x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tribal wedding reconnects with past

A wedding in RAK gives modern Emiratis a chance to experience time-honoured customs from their desert history.

Sheikh Sultan bin Ali bin Saif al Khateri, second from left, the chieftain of al Khateri tribe and the father of the groom, with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of  Presidential Affairs, and Abdullah bin Sultan al Khateri, the groom, during the tribal wedding ceremony in Ras al Khaimah.
Sheikh Sultan bin Ali bin Saif al Khateri, second from left, the chieftain of al Khateri tribe and the father of the groom, with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, and Abdullah bin Sultan al Khateri, the groom, during the tribal wedding ceremony in Ras al Khaimah.

HAMRANIYA, RAS AL KHAIMAH // Nothing could dampen the mood of Abdullah bin Sultan al Khateri, whose mouth started to hurt from smiling, as guests from across the Emirates and beyond braved bad weather to make their way to this tiny village just to shake the hand of the groom and offer him congratulations.

"I am so happy, for it is a rare chance for us to reconnect with so many of our old friends and families, and make new friends in such a traditional setting," said Abdullah, the 30-year-old husband-to-be. A steady stream of guests of all ages and walks of life walked up to nose-kiss and hug him. The groom is the son of Sheikh Sultan bin Ali al Khateri, the chief of the Al Khawater desert tribe, one of the biggest in the UAE, and one with branches extending throughout the Arabian Peninsula. His bride is the 24-year-old daughter of Sheikh Miftah al Khateri.

"We were worried that many guests will not show up because of the rain and sandstorms," Abdullah said. "But, then, what is a sandstorm to a man from the desert?" He was whisked away to greet still more guests. This time it was a Saudi prince with a large entourage. With more than 1,000 guests arriving for the wedding in Hamraniya, a desert hamlet 20 minutes from RAK airport, it did not seem like bad weather was much of a deterrence. Several guests even arrived by helicopter at the edge of the site.

The loud, congested gathering of men dressed in their winter kanduras, made of heavier fabrics in blue, grey, yellow and white, against a backdrop of traditional music and poetry, was in stark contrast to the earlier hours of the wedding, which began shortly after Friday prayers. The day began with the brothers of the groom rushing about to deal with delivery delays and what threatened to be a seating crisis.

"We need more chairs," called out one of the brothers, as hundreds of white-and-gold cushioned renaissance-style chairs were laid out along the periphery of a 2,500 square-metre patch of desert covered by thick, floral rugs. A ribbon of red carpet stretched from the entrance of the open hall to the seats of the groom and his father. Next to them, several chairs were reserved for dignitaries who might drop by for the wedding.

Generous baskets of fruit, dates and nuts were placed on small tables spread throughout the sitting area, with drinks and coffee to be served upon seating. An elaborate dinner was set up on white and silver dining tables inside a massive white tent that was guarded from all sides. The smell of incense greeted the guests as they made their way in. The first arrivals were police cars and 4x4s, and they guarded the entrance to the hall throughout the eight-hour celebration. After parking in unpaved spaces, the guests walked to a receiving line, where the groom, dressed in a black-and-gold bisht, stood out from the rest of his family.

Members of the al Shehhi and Habous tribes, from the mountains, made their arrival known by yelling and yodelling, hitting and waving their jerz (a small axe-head on a long handle) and canes as they approached. Some of the tribesmen arrived in clusters and formed a single line. The groom's family formed another in return, a tradition known as the dakhla. The guests would approach the groom's family while performing the nadba, which could include everything from poetic recitations to general greetings of friendship to incoherent shouts of celebration.

"It is one of the rare occasions where you can just let go and shout with all your might, releasing all the passion, the aggression and frustration of life in one single yell," said Ali bin Saeed al Khateri, a relative of the groom, who cheered on the guests as they arrived. He took this opportunity to release his own "suppressed passion". "We go back to our roots at these kinds of weddings, where people from the desert get to walk along its sand and wave their swords, and the mountain tribes get to yodel and wave about their jerz," said Ali, 33, who had brought his falcon. When the proceedings got too loud, the bird was taken to its caretaker's car, where it waited for its next meal.

With traditional songs blaring through the speakers, a procession of musicians marched, playing windpipes, drums and trumpets. They were dressed in brown kanduras, and disappeared in and out of the guests who trickled into the sitting area. Along the narrow, twisted roads of the village, convoys of luxury cars waited with blinkers on for a herd of goats or a single wandering cow to cross the road.

But it was not the food, the dance or the singing that made the guests hold their breaths in anticipation. They gathered at the entrance at the sound of a helicopter, eager to see who would be the first VIP to arrive. A welcoming committee of the groom's family would drive to the pick-up point and fetch the honoured guests. From an immaculate, white Mercedes-Benz G55 with the licence plate "Dubai 11", the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, stepped out with the father of the groom, Sheikh Sultan, and they entered the sea of cheering guests.

"Come on men, show the sheikhs what you are made of," cried a voice over the loudspeakers, directing his words at the young men gathered in front of the groom, his father, and Sheikh Hamdan, who sat between them. In response, the men danced with all their might. Two lines of about 30 men faced each other. When the music began, they tilted their heads and waved their canes. Between them, men danced with swords and rifles, a dance known as the yola. Men showed off their rifle- and sword-spinning techniques, throwing them into the air and then catching them.

"Before, the men would show off and dance like this for the women that would be standing nearby watching them," said Ali, who recalled his own wedding almost eight years ago. "Before I got married, I used to like to dance with the sword and I used to put all my might into the throw," he said. "Our blood would be boiling in our hearts as we danced with our weapons. "The weapons used to be real a few decades ago, but now, for the security of the VIPs who come, we are only allowed toy weapons."

After staying for a short time, the VIP guest would take his leave, with another coming in his place. The line-up of special guests included representatives from all the emirates, among them Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid, the Ruler of Ajman, and Sheikh Saud bin Rashid, the Ruler of Umm al Qaiwain. One helicopter prompted a large cheer from the guests, with a voice over the loudspeaker welcoming a "son of Zayed".

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, arrived smiling, and held hands with Sheikh Sultan as he entered the hall. A special poem was dedicated to him by the groom's family, and one dedicated by Sheikh Mansour to the groom and his family was recited. The ruling family and the desert tribe are said to be linked through a grandmother from the Al Khawater tribe, who married into the Al Nahyan family.

Sheikh Dhiab bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan and Sheikh Zayed bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan were among the numerous notables at the event that also included diplomats and ambassadors. "Weddings like this one, where tribes come out in the open, rarely take place these days," said Abdullah, who kept his spirits up despite the exhaustion of greeting guests for more than 10 hours. His bride recently graduated from a science and maths college. She will be having her own wedding today in a far less traditional setting. It will be held at a wedding hall and attended only by women.

The desert tribes are guarded about the honour of their women, and would not divulge her name. But Abdullah said that "just because it is a matched marriage, doesn't make it unromantic and unpoetic". "We tribesmen like to keep our love story a private story," he said with a smile. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae