Wednesday, July 09, 2008

This Is How We Do It

You are looking at a picture of plates of henna decorated by my sisters with glitter and candles. This is what awaited me when I got to my parents' house last Friday and began my journey to respectability. In the Home Country, women from the groom's side bring candle lit plates of henna to the henna party as a gift. Five year old Bollybutton used to throw terrible tantrums if denied this honour, and the older girls would each scrape up a bit of henna from their plates and stick a birthday candle in the middle to shut me up.

The night before the wedding is traditionally the night of the henna party. In the Home Country, the bride to be dresses in traditional henna colours like yellow or green, sometimes pink with a bit of yellow. I wore a green outfit the same exact colour as powdered henna. For me the henna party is the most fun part because traditionally it's all women and girls. In such an atmosphere, women tend to let their hair down, dance, relax and sing songs and do henna for the bride. It's really nice.

Mine was a mixed henna party since I couldn't exactly kick Mr Zeus out and I wanted him to witness the ceremony. One by one, everyone comes up and places a little bit of henna paste onto a leaf or a banknote on the bride's hand. They each feed her something sweet and in the Home Country, small denomination bank notes are circled over the bride's head to remove the evil eye and placed in a pot. That money will later go to charity.

The henna and the sweets are to wish you a long and happy marriage. Also henna on a bride's hand serves as a nannycam for her parents. They say that the darker your henna is, the more your mother-in-law will love you. My Dad says this is because in a traditional set up, the bride would go to live with her husband in his home with his parents. A few days after the wedding the bride traditionally returns to visit her parent, and they could guage whether she was being put to work in the house or treated well by how quickly or slowly the henna on her hands faded.

After this ceremony comes all the singing and the dancing. Someone plays a little drum called a dholki and the rest clap to keep the rhythm (listen here for an example). We didn't sing a lot of songs because there were so few of us and unusually for the bride at a henna party I sang songs too. I love this part of the henna party because it usually ends with everyone collapsing with laughter as they try to remember the lyrics to songs that have been sung since anyone can be bothered to remember. My grandmother probably sang the same songs at henna parties when she was a girl.

Henna party songs tend to be fun, fiesty and a little bit risque, but that's characteristic of the part of the Home Country I'm from, we're famous for being the most musical and charismatic people. Here are some of the songs we sang, translated of course:

1. (In answer to Asia's obsession with fair skin)

Black, blackety black,
My sweetheart is dark so the whities can all get lost (we stopped after realising we were being racist towards my English brother-in-law)

2. (famous movie song that became inexlicably connected to henna parties, which you can watch here if you can bothered)

What business do you have in my courtyard?
Even those with a reputation are disgraced

If your wife's tall, you have a good reputation
Lean her against your house, what do you need a staircase for?

What business do you have in my courtyard? (chorus)
If your wife's fat, you have a good reputation
If your wife's fat, oh fatty, oh fatty fatty fatty
Lay her on the bed, what do you need a mattress for?

If your wife's black, you have a good reputation
Put her in your eyes, what do you need eyeliner for?

And so on and so on about the various shapes and sizes your wife could be and what they're useful for.

The henna will darken on your hands
The drum will play all night
When you leave with your beloved
Don't forget these days and nights

His land waits for you
He sings songs in your name
Here comes a procession of happiness
Bringing a shower of colours

They sound pretty lame in English. There are so many more, and the sad thing is I sing them all without knowing what half the words mean because they're in a dialect I can semi speak. It drives my father mad, but we only ever spoke it when we went to the village so it got rusty. There are happy songs and sad songs because back in the day when the girl got married and left, her family didn't know when they would see her again if she moved far away.

The next morning we both got dressed in our wedding finery and took lots of pictures and then waiting for the man who was doing the ceremony to arrive. It's quite nice and simple, really. As part of the deal in countries where my religion is the main one, both parties make marriage contracts which are signed at the ceremony.

At this stage, the bride can request a payment from the groom which then belongs entirely to her. I suppose it was a way of providing the bride with some financial security in case she needed it or got divorced, because she can keep that money if they get divorced. This money, or mahr can be whatever amount or form the bride requests it in. One Iranian bride asked for 124,000 roses as her mahr and took her husband to court to get it when he didn't deliver!

I was far more lenient and set my mahr at EUR 150, an amount so low that the guy doing the ceremony called me back into the room to make sure I had actually requested that much and whether I accepted Mr Zeus as my husband. I said "Yes" and went back into the next room.

In the ceremony the bride and groom are kept in separate rooms and the theory is that this was to protect the bride. During the ceremony, each party is asked three times whether they accept the marriage or not. Maybe due to cultural reasons the bride might feel shy to say she accepts the marriage while her husband is there. Also, she may be being coerced into a marriage she doesn't want. By being out of sight of the groom, she might feel a little bolder to say no to the marriage, and in the true form of my religion, not the Al Qaeda form, a marriage is void if the bride or the groom is being forced into it.

Anyway, ceremony over we were reunited and got a little talk about how we must be kind to each other and take care of each other. I was reminded to take care of my spirituality because heaven is under the feet of a mother and one day I might be a mother.

We took a break and changed our clothes into something more relaxed, then we went out and had dinner. And that was that! I have my cousins as witnesses and a scrappy piece of paper with both our names and the amount of mahr on it as proof, and now I can say "I'm a married woman, you can't tell me what to do!" to my critics.

Image: My own


Blackbird said...

That was so fascinating, especially the part about the bride and groom being in separate rooms. I've never heard of that before.

Congratulations! Rest assured I am busy throwing sugared almonds and coloured rice at you via the internet.

Claudia in NJ said...

Congratulations! I have been reading your blog for the last few months. Keep these posts coming. I am dying to see pictures! I am Colombian married to a Greek.

AL said...

What a lovely ceremony.
I'm so happy for you and the lucky man. Sending you good thoughts and wishes dear.

GreekGoddess said...

Congratulations! I am really jealous. What a fantastic culture you have, it makes it all so much more beautiful and sexy. Sending you lots of good wishes and love!

Na zĂ­sete :)

stassa said...

I'm very happy for you Bollybutton! Na zisete, from me too! Although a little belatedly as usual... :)