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An Omani Wedding

Posted by on 7 May 2009

I was in Muscat, Oman last week to attend the wedding of the daughter of a very close family friend and business associate. Our families have known each other a long way back. As in, I’ve known the bride since before it became obligatory for her to cover her hair, i.e. long before she reached the age of puberty.

For starters, let me give a short background on Omani customs when it comes to weddings. The wedding ceremony, which they call the melkah, is done in the presence of the bride’s and groom’s respective families and very close family members only. After the melkah, the bride still continues to live in her parents’ house. Whenever the groom visits, the bride no longer has to cover herself like she does in public. However, all the visits remain chaperoned. And they only live together as husband and wife after the marriage is officially ‘announced’ at the wedding party. The time period between the melkah and the wedding party can be anywhere between several months to a couple of years or so.

As for the party, ahh..now this is where it gets very interesting indeed.

First off, the wedding is for females only. All the staff on hand (photographer, videographer, waitresses) are all female, as well. And not everybody allows to have their photos taken.

On the night of the wedding party, starting at around 8 pm, you’ll see all those women clad in black from head to toe being dropped off by their chauffeurs/brothers/husbands/etc at the venue of the party. In this case, it was the Grand Ballroom of the ultra-posh Al Bustan Palace Hotel. However, the moment those women enter the doors of the ballroom, the black outer garments are shed off — just like a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis — revealing opulent evening gowns, elaborate hairstyles, and jewelry worth a king’s ransom. By evening gowns, I mean evening gowns worthy of a red carpet event, such as the Academy Awards, of every style and colour imaginable. I felt like I was a spectator in an impromptu fashion show…or the evening gown portion of a beauty pageant…which was also, at the back of my mind, an amusing gallery of fashion hits and misses.  As for the hairstyles, I mean upswept hairdos, hair cascading down bare backs or shoulders, hair shimmering with Swarovski crystals, hair adorned with jeweled combs (which I bet feature real gems!).

The moment you enter the hall, very loud, pulsating Arabic songs blast off from speakers from all corners, making normal conversation impossible, unless you shout at the top of your voice. The music is for dancing, of course. Yes, dancing. Because the first 2 hours or so of the party will feature women dancing uninhibitedly on a special wooden deck in the middle of the fully carpeted great hall. They sing along, clap, cheer for each other with the zaghareet, a high-pitched ululation done with the tongue, commonly used in the Middle East is to honor someone, akin to a “bravo” or applause.

At around 10 pm, they announce that the buffet is ready and people take their turns partaking of the feast. Me? I played photographer for the night, albeit unofficially, so  I was too busy clicking away that I didn’t have time to line up at the buffet tables. Thankfully, a friend took a plate of food for me, bites of which I ate in between photographs. Yes, 10 pm sounds rather late for the buffet to begin. But from the start, all tables have some tidbits for the guests to nibble on — Arabic flat bread, hummus, baba ghanoush, feta cheese, stuffed grape leaves. As the Malays would say, alas perut (“to line the stomach”), just to keep hunger at bay.

As people eat, the dancing goes on, the dancers mostly composed of the close family members from both the bride’s and groom’s sides.

At around 11, the bride makes her grand entrance. The entire hall is plunged into darkness and the spotlights are trained on the door at the rear of the ballroom. Three little girls wearing identical white dresses appear, scattering rose petals along their path. Then the bride emerges, walking slowly on the red carpet, all smiles, clad in a Western-style sleeveless white wedding dress sparkling with hundreds of crystals (Swarovski, no less), her bare arms covered with intricate henna patterns from all sides and all angles, her hair upswept in a chignon, a shimmering tiara holding a long veil in place. By long, I mean, as long as a train. And glistening with hundreds more of those crystals, as well. She walks up to the elevated dais in the front portion of the ballroom, where a decorated love seat awaits. The official photographer takes several photos of her alone, then with family members and friends. At some point, the dancing begins again, despite the continued photo sessions at the elaborate dais.

This goes on until about midnight, when, suddenly, an announcement blares over the speakers that sends everyone into a frenzy. Just like Cinderella scrambling to leave the castle at the stroke of midnight before her coach turns into a pumpkin, all the women in the crowd are rushing to cover their hair and bare arms. All except the female members of the groom’s family, that is. Even the bride dons a white cape to cover her hair, neck, shoulders and arms (think: Little Red Riding Hood, except that the hood/cape is white).

Why the panic, you may ask? It’s because the time has come for the groom and male members of his family to make their appearance in the wedding party. They walk the same path on the red carpet taken by the bride earlier, all wearing the traditional Omani white robes (called dishdasha) made distinctive with the lone tassel on the neck, multi-hued turbans called ammama wrapped around the conical embroidered cap called kumma, as well as colourful outer robes, with a silver khanjar, the traditional Omani curved dagger worn around the waist/hips, providing the finishing touch.

