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A fraternal approach to learning the Emirati wedding ropes

Never having been witness to the procedures of an Emirati marriage, I was fortunate to experience the process for the first time through my brother.

Weddings vary greatly around the world according to region, culture, religion and family background. Having attended a few in the United States, and stumbled on one in Kashmir, my experience of the ceremony is still developing. But when my brother recently put the wheels of his union in motion, I was set to further my nuptial knowledge through an Emirati experience. The men's side, anyway.

The first steps in this local unification came in the form of a meeting of the female sides of the families. Since mothers know best, the prospective groom's mum - my mother - along with the other women of our family, undertook the ice-breaking journey to the house of his intended. This scouting expedition ensured the women of the families, particularly the mothers, became familiar and gave the women in my family their first glimpse at the bride-to-be.

Once everything was assuredly in order among the females, it was time for the males of the families to gather. Dressed up in our finest and trimmed to a tee, we men followed the same path our women had taken just a short while earlier. Familiarisation again was key, but it was also at this time that the formal request for the lady's hand in marriage was made and details of the essential, predetermined dowry would be ironed out. These discussions would not be held by the future groom, but rather the patriarchal heads of the families. This is, after all, not just a union of two people but a coming together of two families requiring appropriate representation.

Made in the presence of all, the official request, dowry details and replies were communicated briefly at the beginning of the evening with the rest of the visit dedicated to the men getting acquainted. Relations were not hampered in any way by the incredible levels of hospitality given by the hosts, who permitted no lulls between the offering of coffee, tea, fruit, desserts and a local dinner not for the faint-hearted eater.

Having gone smoothly, the first meeting of the men gives way to closer contact for the women. Now they will begin ironing out the details of the bride's hope chest (an elaborate gift box containing the Dh20,000 dowry, jewellery, fabrics, ouds, perfumes and more), of the engagement and wedding rings, of the engagement party, of the milcha (a process in which the marriage is made legal by a religious sheikh), and of the wedding dress and wedding, all to be paid for by the groom and his family. By contrast, the extent of the bride's responsibilities are preparing herself and shopping for a wedding dress. Not too bad a deal on her side.

Once the groom has spent his heart out, the engagement party can take place. The milcha can be held either then or the day before the wedding, and my family opted to have it at the same time as the engagement party. Here, only close family were invited, which in our culture includes a few cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers- and sisters-in-law as well as parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews.

On this occasion, the men and women of the families were brought together under one roof, but in two separate living rooms, with the sheikh and the children the only ones permitted to travel freely between both.

Dressed in our finest kanduras, we were witness to the legal bond of the bride and groom according to Islamic law. The groom and the head male of the bride's family joined hands while the sheikh, sitting between them, grasped their hands, recited Quran and had the men repeat marital vows. Once the social contract had been signed and witnessed, the news quickly spread to the other living room. Being in earshot, we clearly heard the ululations, the almost deafening, high-pitched celebratory sounds.

For the families, this meant we were now bound together by this union, and in an instant our family numbers mushroomed. For the groom and bride, it signified permission finally to be alone. But the marriage would not and could not be consummated until after the big wedding. This last step in the Emirati marital process, yet to be taken in this instance, is where the new wife and husband are revealed and announced to the extended family and greater community.

Never before having been a witness to the procedures of an Emirati marriage, I am fortunate to be experiencing the process for the first time through a member of my own family. Although the customs of Emirati weddings vary greatly within the different regions and tribes, I now have a better perception of what they entail - and what might be expected of me in the near future.

Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US. tsubaihi@thenational.ae.

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