Just before noon, I emerged from the local market labyrinth, narrow alleyways crowded with small shops of every sort, and sat down on a bench near the back of the square, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive at our meeting point. Rebecca*, our short-term outreach leader, joined me. “We’ve been invited to a wedding tonight,” she announced.
While Mark*, Lynn* and I had been exploring the market, Rebecca had been wandering the backstreets of the town away from the tourist areas. First, she ran into an older woman. They walked together a bit before she ushered Rebecca down a different street. Alone again, Rebecca turned onto another road, where she encountered three small boys on bicycles.
“English?” they cheekily asked.
“No, Arabic,” she replied in the local dialect.
“Wow!” they exclaimed, surprised by the foreigner who spoke their language. “You have to come meet our mother. There’s a wedding at our house today!”
Rebecca followed the boys to their home. When she entered the front door, she discovered around 40 women – all family members – preparing for the evening’s festivities. After kissing 40 cheeks and shaking 40 hands, she sat down to eat dates and drink coffee with the ladies, who insisted she stay for lunch and join them for the wedding party that night. Although Rebecca loves being spontaneously pulled into the flow of life with local families, she told her impromptu hosts that she needed to meet her friends (us), tourists who didn’t know the city and wouldn’t know where to find her if she remained at the house for the afternoon meal.
“Bring them, too,” the women immediately replied. However, since Mark and Lynn were married, the situation became slightly complicated—the lunch and the party were only for women.
When Mark and Lynn met Rebecca and I back at the bench, we quickly compromised. We’d pass on the lunch offer, opting to eat together as a team, but we ladies would leave Mark to his own devices later in order to attend the wedding.
Although our itinerary already included built-in flexibility, our entire day’s schedule suddenly shifted. We needed to buy proper clothes and accessories, Rebecca told us, and, if we really wanted to impress our hostesses, we should also visit a henna salon that afternoon. Lynn and I were excited about the invitation, but we started mentally calculating the costs for fancy new dresses, more money than either of us had planned to spend on souvenirs.
While we were chatting about our options, Rebecca reminded me of the black abaya (overcoat type dress) I’d purchased two days prior. “If you keep it on the whole night, you can just wear that,” she told me. Then Lynn remembered she’d seen a few other abayas hanging in the closet at our rented holiday apartment. “Maybe they’ll fit,” she suggested. Quickly we decided to try on the clothes at the flat before making any purchases.
When we unlocked our apartment door, I went straight to the closet, amazed by the four abayas and matching headscarves hanging inside. Both Rebecca and Lynn picked out suitable abayas, and I pulled mine out of my suitcase. Together, we donned our evening apparel for a quick mock fashion show. Amazingly, everyone found something that fit. Already happy about the invitation itself, I was giddy over God’s provision. Not only had He arranged Rebecca’s meeting with the boys but He had also given us everything we needed in order to appropriately attend the party.
Over a simple lunch at the flat, we discussed parallels to the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22. In this story, after the king’s initial wedding invitations were refused, he sent his servant out with another message: “‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:8-12, ESV).
For weddings in the AP, the number of guests determines the event’s success, Rebecca explained. Although we didn’t know the bride (or groom), our attendance at the wedding would reflect favourably on those organizing the event. And, like in the Bible story, where one guest was chastised for lacking festive attire, our appearance also mattered.
To honour those who had invited us, we went to a salon later that afternoon to have henna painted onto our hands, temporary decorative designs and flowing flowers that dried, cracked, and darkened from a bronzy orange to a deep brown over the next couple days. By the time we put on our abayas, pulled up our hair, and situated our headscarves, we blended in perfectly with the local ladies. We were ready.
We arrived at the hotel ballroom minutes before the bride’s grand entrance and slipped into seats near the back next to two other women in black. In fact, except for immediate family members of the bride and groom, all the women were wearing full abayas and headscarves.
When the bride entered the room, everyone watched her tedious journey to the gilded double seat at the end of the aisle, her steps hindered by the sheer amount of dress fabric sweeping the floor in front and behind her. Near the door, the bride gathered a single red rose from each woman in the family, though she soon exchanged those flowers for her cultured bouquet. She looked pretty but not joyful as she tugged her long veil over her bare shoulders, the exposure seemingly uncomfortable. For many Arab brides, the wedding is less of a celebration than an ordeal, Rebecca noted. Following the ceremony, the bride will be taken by her husband, a man she likely doesn’t know well or has met only a few times without opportunity for private conversation, to his unfamiliar home where she’s forbidden to see her own family for a week.
While we enjoyed the treats brought to our table: juice, sweets, and barbequed meat, the bride posed on stage for an extensive photo shoot. Rebecca chatted with the women who had invited us, and we joined the younger girls for a few dances once the music was turned up. Finally the groom arrived. Before he entered the hall, every woman covered again, pulling on abayas and adjusting headscarves. As the groom entered and walked toward his bride, an Islamic chant filled the air. Then the two sat together at the front for another round of photos. Though many guests had already started leaving, scooping the leftover food into makeshift tinfoil containers, we waited for the newlyweds to leave. As we stood to exit, one of the women Rebecca had most interacted with invited us to the family lunch the next day, another part of the extended wedding festivities.
Recognizing the follow-up opportunity, especially for Rebecca, we went to the family’s house the next day at 12:30pm. Even though we had worn traditional headscarves and abayas at the wedding the night before – a fact mentioned several times during lunch conversations – we showed up to lunch wearing conservative, but normal clothes. Again, we encountered a full house of women, neighbours and members of the groom’s family. We sat on the floor near the doorway, ate fruit and dates and drank thimble-sized cups of coffee. Then some of the women picked up the plastic sheets covering the carpets and spread new ones in between the groups to make room for the main course.
Meanwhile, the bride came down the stairs, dressed in bright purple clothes and sparkly high heels. The post-wedding lunch was designed so family and guests could verify her well-being after the wedding night, though her own family had to wait another week before the groom took her home to visit them. (Only after two weeks would they be allowed to visit her at her new home.) The bride went into another room, where a handful of women were praying. We lined up to greet her, and Rebecca gave her a small pair of earrings she’d purchased that morning as a present.
Minutes later, we returned to our spot on the floor in the entry room, where some women had placed a steaming platter of rice and meat. We ate with our hands from the communal plate, each woman in our circle eagerly tearing off chunks of meat and tucking into the feast. After the initial feeding frenzy had slowed, one of the women in our group told Rebecca that in Islam people only eat from the food directly in front of them. “In Christianity, we all look out for the other people at the table,” Rebecca replied. In reality, both comments described culture rather than religion, but Rebecca told us later that she and the other women had been establishing religious boundaries through those remarks, identifying their beliefs.
Lynn and I appreciated the cultural and biblical insights we garnered from the wedding and subsequent lunch; Rebecca made new friends. Besides greeting the family members a third time, she also connected with three new university girls who studied in the same city where she lived. Afterwards she told us she looked forward to pursuing those relationships. Invitations, whether for coffee or a wedding, are key to making contacts, we learned. Only spending time in local homes lends the type of cultural competence Rebecca exuded throughout our trip.
Pray for workers in the AP, like Rebecca, who need spontaneity and flexibility when receiving invitations from locals. Pray that the friends they meet would accept the greatest invitation of all: the opportunity for forgiveness and salvation through Jesus.
Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.
Published: Thursday, 25 February 2016
Credit: Nicole James