face. There are many songs for the henna, and the most important one is the following:
They put henna on the brides but left out my hands
How wonderful it is to sleep among the girls
They put henna on the brides but left out my fingers
How wonderful it is to sleep among the little girls
Women would come from the groom’s house carrying on their heads a tray of henna decorated with flowers and candles. They would take turns in carrying the tray and dancing with it before the bride. Then one of the women would take some henna and apply it on the bride’s hands, feet and hair and cover them with pieces of cloth, which are removed the next morning when the bride washes herself. The henna colours her skin and hair with an orange hue.
In the case of the groom, henna is applied for good fortune. It is extracted from a plant that is mentioned in the Holy Quran and is therefore blessed. The plant is also used for its sterilizing effects, especially when applied on limbs after working in the fields.
This discussion gives a rather narrow and sketchy view of the many rituals associated with weddings. An in-depth discussion of the subject is available in many sociological and anthropological publications in both Arabic and English.
Na’ela Azzam Libbes, a retired music teacher, is a researcher in Palestinian folklore and has published several books on the subject, including, “Women’s Folkloric Songs for Engagements and Weddings,” as well as several CDs and cassettes that accompany her books.
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