x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

No expense spared, save their own

Hundreds of men shared one of the most important days of their lives at a mass wedding during the Liwa Date Festival.

Bridegrooms, wearing the traditional gold-embroidered bisht, take coffee before their mass wedding at Liwa during the date festival.
Bridegrooms, wearing the traditional gold-embroidered bisht, take coffee before their mass wedding at Liwa during the date festival.

Bekhit al Mansouri longed to give his son Rashid a dream wedding, but could not afford such an affair. The weddings of two sons had already set him back Dh400,000 (US$108,900) and, having retired after years in the camel trade, at the age of 68 he would have struggled to pay for even the simplest of ceremonies. Fortunately, he did not have to. When Rashid proudly donned his wedding bisht, embroidered with gold thread, and, along with 7,000 guests, enjoyed a banquet fit for a sheikh on Friday, his father did not have to pay a penny.

On Friday Rashid, 30, was one of 340 bridegrooms invited to take part in a mass wedding, giving families struggling to make ends meet the chance to enjoy the same festivities as wealthier Emiratis. Nuptials in the UAE are traditionally lavish affairs, costing an average of Dh300,000 with up to 1,000 guests and a bridal trousseau sometimes doubling costs - with the bill falling to the bridegroom. To spare some families from crippling debt, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, stepped in to fund a wedding day to remember as part of the Liwa Date Festival, one of the biggest events on the calendar in Al Gharbia.

The gesture proved hugely popular. Last week 50 men had signed up; by Wednesday the number had crept up to 140 and, by the big day, a last-minute surge more than doubled the total. For Mr Mansouri, it was a portent for his unemployed son's everlasting happiness. "God bless all our children gathered here. This will guarantee good health for the grooms," he said, as he relaxed in a majlis with a pipe and sweets with other fathers who, with every detail taken care of, found themselves with nothing to do on one of the most important days of their lives.

"I think it is a wonderful idea and has cut out a lot of costs. Each of my other sons' weddings cost me Dh200,000 and with prices going up because of inflation, I would not have been able to pay for Rashid otherwise. This has not cost me anything at all. I just wish group weddings had been around when I got married. I would have loved to do the same thing." The mass wedding was estimated to have cost Dh5 million, although officials would say only that it cost less than Dh10 million.

For Hussain al Hosani, 30, an environmental expert for an oil firm, the decision to celebrate his wedding with hundreds of others was a spontaneous one he had made just two days earlier. Like the other brides, his new wife, Eman al Zaabi, stayed home while he celebrated until the early hours with his fellow bridegrooms. Most had performed the official part of their marriages and signed the wedding register days, and in some cases, months earlier. But the spectacular reception on Friday marked the day they considered their true wedding day, when they graduated from boyhood to manhood and introduced their brides to their new family homes.

"I met my bride for the first time properly after signing the register two days ago," said Mr Hosani. "My sister studied with her and thought it would be a good match so I trusted her decision, plus I know her family very well. "I am a bit nervous about getting married today but when I have my friends and family around me, I won't be." About 10 of his friends were married with him, "and I think it is much better to get married with lots of people because it encourages you to take that step.

"My mother is more nervous than I am - she has already phoned me six times today. Eman thought it was a great idea and will probably celebrate with a quiet dinner at home." Preparations for the big day began in earnest on Thursday night when 300 lambs and 30 camels were slaughtered for the wedding feast. As hundreds of workers spent the following day erecting an outdoor arena with stages for the bridegrooms and visiting dignitaries, a team of chefs began preparing a banquet to feed 10,000. Forty vast pots, each big enough to contain an entire sheep, were placed on hot coals and burning logs outside the festival site while the meat inside was stewed for five hours. One of the cooks squatted over a makeshift oven, created from cement bricks and coals, from which he produced enormous rounds of Arabic bread.

Coffee flowed freely from hundreds of traditional pots, making the drinks tent a favourite spot for nervous bridegrooms waiting for their big moment, when they would shake hands with Sheikh Mohammed bin Beti, the representative of the ruler of Al Gharbia. No expense had been spared. Each of the bridegrooms had been issued with a black chiffon bisht, embroidered with gold thread, to wear over their kanduras, and ghatra to wear on their heads.

Mubarak al Mansouri, 28, an Al Gharbia municipality worker who customised his ensemble with Prada sunglasses, said: "I signed the register in February but I am not living with my wife yet. She will move in after this ceremony in a couple of days. "I have been getting ready since 11am today, going to the barber's, getting instructions on what to do and preparing myself. Today is not just about saving money. There is a fantastic group atmosphere and it is a great place to make new friends as we are all in the same boat."

Others were a little more hesitant about making the leap into married life. Ahmed al Hammadi, 21, a technician who signed the register two months ago, said: "If I had paid for the wedding myself, it would have cost Dh300,000. "I have been preparing myself emotionally for a week. I am only getting married to please my mother. There are a lot of single women so group weddings are encouragement for young men to marry."

Musallam al Mazrouei was so inspired by his brother's participation that he has already pledged to marry in a group wedding next year. "My brother works in the army and joined to cut down on expenses. I am so proud of him." For Abeer Musallam, 19, a food inspection official, it was a chance to bond with 20 of his friends, who were all marrying at the same time. "The more people that take part, the more blessed we will be. There is an ancient saying: 'Always co-operate and you will not suffer from evil.'

"A single wedding could cost Dh500,000 and some people cannot afford that. It has still cost me Dh100,000 as I have to buy the bride gifts, jewellery and pay a Dh10,000 dowry. But getting married brings riches rather than taking them away. I have already seen my salary more than double because of benefits and marital allowances. "I have yet to see her even though we signed the book two months ago, but I am not worried. I do not care about looks, it is enough that she is religious and comes from a good family."

The bridegrooms had a chance to relax, swap notes and gossip together in a majlis over coffees and hampers of fruit before making the most of a four-hour programme of entertainment, including poetry recitals, songs and performances from the Abdullah bin Yaroof al Kabi dance troupe based in Liwa. They were joined by relatives and Al Gharbia residents invited to the banquet. Falah al Qusaili, one of the wedding planners, said: "The cost of weddings has more than doubled in recent years. Why spend all that money when you can gather everyone you know under one roof and share the enjoyment?

"The festival is all about family industries of date production and handicrafts, so what better way to mark the importance of family than a wedding." Mass weddings were introduced by the Government's Marriage Fund, which was established 16 years ago, because of concerns that a growing number of Emirati men were marrying foreigners because they could not afford the huge dowries and lavish hospitality expected of them.

Additionally, men marrying Emirati women can apply for grants of up to Dh70,000 to help with wedding costs. tyaqoob@thenational.ae hdajani@thenational.ae