The groom goes up the dais and kisses the bride on her forehead. The entire hall erupts in cheers and applause. More picture-taking, with the family members from both sides.

The male members of the groom’s family then discreetly make a quick exit, leaving the groom behind for more photographs with the bride (who by then takes off her cape) together with friends and relatives, followed by the cake-cutting ceremony, more photographs, and more dancing by female relatives.

By this time, the female staff of the hotel — incidentally mostly Filipinas — are all sitting at the rear of the ballroom, resting, some grabbing a few winks, wondering when the party would end.

At some point, the bride turns her back on the crowd and tosses her bouquet at the frantic horde of yet-unmarried ladies. Everyone cheers as the victor raises the bouquet that she successfully captured, and the dancing continues yet again.

The party wasn’t over yet by the time I made my exit at around 1 am.  I didn’t have the opportunity to ask what time it finished exactly, as my flight to Dubai was at 5 am the next day, thus I had to leave the hotel at 3 am.

Perhaps the party that I saw is not representative of the whole Omani population, as not everyone may not be of the same financial capability. Perhaps the people of Oman are not representative of the entire Arab population either. But that night, as I stared in wonder and amazement at the drop-dead gorgeous women parading in front of me, clad in custom-made evening gowns paid for by their husbands or fathers which will never be worn more than once (!), adorned with jewelry also paid for by their husbands and/or fathers, sent to and from the wedding party in BMWs/Lexuses/Mercedes Benzes, all I could think of was how grossly inaccurate the Western media’s portrayal of the Arab woman is — i.e. the proverbial ‘oppressed’ woman, clad in black from head to toe. The women I’ve known and seen in my two visits to Oman, brief as they were, were nothing but oppressed. Nowhere else does the old adage ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ hold truer than in Oman.

35 Responses to An Omani Wedding

  1. Jessi

    This is truly fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Rose

    a glimpse of Omani wedding wow so interesting thanks for sharing.

  3. witsandnuts

    Very interesting. I can imagine the part that they remove their abayas. I remember how astonished I was to see beautiful women with the abaya on, more beautiful without it.

  4. dong ho

    “The entire hall is plunged into darkness and the spotlights are trained on the door at the rear of the ballroom. “>>> wow! i like that.

  5. Mimi

    the first time i went to an omani wedding party last year, i was in a total state of shock and disbelief. now that i knew what to expect, i was okay. but yes, there is so much beauty hidden underneath the black veils and abayas!

  6. farrah_x

    Very interesting and you are a very lucky person to actually get to experience those. I’ve seen wedding celebration of the Arabs but only on TV, minus the part when they uncover themselves! So decent and civilized the men and the women are.

  7. francesca in france

    must be a show off of ladies kasi it is a pride of the husband
    ala mirror mirror on the wall who is the prettiest of them all?
    My wife!

    i think every person wants freedom;
    if their laws do not allow them in public, they do it in private;

    like many arabs in france!
    they cant show their bodies in their country,
    they are half naked sun bathing here in the beach of Nice!haha

  8. sheng

    Very interesting post…for a while i made a quick mental check of who among my Muslim friends are gonna get married, i wanna watch a Muslim wedding ritual… is it by any chance similar to that Omani wedding?

  9. Mimi

    Farrah: I have lots of pics but can’t publish them, naturally.

    Francesca in France: Yes, I’ve heard stories of Arab ladies taking off their black veils and abayas the moment the plane takes off. I suppose it’s the same thing for Christians: some go to church, some don’t.

    Sheng: I think it would vary, depending on the local culture. When I was in GenSan, I only got to see one Muslim wedding and it was Maranao (although I was too young to remember the details). Muslim weddings in Malaysia are very different from Omani ones and are definitely more low-key. This reminds me – I need to conclude my mini-series on Malay weddings. The final installment is about the marriage ceremony itself.

  10. Tamara

    Oh wow!!! I will marry an Omani (I’m a Brit)…Have to admit I am a nervous wreck now, lol! I know how beautiful Arab women are and how can we (non Arabs) compare…?? Thanks so much for helping me know what to expect though! Wonderfully written and detailed. Reading it was almost like I was there!
    Thanks again, cheers :)

  11. Mimi

    hi tamara! congratulations on yr upcoming wedding! i’m glad you find this post helpful. too bad i can’t post the pics :)

  12. Dawnell

    Thanks for this… I moved to Muscat 2 months ago, and I’ve really enjoyed your posts about Oman! The wedding post is just fascinating. If you don’t mind, I’d like to link it to my blog.

