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“My friend is getting married and has invited us to his wedding.” Abdullah announces with a smile.
“Me?” I ask puzzled. “I don’t even know your friend.”
“It doesn’t matter. He told me he would be honored if you came.”
“OK. I am really excited to attend my first Saudi wedding.”
The following day I receive a WhatsApp message with the address of the wedding hall. The event takes place at the Officers Club. After the location, Abdullah adds: “call me when you arrive.”
I can hear the call to prayer as I open my closet. Isha prayer. I put on my thobe and start to feel as if I had always been wearing this piece of clothing, but it is only my second time. I place the shemagh, the agal, and the tagiya on the seat next to me in the car. Minutes later I drive south on the Eastern Ring Road. My GPS has not kept up with the frenetic construction pace of the city and I get lost a couple of time before finding my final destination. I hadn’t thought about having to pass a security check. It is a place for armed officers after all, so security is tight. I stop my car and the soldiers ask me something in Arabic. I decide to put in practice the sentences I have been practicing with Abdullah.
“Asalamalikum. Ana Hisbani. Ma atakalam Arabi.”
The soldiers look perplexed. A Spanish guy dressed in a Saudi thobe trying to enter the Officers Club at night. When I think I am going to be denied access, a word comes to my mind. A word that Abdullah told me when he told me about the wedding.
And the soldiers repeat with big smiles: “Ors, ors!”
Immediately, they lift the barrier, step aside and let me through. They communicate with a security guard that is further down the road. The guard welcomes me and takes me to a restricted parking area next to the main entrance. I call Abdullah.
“Hey, I’m here.”
He comes out right away and starts laughing.
“They gave you VIP parking! They probably thought you were a diplomat or something!”
“I need help with this.” I ask pointing at my smag, feeling little embarrassed. “I have never used it before.”
Patiently, Abdullah proceeds to place the agal on my head and the smag. He tells me that this is what fathers do with their children when they are too young to fix their smag. I actually feel like a child: everything is new and exciting.
Once my smag is in place, we proceed to the building. I feel as if any little move of my head will make my agal fall, so I walk completely straight and move like a robot. We are greeted by many people. I try to sound convincing as I repeat the sentences I have memorized:
“Asalam alaikum, keif halek, alhamdulillah, tayib, wish lonik…”
Abdullah looks amused by the situation. At some point he turns to me and says with a wide smile:
“You see? Most people don’t even realize you are not Saudi!”
And we walk into the big reception hall where the groom stands receiving congratulations and blessings from the guests. Handshakes, smiles, selfies, group pictures.
Then we find a seat and a Yemeni elegantly dressed for the occasion comes with a dallah and the finjan. As we take the first sip of our coffee, I ask:
“Where are the women? This is the first wedding I attend without women.”
“Well, they celebrate separately. After the celebration, the groom will go where the bride is and they will start their new life together.”
More and more men arrive. There are several small kids running around the room in their tiny thobes. The oud comes around and I learn how to wave the smoke into my smag. I hold the end of the smag close to my face and take a deep breath. The intense fragrance and the sight of those kids take my mind away from room and into a story that my wife told me a few days ago. A story about Hind, a Saudi woman she recently met. A woman with a sad face, a woman with a forced smile and a constant inner tension. A woman who was divorced and terrified that her ex-husband would take her daughter away from her. A sad story that probably started on a night just like this one, all smiles and good wishes.
The pounding of drums brings my mind back to the room. The crowd starts to gather around a group of men with the drums. Some men start to move in the center of an improvised circle following the rhythm of the drums. Happy faces with wide smiles and a legion of smartphones documenting this moment. The music and the dance have an inviting quality. My feet start to move following the irresistible rhythm, and suddenly someone grabs my arm gently and drags me to the center of the circle. I try to follow the patterns of movement that surround me. I feel part of something bigger than myself. And then someone hands me a sword. The person next to me tells me to follow his lead. I raise the sword, and, at the same time, as if I had given a command, a legion of iPhones raise up, pointing at me, hungry to capture the image of the only foreign guest trying to perform Al Ardha.
The sword, conceived to inflict pain, becomes an expression of joy. The very same object designed for destruction is now the symbol of union. We can have laughter instead of tears around its sharp blades. Life can be a fight, and life can be dance.
And I think of Hind. I imagine her sad story, beginning on a joyful night like this one. A marriage, conceived to cultivate love, becoming a source of pain.