It was reaching the moment the crowd of 2,000 attendees had been anticipating for more than two hours: the bride was about to be unveiled. I use the term ‘unveiled’ because she was literally uncovered from beneath what I can only describe as a gigantic circular curtain, in the shape of what looked like a four-layer cake decorated with ruffles and lace.
The background music was forceful; my sister said it reminded her of the theme music used during battle scenes in the movie Lord of the Rings. For some reason the intense tunes seemed an entirely appropriate way to capture the occasion, which was truly momentous at least for the families involved. One layer at a time the curtain rose from the floor of the podium situated in the centre of the giant exhibition hall where the wedding was held. An exquisitely dressed young Emirati bride of about 20 emerged from beneath the rising curtain, sitting on a small cream-coloured couch made for two, the sweeping train of her glittering wedding gown carefully placed on the floor around her.
My sister and I had arrived 45 minutes earlier at 10:30 p.m., about two hours late but just in time for the tail-end of a dinner comprising traditional Emirati and Asian cuisine consisting of briyani with mutton, chicken masala, a variety of grilled meats and a dish known as Harees, which has a thick porridge-like consistency combining wheat, meat and salt.
As the attendees finished dinner, munched on desserts and sipped Arabic coffee, the anticipation was evident. Everyone was eager to have their first glimpse of the bride at this women-only affair (that is, apart from the male Gulf Arab musician, whose name I did not catch, giving a live performance during dinner).
Traditional Emirati weddings are held in two ceremonies, the first for the groom, which I have heard typically involve a grand dinner party held within a week of the women’s gala. The men’s ceremony is supposedly much more basic, with festivities saved for the bride’s night. On this particular occasion, the groom’s bash took place the evening before.
In all Emirati weddings I have attended, toward the end of the women’s ceremony the groom comes into the hall, often with his father or another male member of the family, and walks across the stage toward his bride. They sit together briefly for photographs with close family and then the two depart to commence their lives together, often going home to a villa festooned with lights.
Over the past few years, I have attended a number of weddings for Emirati couples, including a group wedding where about 70 employees of a local bank tied the knot at a single ceremony paid for by the bank. Depending on the financial capabilities of the families, Emirati weddings vary in their size and ability to dazzle. There is one common thread that runs through all of them, however, and that is that I am always under-dressed. I stopped trying to dress appropriately for UAE weddings because no matter how hard I try, my wardrobe and hairstyle are simply too minimalist to fit in.
Many of the women look so glitzy and sensational they would put actresses on the Oscar Red Carpet to shame with their fabulous, colourful gowns and the remarkable hairstyles they are able to accomplish with their unbelievably thick, long and lustrous black hair. (Masha’Allah) Others look too gaudy and flamboyant for my tastes, although again I imagine that to be very much like a night at the Oscar’s. At weddings, local women tend to let some of their guard down. I often find myself stunned at the size of the emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires dangling from their ears, on their necks and around their wrists. One can see small groups of young ladies dancing together on the stage, supposedly exhibiting their goods for potential mothers-in-law in a way they would not be able to on a daily basis.
This wedding last Friday, which was arranged by the families, was particularly extraordinary. I will refrain for naming the families involved for privacy reasons, although I can say that the bride and the groom were from two different emirates of the seven that comprise the UAE federation. We were prohibited from bringing in our mobile telephones to the extravaganza, and as the bride strutted her way across the stage, not a single camera flash could be seen from the crowd, other than that of the professional camerawoman hired to capture the affair.
So, back to the bride, because she’s the reason we were all there. Directly before the cake-shaped-curtain contraption was lifted from the floor, there was a performance that I must describe because it was so bizarre. Remember C-3P0, the shiny golden robot from Star Wars? The two performers who took to the stage looked like C-3P0, except wearing skirts shaped like metallic cones. The performers swayed to music similar to what I described earlier, appearing to glide across the stage, waving fans made of golden feathers in their hands.
Once their unusual 10-minute performance was complete, the bride emerged from beneath the curtain, adorned in a gown that glittered so immensely it was as though diamonds and crystals were stitched into every crevice of the dress, from the chest to below the knees. As the young bride made her way slowly down the catwalk, and all eyes in the room were glued to her, six assistants followed her to adjust the train, a daunting task requiring huge coordination to fix the heaps of fabric that trailed behind the bride for three metres or longer. I cannot imagine how heavy the dress must have been. Yet, the petite bride smiled the entire time, her face and eyes beaming at her family, relatives and friends as she relished in the 20-minute spotlight that marked the beginning of the next chapter of her life.
At that point, I had joined a crowd gathered at the tip of the catwalk to get a closer glimpse of the dress, the hairdo, jewellery and makeup. I realised then that while the traditions may vary widely, a truly universal thread runs through virtually every wedding of every culture, in every part of the world: the wedding ceremony is the bride’s moment in time to steal the limelight and rejoice at one of her life’s milestone achievements. This bride, at least on the surface, certainly did radiate.