  13. Mimi

    sure dawnell. what’s the URL of yr blog btw? i’d love to ‘visit’ :)

  14. Omania

    Hello
    I’m an Omani girl and I have to say that you described they wedding really well!
    I guess most of the wedding here in Muscat,Oman are like the one you talked about :)

  15. Mimi

    Hi Omania, I’m very happy to read your comment. So far, I’ve only been to 2 Omani weddings and I enjoyed them both. I just always feel so ‘underdressed’ haha! No way can I compete with Omani ladies’ dresses, hairstyles and jewelry! ;)

  16. maria

    i am going to attend my first omani wedding after living in oman for nearly 4 years now. i was browsing on the net for some tidbits on what i could expect to witness in such a big event as a wedding. incidentally, i will also be the official photographer since the couple did not hire a professional photographer. i guess as a newbie photographer, my novice skills (and maybe my reputation as a friend) will be put to the test. my other friends told me the same party details normally unfolding in such a wedding but your post described them more vividly, as if i’ve already been to one.
    my only worry is that because i will be showing up in the wedding in a party dress, i hope i would still be able to get good angles with my lens. im sure you know what i mean being a photographer yourself.
    anyway, thanks for sharing your experience :-)

  17. Mimi

    Hi Maria. If you’re going to be the official photographer, I suggest you wear something easier to move in, like a smart pantsuit, *and* sensible shoes…or something that will clearly identify you as the official photographer. Some of the guests may not want to have their photos taken especially if they had no idea who you are. Even if they know that you are the official photographer, some of them might still want want to have their photos taken, so be careful with that ;)

    As for the dress, even if you go in a party dress, it would be very, very difficult for you to match what those Omani ladies will be wearing. Believe me!! :D

  18. flower

    I am an Omani…thanks for posting this…

  19. Mimi

    flower: afwan :) and shukran for dropping by & leaving a comment.

  20. Sundus

    Auntie Mimi,
    thank you very much for your amazing description on the wedding, though it was my wedding and i remember all the details i was really so overwhelmed when i read your piece. It brought up all the beautiful memories of the day :’)
    I cant thank you enough :) :*

  21. Mimi

    Sundus: Afwan :) It was such an honour to be a part of your special day.

  22. amalia

    im staying in oman for the past 8 years,yes…which u wrote is true…,thats good….,I think all women around the world have to follow the steps of those ladies,so the women beauty is precious,not for anyone who doesnt have right to see.

    I wore abayas black from head to toe most of the time,but I own long earings,sleveless dress,high heal etc,and I wore them not in front of strangers.

    If every ladies hide the beauty,the world can be a better place.

  23. Mimi

    Amalia: You might want to read this non-Muslim’s blog entry re: his experience in Canada after having lived in Jeddah for 5 years: http://baet0622.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/abayas-short-skirts-and-skimpy-shorts/

  24. mariana

    i read and i like it.good luck

  25. Sue

    Thank you for the insight, we are off to a wedding shortly, I now know what to expect and perhaps will have to revise my clothing!!

  26. Mimi

    Hi Sue! Hope you had a great time at the wedding…and that the article is still relevant! :)

  27. D Parryhill

    Help: My American son will marry an Omani woman next year- in Oman.What should I plan to wear as Mother of the Groom from the US? Any suggestions would be most helpful.Thank you.

  28. Mimi

    D Parryhill: Think: Oscars red carpet. Ballgown/long fancy dress. Upswept ‘do. Makeup. Jewelry. Your best shoes. The works! BUT…I am not sure how conservative the girl’s family is. So you will probably earn some brownie points by asking her if she thinks it’s suitable for you to wear an abaya from the hotel/house to the reception. (Abaya is a floor-length, long-sleeved, loose, black robe that Omani ladies wear over whatever clothes they are wearing and come with a matching black veil that you can drape over your hair.) Good luck!

  29. bushra ameen

    I love baloshi wedding

  30. Tamara

    Thank you for you’re blog. It is very helpfull. We’re going to a wedding next week. I was told to dress as if you go to a western wedding, but I think I would be extremely underdressed.
    How does it work with gifts? Do you bring them? and what about flowers?

  31. shabbygirl

    I just came across this and you describe everything so vividly. I’m about to go to my 4th Omani wedding next month and it is exactly like this each time i’ve gone. The first time I went, I was most baffled by the cries over the loud speaker when literally in a space of thirty seconds the hall went from a rainbow to a sea of black. Can’t wait for the next one!

  32. Mimi

    Hi ShabbyGirl, glad to know I managed to ‘capture’ the event properly. I have tonnes of pics from the wedding but can’t post any of them online, if you know what I mean ;)

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