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Palestinian Weddings– American vs. Traditional

Contributed by Prima Soho on 21.10.2007:

I have often been asked, by non-Arabs, what a Palestinian Arab wedding is like. I have answered that question by only describing my experiences of attending Palestinian weddings here in the United States. However, Palestinian-American weddings are not “real” Palestinian weddings. While they do contain remnants of the traditional ceremonies my grandparents celebrated, they are still not authentically Palestinian. These old fashioned celebrations witnessed by my mother as a young girl have all but vanished.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend a wedding ceremony in my parents west bank home village. I expected and hoped to see a traditional ceremony somewhat like the ones my mother described to me. What I saw was very similar to the weddings I had seen in the United States. Like so many other cultures, Western practices and traditions have mixed with old traditions, making the present day ceremonies in Palestinian society not a thoroughly Palestinian one. The ceremony I had seen was actually a sort of midpoint between those that are celebrated in the United States,and those that were celebrated by the generations before; a ceremony in which old meets new. So, in answering the question what is a Palestinian wedding like? I would really like to include two ceremony descriptions — a Palestinian wedding ceremony here in the United States, and a traditional West Bank village ceremony of yesterday. Ceremonies vary somewhat with geographical location, religion, and local traditions within Palestinian society. Both ceremonies described here are the traditions of the West Bank (Muslim) village my family hails from and are not necessarily representative of all Palestinian weddings.

A Palestinian Wedding, U.S.A. Style

Palestinian weddings in the United States are similar to many American weddings in some ways. Yet in other ways, they are distinctly Arab. With most Muslim Palestinians, the bride and groom are already married. A small religious ceremony takes place prior to the wedding celebration so that, unlike most weddings, there is no religious figure present. Thus, unless you are a close relative, if you are invited to the wedding, you will be attending the larger ceremony after the religious ceremony. The prefered location is at a large reception hall or a hotel, and the time is usually in the evening. Since large families and strong kinship is very much a part of the culture, anyone even remotely related to the bride or groom is invited, rendering a guest list of anywhere from 300 to 600 people. There is usually a live Arabic band, but in some cases a DJ playing popular Arabic songs. There can be Arabic food served, but in most cases it is American food

Minutes before the ceremony begins, the crowd of guests who have been greeting each other and the families of the bride and groom, become quiet as the band begins to play. Everyone knows that the playing of the music signals the entrance of the bride, groom and their families. An announcement or introduction is made with each entrance. The groom dressed in a tuxedo or formal suit enters with his father. The bride, dressed in a white bridalgown, enters with her father. Ultimately, an announcement of the couples marriage is made, some verses from the Quran are read, and the bride, groom, and their families are then approached by the majority of guests wishing them prosperity and happiness. Then comes the first dance of the bride and groom who eventually are joined by their families who, following the old Arab tradition, follow them in dancing and singing their happiness for the couple. After a song or two, dinner is served. Following dinner, more songs and more dancing.

No Palestinian wedding is complete without many opportunities to dance “el debka.” This group dance which is somewhat like that of the Greeks but faster in rhythm, involves everyone joining hands and moving to the strong beat of the Arabic drum called “al tabla.” The celebrations go on late into the night. Before the evening is over, the bride throws the bouquet to all the single women, another Western tradition, and American music is also sometimes played. Although the wedding cake is usually baked at an American bakery, one tradition that has remained in terms of the sweets is the offering of jordan almonds; a candy covered almond. Jordan almonds as wedding/party favor are, I am told, a long standing tradition. Thus, the mixing of Palestinian and American traditions make ceremonies like these not truly Palestinian, but uniquely Palestinian-American

Change in cultural traditions is inevitable. However, because traditions define a people at a given time and place, learning about them is both interesting and necessary. Since many Palestinian traditions may not be practiced anymore, it is important to remember them and record them for posterity. I have always been interested in the traditions that are no longer practiced. For that reason, and because it is rather different than those of today, I am choosing to describe a Palestinian wedding from the 1940’s. This wedding description is drawn from my mother’s memory of the ceremonies she observed as a young girl in a west bank village of Palestine.

According to my mother, a wedding was a grand affair which was celebrated by the entire village. Even travellers and people from nearby villages were welcomed to the weddings. Everyone in the village knew that a wedding was coming. The family of the groom would go from house to house to personally invite guests with an offering of “makhloota”, a mixture of nuts and seeds. In traditional Palestinian weddings, it is the groom’s family who pays for and arranges the entire ceremony.

For days and up to a week before the wedding ceremony, family and friends gather night after night for a “sahra” ; a night of singing and dancing. Usually taking place in a large empty field and providing plenty of space for lots of people to gather, the sahra is just as festive as the wedding ceremony itself. It was usually only the men who danced el debka while the women sang. The night before the wedding is the henna party. The bride and all the women gather for dancing, sweets, and the painting of henna on their hands. Henna painting prior to a wedding is an ancient tradition which is sometimes still practiced today.

On the day of the wedding ceremony, the women of the groom’s family are very busy preparing a large amount of food for the the large gathering that is to come. The main Arabic dish was “asida”; cracked wheat cooked like rice, which is covered with a layer of rice and large pieces of lamb. This is served in abundance as several trays of it will be prepared. Perhaps the most showy part of the ceremony is when the groom is seated on a horse and paraded through the village for all to see. Wearing the traditional dress of a “kafiyeh”, the Palestinian black and white head cloth and an ornate white “abaya” cloak with gold trimming, he rides a horse dressed in a fancy saddle. As the groom rides throughout the village, his family follows singing, clapping and displaying their happiness. By late afternoon, the groom and party return to the groom’s family’s home and dinner is served.

In the meantime, the bride and her family have been awaiting her departure for the house of the groom. The groom’s family have already sent dinner to the bride’s family at their home and following that, the bride makes her way to join the groom. Like the groom, she is also seated on a horse and escorted and followed by her family. She wears the traditional Palestinian dress called the “thobe” which is a long dress with long sleeves. However on this occasion her thobe has angular sleeves and fancy gold, silver or red embroidery. On her way to the groom’s home, neighbors and people of the village stop her to offer her gifts. Upon her arrival to the groom’s home, she is seated in a room on a chair that is usually elevated on a platform. The groom joins her and is seated at her side. The families of the groom and of the bride then celebrate together, dancing into the late night hours. In a traditional Palestinian wedding, there is no exchange of rings. At the end of the night, a scarf is placed on the bride’s lap and guests place gifts of money or gold in the scarf as they wish them happiness and prosperity.

Wedding ceremonies are one of the best ways to observe the traditions of a people. Today, in that same West Bank village, this sort of ceremony is no longer practiced as only some of the traditions still remain. Ceremonies today are instead a combination of the Palestinian-American wedding described in part one of this article, and the traditional wedding previously described. Remembering these, and other traditions, is important to our understanding of ourselves and in defining ourselves as a cultural group. As the saying goes, it is important to remember where you came from in order to know where you are going..

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