So I attended my first big wedding party (walimah) here in Riyadh! What an amazing experience! The second part of the wedding party celebrations can be read here.
Weddings are the most important social gatherings in Saudi. Often costing hundreds of thousands of riyals, this is the time Saudi families show off their wealth. The wedding party and all related expenses are usually paid by the grooms family but often the bride’s family chips in as well. Weddings are always gender segregated but most of the traditions and customs vary from region to region.
This was a special evening because it was the first time my husband’s entire tribe were going to see his western wife..So this would be the night all eyes would be on me to evaluate his choice of wife and to watch my every move. I felt an immense pressure to give a good first impression and also ease my husband’s life by being accepted into the extended family. I’m the only westerner, mind you even the only non-Saudi married into the entire clan. Needless to say I was HORRIFIED.
In preparation I had tried to “Arabize” my appearance a bit ie had Arabic eyebrows done, colored my eyelashes black and had some extra lashes installed at the spa. I’d found a beautiful evening gown at the “Princess souq” for 15 riyals! However the tailor I took it to for adjusting managed to do the opposite I was asking for so I had to choose another dress last minute. My friend wore the princess souq dress and she looked stunning! Check out the dress here it’s the blue one: http://blueabaya.com/2012/02/princess-souq.html
My husband advised me that his family is so conservative that even in an all female setting bare shoulders would not be a good idea so I had a bolero with my strapless emerald green evening gown. When I saw how the women there were dressed I was so glad I listened to my husband not to be remembered as the the scandalous shoulder -baring western lady!
Most of my jewelry got damaged in a fire we had last year but lucky me a friend borrowed her beautiful gold and diamonds jewelry set. Another friend gave me a gold designer handbag and I had a pair of golden heels. Ended up spending only few hundred riyals for some kohl and purple eye shadow to pop out the green shade of my eyes to match the dress. A wedding hair stylist came to my house to make my hair wavy ( and BIG) as was the trend according to her.
Saudi weddings typically start very late and end in the early hours of the morning. I was told by many not to go too early (before 11p.m!) but this family was different! We came at 9 p.m and hundreds of women were already there. My husband went to the men’s side and later told me was the last to arrive.
Most families will rent out huge wedding halls for the occasion. They are of course separated to men’s and women’s sides. The entrance to male section of the wedding is in the front of the building, open and elaborate and there will be a huge chandelier hanging in the entrance hall. The men’s side is otherwise not very decorative. It’s the women’s hall that is full of flowers and other lavish decorations. Both sides will have expensive bohkoor burning at every corner.
The women’s entrance on the other hand is closed and guarded. Even when the door opens there is no direct view into the actual hall. The door opens into a room with no mirrors so not even a reflection could be accidentally seen to the outside. There is an abaya cloakroom and a beautifying room for women to glam themselves up before making their grand entrance.
I was expecting that purses would be searched for cameras and phones confiscated but to my surprise nothing was said about my phone and the bag was left alone. I was able to snap some pics that night as well! All of the women were removing their ras abaya, (the most conservative over the head version) leaving them at the cloakroom run by African women. This room had mirrors all over and women were putting on lipstick and fluffing up their already HUGE hair. There was hairsprays and perfumes for women to use. I was already getting dizzy from all the sights, smells and sounds.
The women were all eyeing my friend and I probably trying to guess who we were. I saw women and girls pointing at me and whispering. Is that HER? She’s american right? Amriki? The daughter-in-law of so and so?
I could feel the pressure building up and slowly moving up to my throat. Another African woman dressed in a strange white costume covered by a black sheer veil brought an incense burner in my face to puff the smoke around and I felt like choking. I was only at the entrance and I wanted to RUN! Get me out of here! I can’t do this!
Thank God for my friend who came with me. She knows the brother of the bride from school in the U.S. She’s also Arab so I had a translator as well as an emotional support for the evening. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without her. We ended up having so much fun despite my failing nerves.
I was looking around and trying to recognize any familiar faces of the relatives. Honestly speaking the women all wore so much make-up I was having a hard time. Finally I saw one of the sisters. We asked her what we were supposed to do and she advised us to go inside the wedding hall and greet the women on the right side then take a seat anywhere. Sounds pretty easy and simple right? WRONG!
As we approached the wedding hall in all its glory the truth unfolded. There were about 40 women standing or sitting in a line waiting to greet the guests. In the background more women stood or sat watching the entering guests. On the opposite side was a line of another 40 or so women from the grooms side watching on. That’s a total of about 600 eyeballs. I almost panicked but managed not to faint or scream in horror.
I had thought out a theme on what to say. It all sounded so nice and collected in my head. Salaam aleikum, alf mabrouk, kef halek, you look beautiful, mashallah and so on..But my mouth did not listen to my brain. There was some sort of miscommunication and I ended up mumbling whatever came out in random order. More like marhabalek-queisa-dulilah. It’s too painfully humiliating to remember more clearly so I will move on.
It’s custom for Saudi women to kiss one another on the cheeks while holding hands as a greeting. Sounds so simple again, doesn’t it? NOPE. One woman might kiss you once on your right cheek and that’s it. The next will hold your hand and kiss you once then pull you in for three times on the other side. The third one might kiss you back on forth on each cheek. Some women that are not particularly fond of western women marrying their men will not kiss you at all. As a young woman you’re supposed to kiss some of the elderly women on the foreheads as sign of respect. Some of them will reject this, some will accept. Now try figuring out which woman is which type of kisser and do 40 in a row without accidentally landing someone a nose-ear-eyes or LIP kiss in the process. I must have offended 39/40 women in the line.
