A uniquely Palestinian wedding

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.

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.

On the groom's side, his family must foot the bill for the wedding - no small feat for a clan of 3,000 - and provide a new home for the couple. On the day of the wedding - a Friday, as is common for Palestinian marriages - the groom's family treats male guests to lunch down the road from Um Amar's.

But Abu Amar insists on breaking rank for his foreign visitors, leading me and my photographer past the hundreds of men who are taking turns at the long tables that cannot possibly accommodate everybody. He takes us to the secluded third floor of the adjacent house, bringing generous servings of mansaf, a tasty staple of Palestinian celebrations that consists of saffron rice, lamb, and warm yogurt soup.

The baking sun wanes, signaling evening's approach, and women begin to fill up a storage facility below Um Amar's home. Soon pink and purple plastic stools are crammed with old women, newlywed wives, teenage girls, and boys under age 5. A self-appointed DJ slips a cassette into a boombox on the platform, where Bassela's throne awaits.

The sultry Arabic music lures young women to the dance floor, which can accommodate but a few bodies at a time. Each takes off her head scarf and conservative robe to reveal a pretty suit or shapely dress beneath. Heads of long hair flounce, hips gyrate, wrists twirl. But when a turn on the dance floor is up, the scarves and robes quickly enshroud their owners, who must take privacy into consideration. The doors are open to ease the heat, making them visible to any men possibly outside.

Um Amar leans over and with a furtive gesture directs my attention to one woman on the dance floor. "That one's husband," she whispers with a trace of pity, "is taking a second wife." Islam allows a man to take up to four wives if he can provide for them. Although polygamy is generally thought to be rare among Palestinians, it is not unheard of in villages such as these.

"Is she angry about it?" I ask.

Um Amar shrugs. "He's rich, so he's allowed. That's what can happen if you marry a rich man."

Suddenly the grandmothers begin to ululate. The bride has finally arrived, and Bassela is, by any standard, truly radiant. She takes the dance floor, allowing the crowd to coo over her ornate white gown and its glittery bodice.

Her pristine, fancy skirts sharply contrast with the rough cement floor and windowless, cement-block walls. Her black hair is hair-sprayed high inside the rhinestone crown on her head. Since the tape has just run out, she stops dancing and is guided to her chair of honor.

When I approach, mid-party, to quietly ask the most private of questions, Bassela answers more frankly than I expect. Is she marrying for love?

"No, no," she shakes her head, taking the inquiry more seriously than emotionally. "This is the maximum age for marriage. If I didn't get married now, people will start to talk badly about me," she says.

During the matchmaking process, which included meetings between the parents of potential spouses, many suitors came calling for her. She chose one who seemed nice enough, who had a steady job with the Palestinian police, and who would let her finish studying for an English degree at a university in nearby Hebron. If their financial situation is comfortable, however, she doesn't expect to work.

"He has a house and he agreed to let me continue my studies," she says. "I never expected to love him."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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