On Wednesday I got to have the most amazing night I have had in Kuwait. It started out with a cocktail party at the British Embassy. Our dear friends Anita and Stewart invited us to the event that was a fundraiser for Friends of Girl Guiding in Kuwait. (Basically a group that supports and helps out the girl scouts here in Kuwait) It was a very nice affair in the residence of the British Ambassador, who even made an appearance and gave a little talk. There was a woman playing a grand piano and people mingling and eating hors d'oeurves like bacon wrapped quail eggs! It was very posh and a lovely evening. The evening ended at 9pm and I was then picked up in a taxi with some friends of mine to head to my second event of the evening……….A Kuwaiti Wedding!
How the heck did I get invited to a Kuwaiti wedding? My friend Kate, an Air Force wife I met in IL, has hooked me up with her Aunt Alison who has lived in Kuwait for many years and raised both of her children primarily in Kuwait. Alison is a teacher at one of the colleges here and was invited by one of her students to attend her wedding. Alison was kind enough to think of me and ask if I could attend as well. Her daughter Jasmine, who is my age, was in town so she was with us as well. Alison’s late husband was Iranian and her daughter Jasmine is fluent in English, Arabic, and Farsi. This was a big help!
This wedding was a Bedouin wedding held at a local wedding hall. Basically the Bedouins are the more conservative here and the women will be covered completely so that all you would see is their eyes. They are not your rich Westernized city dwelling Kuwaitis. Weddings are segregated so that women are in one building/room and men are in a different location.
When we arrived, you go in the door and there is a woman there checking bags to make sure you are not bringing in any cameras or cell phones with cameras – No pictures allowed (that’s why this is one of the few blog posts without photos). You are immediately hit with the loud Arabic music, then you round the corner into the main room and your eyes are overwhelmed with what is in front of you. The room is set up with a kind of cat walk down the middle of the room and then about 3 or 4 rows of stadium style seating on either side. On either end of the “cat walk” are young women (maybe 19-30) in floor length gowns the likes of which you have never seen. Remember these are women who are always covered completely. And their hair is BIG, like 80’s buefont big! And the most shocking part of all is the make-up. Their eye make-up makes Tammy Fae look mild! That part I was ready for though, what I wasn’t ready for is the fact that they covered all of their visible skin (face, neck, chest, back, arms) with white “geisha” type make-up. It was a very odd thing to see. But despite the over-the-top make-up and big hair these women were beautiful! They were some the curviest women I have ever seen. Let me tell you, J-Lo and Beyonce have nothing on these girls!
Ok, so these gorgeous ladies are standing on either end of the “cat walk” and the stadium seating is a sea of black – all women that are fully covered. These are mostly the older women. Then there is an older woman who is in a bright green dress but has her head and face covered with black and she is carrying a small cane or shepherd’s hook and basically herding the girls onto and off of the dance floor! She is making sure every girl gets her chance to dance. The “herder” would let maybe 10 girls at a time in the middle to dance and make this noise similar to that of a Native American call – very high pitched and trilling. There was a live band playing and two woman singing Arabic music. It was a very tribal beat; this was NOT Arab pop music.
The dancing was so wonderful to watch. They kind of did this bouncing, trotting thing and then they would sway their hair from side to side. Apparently the dance is supposed to be like that of a horse. Also they had these hand motions that would either wave away from them or wave toward them. Jasmine explained to me that these hand motions are actually a signal to the match makers sitting in the front rows. (Remember that many of these marriages are arranged --not a lot of dating happening in the Bedouin community.) If they are waving away from them they are saying they don’t want love, maybe they are married, or just not wanting a husband yet, and if they are waving towards themselves they are saying that they want a husband and ready for love. It was amazing to watch.
Then the bride came out. She was beautiful! She was wearing a white bridal gown similar to what we would wear, but as you can probably guess by now, just a bit more over-the-top. She too had the very white make-up covering her visible skin. And the odd thing was that she did not smile. I guess they are taught not to smile until after her husband comes to take her away. At this point she is supposed to be sad about leaving her family. The bride, whose name was Muneera, slowly made her way down the catwalk. After she reached the end of the catwalk she was taken upstairs to a smaller room, where she sat on what almost was like a throne surrounded by flowers. She looked gorgeous!
This is where our night got really fun! One of her Aunties came downstairs and asked us to come up to this room. Not all of the guests came up; this was more for her family and the wedding party. it was quite an honor that we even got invited up there. There was lots of dancing up here as well, all in honor of the bride. Alison and Jasmine joined in the dancing first; they have done this before and know what they are doing! Then one of the Kuwaiti women grabbed my hand in an effort to get me to dance with her -- So I did my diplomatic duty and danced! All of the woman were so nice and wanted to teach me how to do the different moves. It was at this point that I started to realize that I was going to be a bit of a novelty item!
After a bit of dancing upstairs, her husband was arriving and everyone made their way downstairs with the bride. First all of them needed to cover back up, including the bride whose head covering was made of beautiful white satin. Now according to Alison and Jasmine, normally the husband and his father and brothers will actually come in to the main wedding hall, but this time he never even came inside. She and her Mother and some Aunties took her outside to where her new husband was waiting by a car to take her away. It was so neat to see her family helping her into the car and wishing her well.
Once the bride left, it was time to eat. This was the strangest part of the evening! It was a buffet, but instead of each food choice having a serving spoon, you had to use your own utensils to serve yourself each dish. A little weird, but ok I can live with that. The part that just had my mouth hanging open in shock was that some of the women were literally eating right out of the serving dishes! I mean scooping the noodles out of the serving dish into their mouths and then going back in for another bite! YIKES! Good thing I wasn’t really hungry anyways. Once you had your plate of food you just had to find a place to stand and eat it. There were some round banquet tables, but not with chairs so you just find a place to set your plate down and then stand and eat. It was while I was eating my food that I started to get approached by many of the women asking me if I was American and if I would dance with them. They were all so sweet.
After dinner we went back in to the main room and danced for a bit. The women all wanted to take turns dancing with me; it was such an overwhelming experience. When we had to leave they all mobbed us and asked us to come and dance at their weddings or of the weddings of their family members. I was standing with one group of young ladies and one of them asked me if I was American, and when I said yes her hands flew to her face and she gasped as if this was the single most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. It was wild! Then one of them who spoke a bit more English asked which state I was from, when I said Wisconsin of course they all gave me the blank stare. So I just told them it was near Chicago. That they understood and got very excited about. At first I couldn’t understand what the big deal was for them. There are Americans and other ex-pats all over this country, why are they so excited to be talking to me? Then it hit me that these women are normally fully covered and have limited English, they may have never had a real conversation with an American before, much less danced with one!
It was an unbelievable night and I was so thankful that I got to experience this before I left Kuwait. Thank you so much Alison and Jasmine!