A uniquely Palestinian wedding
HALHOUL, WEST BANK
After she places fat grapes and fresh figs on the coffee table, Um Amar is proud to show me her daughter's gifts from the man she'll marry today.Skip to next paragraph
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Um Amar - as Hania Abu Asabeh is called by friends and family - meticulously opens each box, revealing ring after bracelet after necklace of amber 18-karat gold. Precisely 320 grams of gold in all.
No, she clicks her tongue, it wasn't part of the marriage contract with the groom. It's the set amount every bride in the village gets.
Dowries are less common among Palestinians nowadays, a victim of economic hardship and changing times. But many trappings of the dowry system - like the gold jewelry - hang on, as do other age-old traditions of Palestinian weddings.
The result is unique - and markedly different from Western customs. For one, Palestinian Muslim weddings don't have what Westerners think of as a marriage ceremony. (All the formalities of the religious union are settled months before in the presence of a sheikh when the wedding contract is signed.) Instead, the day is filled with celebrations, feasting, and dancing.
Guests, furthermore, are separated by gender according to Muslim code, essentially breaking the wedding into two independent parties.
The wedding day of Um Amar's daughter, Bassela, follows suit, falling into step with the time-worn style of nuptials that are especially strong in conservative villages such as these.
And like many other Palestinian brides, she officially joins her husband's family on her wedding day, meaning that from now on they are to be her priority.
At 22, says Bassela, she needed to wed soon or face being the subject of rumors or, worse, be considered too old and unmarriageable.
Her union has come about as most do for Palestinians: through her parents' matchmaking. She had a choice among a limited pool of suitors - most of them members of her hamule, or clan, as is preferred by many families. The final decision, she acknowledges, had more to do with pragmatism than passion.
The day before Bassela's wedding was the last full day Um Amar had with her daughter, when the women and girls stayed up late decorating their hands and feet with auburn strokes of henna.
"When we thought of all we did together, we cried," says Um Amar, a mother of eight who wears an embroidered Palestinian robe on her stout frame and deep, sympathetic lines on her face. "When my son gets married, we gain someone in the family. When my daughter gets married, we lose someone."
In her farewell, Um Amar has prepared symbolic gifts for her daughter. She will present Bassela with a pitcher of sugar-saturated water, representing wishes for a sweet marriage. It's the same pink glass pitcher Um Amar's mother gave to her when she married her first cousin 37 years ago, at age 18. She will also give Bassela a gift to present to her groom: a copy of the Koran, the Islamic holy book, inside a handmade satin covering.
And for Bassela, there is a large rose fabricated from smaller buds. The green leaves around it signify life, says Um Amar, and the red petals, love.
From both of Bassela's parents comes a new living-room set. Um Amar giggles that that's actually the Egyptian way: Giving furniture is not a Palestinian custom.