Friday, July 10, 2009

thoughts from a Tunisian wedding

On Sunday night, I went to what I believed to be the marriage of Amor, our neighbor and the host brother of another American in the program. Little did I suspect that marriages here are a week-long affair and that what I was to attend was only a bachelor’s party of sorts. Tunisian weddings apparently begin with an official civil ceremony that isn't widely attended but that produces the chains of honking cars I keep seeing/hearing. Then there are private parties for the groom and the bride, which include a wide circle of neighbors, family and friends. The final party, where the bride and groom are finally allowed to see each other, is huge, wild (or as much as it can be without alcohol or overly-overt sexuality, I suppose) and late. Weddings are almost like a community service here, or perhaps a public celebration of wealth and happiness, and they all take place during the summer months. There has almost literally been a wedding in our neighborhood every night I’ve been here (you can hear them through the open windows), so it was exciting to finally see what goes on firsthand.

Festivities started at 7 (which in Tunisian time meant 9:30) with a dinner on the roof of their house. The roof was covered with tables and chairs, with the prime real estate sectioned off for the men and the rest left for women, families and Americans. A little tent in the corner housed three ancient, veiled women with huge platters of food that must have taken several days and kitchens to prepare. I got a plate of couscous topped with lamb and vegetables, salad mishweya, some quiche-like tajine, bread and watermelon. After I had finished I was quickly ushered out by Eshem, the groom’s brother, who was on dish detail and responsible for turning tables to assure that everyone was fed. We moved on to the space at the end of the street that I had seen them sweeping off earlier that day, which was now draped in Tunisian banners (and randomly, a superman banner?) and covered in rows of folding chairs in front of a traditional Tunisian “band”—six men wearing traditional white robes and red wool hats, whose chanting and drumming was amplified to an almost deafening level. Again, the genders were segregated—with woman (a high proportion of whom were veiled—I couldn’t figure out if the family just has an abnormally high number of “traditional” friends or if women who usually go without will don them for formal occasions) occupying the seats in the front, and men grouped standing in the back or sitting along the sides treets with tea and shisha. There was also a gender difference in clothing—while the women were all dressed very nicely, the men were much more casual, with the old men in regular house clothes and the young men in their typical “going out” attire of tight, dark jeans, fitted black tees and a full head full of gel.

At about midnight the band stopped and the crowd migrated back to the house to see Eshem and Amor (who, to my surprise, had been wandering around unshaven in a grungy white tank top and shorts tending to guests) emerge in traditional dress with the rest of the family. Eshem “carried” a very miserable-looking Amor down the stairs (not really—Eshem is short and spry, and Amor kind of chubs) at about the pace of a bridal march as the women you-youed. Once on the street, the whole family paused for pics (Amor still looking terribly unhappy) and ceremonious candle-lighting before the street side party resumed with dancing and throwing money at the groom-to-be. Everyone was joyous—the older people and especially the women (who often stay at home while husbands go to cafes) seemed to enjoy the chance to mingle with friends, while the younger crowd enjoyed the chance to mingle acceptably with the opposite sex. Young Tunisians actually have a pretty active and scandalous social scene, complete with dating and a little bit of drinking…it’s just kept on the down-low. Weddings are a rare socially acceptable and almost desirable time for overt courtship to take place, as the aggressive attention I was getting from a friend of Amor’s demonstrated. Exhausted from Le Kef and knowing I had class early the next morning, I ended up leaving shortly after midnight, although I heard the party continue late into the morning.

I learned later from Lubna that it is expected and respectable for the groom to be solemn (although not miserable) and for both parties to be kind of grungy-looking until the last day, to make the contrast all the more fabulous. The bride spends the morning of the wedding or the day before with a group of girlfriends at the hammam (more to come on my own bridal hammam adventure soon!) while the groom gets a shave and a haircut. If my own family and Amor’s is any judge, weddings are starting to change here (getting much later in life, with divorce a much more acceptable option, although homosexuality is still not even mentioned) but the ideal is still a marriage in the early twenties for a woman and the late twenties for a man that is a “good match” in terms of class and wealth. The man is expected to have a job and supply the money for a car, a house, and its furnishings, while the woman contributes a pillow; obviously a more symbolic than useful gesture. This is changing as women enter the workforce, but even if the marriage is more egalitarian they seem to at least keep up the appearance of a traditional bread-winner/housewife ideal.

On another note, if my conversation and observations over coffee with Amor and one of his flirtatious female students a few weeks ago is any judge, I read Amor’s expression right at the wedding—he’s not just solemn, he’s upset at losing his “freedom.” On that night, when the waiter gave his number to the student, Amor ripped it up immediately and swept her into a hug, saying “you don’t need that, you have me!” Alas for him, I don’t know how that’ll fly with a ring on his finger (or maybe it will just drive it underground…)

1 comment:

  1. I'm kind of liking the pillow idea. Leaves a lot of room for the imagination. Bridal showers in which everyone contributes a single pillowcase? Pillows with treasures hidden inside, like the bean in the cake? Purely symbolic items get so much freedom...