I went to a wedding Saturday night. We were there for about 2 hours, and left without ever seeing the bride and groom.

This particular saga started for me on Thursday night. Amina’s in town, and she stopped by to tell me her sister was getting married on Saturday. “Why this weekend?” I moaned to Donn. Because of course this weekend was packed, with egg-dyeing planned for Friday, egg-hunting and a dessert for the adults planned for Saturday night, and of course Easter service on Sunday. I said I’d visit her at her family’s home on Friday night after all the eggs were dyed, and come to the wedding around 10 p.m. after the dessert on Sat. Then another friend called to invite us to something else on Sat. evening. Sigh. I thought regretfully of all those uneventful weekends. It never rains…

When I arrived at Amina’s family’s house Friday evening to greet her, the guard took me all the way around the house to enter through the back door, because every inch of floor downstairs was covered in Persian carpets laid down for the celebrations next day. I stumbled along in the dark and one of Amina’s many sisters met me and ushered me upstairs, to a room full of women. The bride-to-be, Maryam, was lying propped against big cushions, her feet elevated, hands up, all extremities covered in plastic bags. She laughed when she saw me, a note of triumph in her voice. “M’baruk,” (congratulations) I told her. “I asked God for a husband, and now I have one,” she said triumphantly in her low, husky voice. I laughed with her, somewhat amazed. She patted the carpet beside her so I sat there while she told me all about her husband.

This is the first time I’ve seen a Maure woman openly happy about her wedding. “My mother keeps telling me to hide my face,” she chuckled, as another friend pulled her muluffa up over her head for her, since her plastic-bandaged hands weren’t functional. Brides aren’t supposed to show any joy—that is considered brazen and rude. Other brides I’ve seen have trembled, looked scared, unhappy, reluctant. They are following the dictates of their culture. But Maryam is unashamedly chuckling and happy, although she reassures me that she won’t embarrass her family by being like this at the actual wedding. It’s refreshing.

I stay for a few hours. Amina takes me into another room to show me her sister’s outfit for the wedding; a black muluffa with a white one wrapped around the shoulders. “White symbolizes that she’s a virgin,” she tells me. “Traditionally, the couple would sleep on it, and then it would be shown to the groom’s family as proof that she was a virgin.” I nod understandingly. I’ve heard of this, although not round here. “They only do this in the villages,” Amina reassures me, “and even there it’s not too common anymore.” She’s embarrassed; worried I will think they are hopelessly backward, and so moves on quickly to show me lingerie that the bride has collected over the past few years.

I sit out in the other room next to Maryam while the henna woman removes the plastic bags from her feet. Underneath, her feet are wrapped in disintegrating toilet paper and daubed in thick, greenish-black henna, the consistency of mud. I wish fruitlessly for my camera; her feet look like something out of a plague, or perhaps Lazarus emerging from the tomb, blinking in the light of day, wrapped in decaying bandages. The henna woman (what would you call her?) chats ceaselessly on a pink cell phone while ripping adhesive tape cut in swirls and stripes off Maryam’s feet and ankles. The tape is cut into patterns, and the henna daubed over it and left for hours to set. Henna dyes last about 10 days on the skin and are permanent on the nails; most Mauritanian women have orange half-moons of various henna jobs growing out.

The henna is the most elaborate I’ve ever seen. It covers her feet and ankles in a solid pattern of arabesques, dots, swirls and stripes. “My husband is paying for it,” Maryam tells me. He’s in the army, and was recently in Hungary, and brought back European chocolates. Maryam and Amina tell me that at some point, he will literally shower the henna woman in chocolates and phone cards, and others around her will scramble to collect a few goodies themselves. (I hope I’m there—I could use a phone card myself! And I’m always up for European chocolate. But I’m not there at the right time) The henna is so elaborate that it took four women (one on each extremity) working six hours; then Maryam had to just sit there with her hands and feet wrapped in plastic for another 3-4 hours, waiting for it to “set.” Next day, she’ll have her hair braided and wrapped around a golden head-dress—another day of sitting still and waiting. The total for both, she tells me proudly, is 100,000UM–$400. Her husband will pay, she underlines for me. He phoned the henna woman himself and told her to do an exceptional job.

Saturday evening, at 10 p.m., we’re still drinking coffee and chatting with American friends; the kids have found most of the eggs hidden in the dark yard; Donn and Jeremy both made ice-cream; things are still winding down. I don’t want to go to the wedding; I’m tired. But I was invited TWICE and I did say I’d go. Michelle agrees to come; she knows one of the sisters. We go to my house to change and add lipstick and jewelry; Maure women glitter when they go out. Ilsa agrees to come; she’s my ticket out of there. The wedding will go till 2 or 3 a.m., but if I have my sleepy daughter along who needs to get to bed, I have the perfect excuse to leave anytime I want.

The wedding is held at a nearby wedding center. It’s a walled courtyard open to the sky, partly sheltered under enormous tents. It’s packed. We park some distance off and make our way to the door, running the gamut of the 20 or so men who are hanging around, looking bored, outside.

