The tent associated with Gulf weddings was not born from our Bedouin ancestors, who could rarely afford such extravagances.
The traditional role of the tent in the Gulf's weddings
The tent associated with Gulf weddings was not born from our Bedouin ancestors, who could rarely afford such extravagances. Instead, weddings would be held outside to accommodate the traditional ayyala, harbiyah and razfah dances. Only the extremely wealthy could afford flaming torches for illumination, so most weddings were held in the daytime. As you can well imagine, not many couples got married during summer in the desert.
Today, the minute we are reminded of how little our forefathers had, we go crazy overcompensating for it. If we are going to build a tower, it must be the world's biggest, and if we are going to hold a wedding, it will be a big, fat affair to rival any Greek ceremony. Even the smallest Gulf family has close to 200 people in it, and that does not include all our family friends, neighbours, work colleagues, fellow club members, our pals from the coffee shop, etc.
And we don't expect those people to come alone. Their younger brothers and cousins are implicitly invited, too. You can understand why there is the Arabic saying "Yezeed walla yenges" which translates as "Let it be more than less". We view weddings as an opportunity for the groom to show the level of his hospitality and respect for his elders. When you walk into a wedding tent, you turn to the right and greet the father of the bride; then the groom, who wears the robe known as a bisht; then his father, all the brothers and brothers-in-law, and all the elders from both families.
The middle of the tent is reserved for dancing, accompanied by traditional poetry recitals and perhaps some basic musical instruments - a drum and an organ, for example. Guests sit around the edges of the tent, where waiters serve coffee and tea, chocolates and dates, and bring bukhoor (incense) and rose water. The wedding usually starts after the isha prayer at about 8.30 to 9pm. Once the majority of guests have arrived, about an hour and a half later, the main meal is served. The groom eats quickly, then walks around the tent making sure that everyone is getting enough to eat.
Because Emirati weddings are separated, I have never had the fortune of experiencing the ladies' ceremony. I know that it takes place over three nights; the first is a henna party; the second features a short visit from the groom and his family (don't worry, everybody covers up for this); and the third night is usually a sister version of the male party, where guests drink coffee and tea, feast and dance.
This is often the night where the groom comes to the ladies' tent and takes his bride away at midnight to be married. Of course, each tribe has its own wedding traditions. Some Gulf weddings can even be mixed affairs, although this does not happen in the UAE. Despite the tragedy in Kuwait, I do not believe that the tradition of wedding tents in the Emirates will change. Even though our ancestors did not hold their weddings in a tent, it is still a symbol of our Arabian heritage and is designed for our large, family-oriented festivities.
Many people from outside the city cannot afford a hotel in the city, and many Muslims still associate hotels with alcohol, which makes them less attractive venues. May God bless our deceased brothers and sisters in Kuwait. Our prayers are with their families and friends. Ali Alsaloom is an Emirati who founded Ask Ali (ask-ali.com) and Embrace Arabia (embracearabia.com), a cultural consultancy in Abu Dhabi