x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A many splendoured thing

As the traditional wedding season gets under way, 19 bridegrooms prepare to start married life at a mass ceremony.

Guests at a mass wedding enter the dining hall.
Guests at a mass wedding enter the dining hall.

Sitting in a row on red-and-gold Renaissance-style chairs in the One Thousand and One Nights wedding hall in Umm al Qaiwain, 19 nervous young bridegrooms are receiving last-minute advice on what to expect in the next hour - not to mention the rest of their lives.

Wedding season is under way, with many young men taking part in mass ceremonies under the patronage of the rulers of the emirates. "Always smile and look straight into the other person's eyes when you talk to them," says Mosaab bin Omair, the deputy head of the Mass Wedding Committee, as he briefs the men on how to greet the Ruler of Umm al Qaiwain when he joins them for the wedding. Mr bin Omair also has advice on how to treat their brides once they leave the wedding hall.

"Your new life begins today and it's important to start it properly," he says, as he moves from one groom to other, adjusting their headgear and straightening their shoulders. "You are men now, so look like men." The bridegrooms are sent off to greet the more than 1,000 guests, male family members and friends who have been invited to the wedding under the patronage of Sheikh Saud bin Rashid, Ruler of Umm al Qaiwain.

Standing in a line, the freshly shaven and perfumed bridegrooms, dressed in their new "besht" - the black cloaks with golden borders that are worn for special occasions - greet the mass of guests as they flow into the wedding hall after sunset. Their outfits, plus a massive dinner, entertainment of traditional song and dance, drums and chants and 19 pairs of luxury watches - one for each groom and his bride - are all wedding gifts from the Ruler.

The 19 men, aged between 23 and 25, are taking part in the 10th annual mass wedding sponsored by Sheikh Saud. The first, for 15 bridegrooms, took place in 1999, after the setting up of the Mass Wedding Committee in the emirate. By tradition weddings in the UAE - mass or otherwise - are segregated, with the men celebrating first. The brides follow suit one or two days later. Umm al Qaiwain was a latecomer to the tradition; sponsored mass weddings have been taking places for years in the UAE, particularly during the summer, with the first official ceremony under a ruler's patronage organised in Sharjah in 1986.

Before the unification of the Emirates, the main tribes and big families would organise mass weddings among themselves, but the late Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, institutionalised the weddings as a means of helping young couples to get started in life. Back in the wedding hall in Umm al Qaiwain, after nibbling on traditional sweets and sipping coffee, the bridegrooms are greeted by the Ruler and other members of the Royal Family.

"You are the pillar of the society and the future of the emirate," Sheikh Saud tells them. "We believe in our youth and support them through mass weddings in order to discourage negative celebratory customs that are against our understanding of marriage." He calls on the future generations to avoid "exaggerated and lavish spending" in weddings and other celebrations. "Our religion condemns ostentatious indulgence at the expense of family relations," he reminds them.

Each bridegroom is then called forward to pose with the Ruler for a photograph - an event that for some comes close to overshadowing the central purpose of the day. "I was more nervous about meeting the Ruler than I was about the actual marriage," says Hani al Humr, 23, who kept adjusting his clothing before the sheikh's arrival. Mr al Humr, who works in the police force, is the first member of his family to participate in a mass wedding in Umm al Qaiwain, although other male members of his family have taken part in them in other emirates - participation is based on where a bridegroom lives.

"I didn't hesitate at all in joining as it helps cut the cost of getting married, with now just the cost of my bride's wedding to take care of," he says. Then he laughs: "Now, her wedding is going to cost a lot, as she wants a big one." So far, such mass weddings have been arranged only for bridegrooms - and the men are in no doubt why. "No bride would ever agree to be compared against other brides on the same day," says Salem Sharif, another groom. "Our wives would never agree to get married in a mass wedding. We men don't care about the specifics of the wedding as long as our family and friends join us for dinner."

Mr al Humr agreed: "I love the fact I am getting married with my friends on the same day." After the greetings and photography sessions, all the men and their guests sit together for dinner, with the Ruler and his companions at the head of hall. The wedding ends at about 11pm, when the leftover food is given to the poor who trickle in through the back doors of the hall as the guests leave. The bridegrooms were contacted by the office of the Mass Wedding Committee after they received their Dh70,000 grant from the government's Marriage Fund office in Umm al Qaiwain. It is left to the men to choose whether to participate in a mass wedding or have their own individual celebration.

There has been talk of starting mass weddings for women, but Mr Omair, who has overseen ceremonies in Umm al Qaiwain for a decade, has so far been unable to persuade any brides to participate. "Women want to show off their dresses and don't want to share the spotlight," he says. "They refuse the idea completely, which is unfortunate as the point of a mass wedding is to help them cut the costs of marriage and help them set up their family life without the burden of debts.

"There is too much focus on prestige, and not enough focus on family building and practicality." rghazal@thenational.ae