Inside it is packed, wall-to-wall women in muluffas sitting on the floor. After a quick glance round, we plop ourselves down near the door, but one of the sisters has spotted us and makes her way from the front, stepping over women’s laps and feet, to greet us. “You must come up front,” she tells us. We don’t want to, but protests will be useless and it’s too loud anyway, so we follow her, threading our way through the seated women in their variegated muluffas. She puts us in chairs in front of everyone but since we’re next to the band it works out ok as people are constantly walking in front of us, so we have a good view without feeling that everyone’s staring at us.

Next to us is the loudspeaker, blaring. It’s like being at a rock concert, up front next to the speakers, except that instead of rock, it’s the sliding wails of Mauritanian music, which is difficult for Western ears to appreciate—and yes, I like world-beat as well as you do, trust me, this is different.

I stare out at the crowd. I’m terrible at estimating numbers, so I shout at Michelle, “I think there must be 500 women here! Do you think that?” She shrugs. She has no idea either! And she’s an accountant. I think accountants should be better at estimating crowd numbers than we literary types, don’t you? But she agreed so I’m sticking to my 500 estimate. And this is just the women. At Maryam’s house are all the older men of the tribe, sitting on the Persian carpets. Her closest male relatives are closeted with the groom, working out the marriage settlement. (This involves money paid to the bride and her family, and usually certain deals such as a house provided, a length of time in which he will not divorce her (typically 3 months minimum), and a promise not to take another wife while still married to her)

The singer begins wailing a song with Maryam’s name in it. The settlement must have been reached, in that house across town. The women begin to dance. Maryam’s closest friends and relatives are dressed in matching muluffas—sectioned in yellow and a dark brownish purple—and glitter with gold in their hair and at their wrists and ankles, high heels, pale face powder and dark lipstick. Amina has put in her green contacts and hennaed her hair a deep orange. They all look beautiful, and they begin to ululate and dance around the singer, showering her with 1000UM and 2000UM notes. The audience claps along.

It’s so loud that I have to shout in Michelle’s ear to say something, and even then she might not hear me. In spite of the noise, Ilsa curls up at my feet and goes to sleep, her hair drifting onto the tray holding Cokes, bottled water, mango juice, Sprite, and other drinks. Sure it’s nearly midnight, but how can she sleep in the noise and commotion? Mauritanian children come to stare at her in bewilderment—little ones of 4 or 5 who have no problem staying up till midnight and beyond, wondering why this pale child has already succumbed to sleep.

Amina comes to tell us the plan. At midnight, there will be a procession of cars, honking incessantly, over to her parent’s house. There, the bride and groom will be presented. We will sit with Maryam until 6 a.m., when she and her new husband will leave to travel. As modern, well-off Mauritanians, they have adopted the trendy new custom of a honeymoon.

We watch the 2 singers; the older woman, in a red and black muluffa patterned with circles, sings in a deep voice, while the younger woman, in a yellow muluffa with lilac arabesques and flowers, dances. She pulls her muluffa over her face and twirls slowly, snapping her fingers, thrusting her hips, undulating her hands like water. Mauritanian dancing is not like traditional Arab dancing—it’s not as sensual as belly-dancing, for example; it’s slower and less aggressive. This woman is very graceful and fluid. I don’t know why they always cover their faces to dance. Afterwards, guests take turns dancing; their friends clap hands rhythmically behind them. Three men beat time; two have drums, but the one in the middle is beating the soles of his shoes on a large metal platter.

Serving men suddenly appear with platters of dates and crème fraiche, which are passed out to the crowd, platter after platter—there must be close to 100 platters total. They are collected about 20 minutes later, and then platters of goat meat, still on the bone, with a knife to cut with and a long baguette to eat with, are sent out into the crowd. Michelle and I speculate idly, albeit at the top of our lungs, on how many herds were slaughtered to provide for this meal. Then comes couscous in bowls. Michelle and I pass on all this; sitting up on our chairs, protesting that we ate already, it’s easier than it usually is.

By now it’s 12:30 a.m. After the couscous, a lot of women leave—maybe half of them—but there are still a lot sitting there, a kaleidoscope of colours in their multi-coloured and patterned veils. Around the far edge, the tent is patterned in green and red and gold; underneath it are couches, with older women sitting on them. I wish I was back there and that I had a camera with me. (I’ve got to start carrying my camera around all the time. Maybe I could get a cell phone with a camera?) However, the matching muluffa set are all dancing again, and in general none of the people likely to go to the house show any signs of leaving. Somewhat reluctantly (if it was any other weekend!), Michelle and I decide to leave.

I drag Ilsa to her feet, try to get her steady. Sure enough, she’s my ticket out past the protests of the sisters—no, stay, come with us, please, you haven’t even seen Maryam, please come. I parade her in front of them, bleary-eyed, barely able to stand, and they release us regretfully but graciously. Holding hands with Ilsa, Michelle and I steer our way back through the crowd, out through the mélange of vehicles, back to the car. It’s 1 a.m. by the time we’re in bed, and next morning we have plans.

We didn’t even get to see the bride or the groom. That’s a wedding in Mauritania. Once you’ve eaten the sheep and couscous, you can go. Unless you’re a close friend or relative, it’s not unusual to not even see the happy couple. But it’s always a late-night event.

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