After the humiliation ceremony we proceeded to find a seat. Most of the tables were already taken so we walked all the way to the back to find an empty table. The hall was full of round tables and in the middle there was an aisle lined with plush arabic style sofas I’m guessing for the more important guests. The aisle had a red carpet sprinkled with rose petals leading to the stage which was elaborately decorated with flowers and vases and in the middle was a white leather sofa where the bride later sat.
Notice the little plastic water cup on the table? That was the only drink that was served during the dancing/waiting/ogling period. I was so thirsty that by midnight I swear I wanted to drink the water from the flowers and those small candle holders! The waitresses were serving chocolates, dates, salty pastries and more chocolates to make guests even thirstier. Arabic coffee, which I don’t count as a thirst quenching drink was being offered every 5 minutes. I asked one the waitresses for more water and she angrily replied there’s only one per guest and that I should have more coffee! Yikes. Ok. Chill. I’m just gonna sip on this 5 mls of coffee at a time and get more dehydrated from it. Did I mention I was also starving?
On the stage there were three African women that started playing drums called “duff” which is the only type of music that the most conservative people approve of. The women started singing Arabic songs and it was LOUD. I have been to rock concerts and stood next to the loudspeakers and been more comfortable. Women were starting to dance all around the hall. Some of the young women went on stage and there seemed to be no shyness whatsoever involved in their dance. Some girls were dancing VERY close together
Guests kept coming in and women kept eyeing us. All the tables were full now except ours. No one wanted to sit with us. We curiously watched how the women were dressed. Like my husband said, the fashion was definitely more conservative than I had heard rumors of. No bare backs, short skirts, bare shoulders or anything too sexy. Cleavage seemed to be ok though. There was however so much glitter, ruffles, lace, sequins, bows, bling bling and colors that it had my head spinning. Ultimate extravagance. The Oscars are nothing compared to this.
Most of the dresses were sort of tacky Saudi style you see in the malls, the kind I always wondered who wears this? Well now I know. Simple and sleek are NOT in. The more decorations on the dress the better! Many women had long trails on the dresses and plunging necklines were filled with gigantic jewelry. I mean out of this world in size. There also seems to be no rule of balancing the jewelry such as if you have a huge necklace, then no huge earrings, rings or bracelets. AS IF! Size and quantity does matter!
Despite the tackiness, exaggerated hair, heavy make-up and christmas-treeish outfits most of the women looked stunning. Some, looked umm..interesting. There was one particular lady wearing an extremely form fitting (read like sausage skin) evening gown made with what seemed thousands of small golden sequins. The dress had a long trail and a generous neckline to show off her enormous ahem goods including a solid gold necklace. Her assemble was so shiny I swear it might have done some damage to my eyes as I could not take my eyes off of it. Kind of like looking into solar eclipse.
I had never put this much make-up on but still I had the least stuff on my face from the wedding guests. The post I wrote earlier about the wedding make-up might have been a bit exaggerated but gives some guideline on how some of these women looked like. Some of the younger girls and women had less make-up on though.
The table next to us filled with teenagers all busy on their iPhones. I swear they were taking our pic secretly. I noticed the small children running around in pretty dresses upstairs and maids attending to them. Some of them waived to me and I smiled and waived back. Upstairs is where the bride stays hidden for most of the wedding. There is a room for her to get ready in and the groom and his father will come there for photography from the men’s side. She eats in this room with the groom as well. There is a staircase lined with rose petals and a red carpet coming down from the room to the wedding hall.
Some examples of the dress styles.
At this point some of the bride’s friends came to sit at our table (only seats available lol) and I talked to some of them (or rather shouted in their ears) who knew English well. They were all medical professionals, just graduated. Some of them had elegant and relatively simple dresses with not too much make-up. One of those girls narrated the whole wedding to me.
Next I started wondering how come some women were still wearing their hijab (head coverings). It’s only females, why? Apparently for the older women it’s a sign of status. But most shockingly I noticed there were women in abayas. And wait. Is that a woman wearing niqab? Why on earth would they come to a wedding in niqab? There was at least four such women in attendance who never removed their veils. One had pimped up the niqab with gold crystals. Read my previous post about women who even sleep in their veils here: http://blueabaya.com/2011/06/eternal-veil.html
For the majority of the wedding women sit and chat and ogle others dresses. Unmarried women will try to show off by dancing for the potential future mother-in-laws in hopes of being noticed as candidates. The dancing on the stage got more intense as the wedding proceeded in anticipation of the bride’s appearance. Soon a belly dancer started performing on stage. She was actually a wedding guest in an evening gown but they switched the music to Egyptian and she started swaying around the stage while women excitedly cheered her on and started ululating. Kind of odd because I’m not used to women eyeing women like that but hey whatever rocks your boat.
The “Saudi” dance style is hard to describe. It’s nothing like the belly dancing that first comes to mind when imagining Arabic dance but more like the men’s sword dance in rhythm. The women sway their bodies, slowly moving sideways as if they are floating, their hips and upper bodies making rhythmic movements to the beat of the drums. The woman might hold her long skirt with one hand and wave the other hand in the air. Sometimes women will also swish their long hair back and forth. I love this type of dance! The rhythm is also very catchy. I don’t know exactly how to master this dance although i’m pretty good at belly dancing ;) So I thought to myself, thank God I don’t have to dance on the stage in front of everyone! Oh how wrong I was..
Here is the only clip I could find that has similar dancing to what can be seen at weddings and other women’s functions. I could not find out if it has a specific name but this is labelled simply under “khaleeji dance”.
Stay tuned for the second part of the Saudi wedding experience including the taunting bridal walk, my chicken dance and a lamb’s butt surprise!
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Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 75 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia! Follow my adventures in Saudi and beyond on instagram: instagram.com/blueabaya