(Not) My Big Fat Emirati Wedding

Last Saturday I attended an Emirati wedding and I would love to tell you all about it. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted, so I will have to illustrate the event with my words!

I wasn’t actually invited to the wedding, so I suppose, technically, last night I crashed an Emirati wedding. The groom was a Political Science major at NYUAD who graduated this spring. A couple of the Political Science professors and their wives were invited. One of those wives then invited me. I guess it’s common practice for invitees to invite their friends and maybe even for those people to invite others! Can you imagine if this happened in the States? I didn’t even want to allow plus-ones at my wedding. But then again, I didn’t receive a check from the government toward the cost of my wedding (it’s rumored to be around $19,000, though the budget for these events is surely magnitudes more than that).

Whatever discomfort I may have felt about attending a wedding without being on the guest list was assuaged by the excitement of getting to play dress up. Emirati weddings are very formal affairs. How often do you get the opportunity to go full ball gown? I had to seize it. Unfortunately, since I had just a few of days lead time, I didn’t have enough time to have a dress tailored well, so my choices were severely limited. That, coupled with the fact that 95% of what was for sale in my budget was stodgy and cheap-looking (despite not actually being cheap), was majorly disappointing. I almost bought a black dress with fringe and giant paillettes, which was very fun, but I didn’t want to wear black to a summer wedding. I finally found a purple dress that had straps that could be worn in a myriad of ways: halter, one shoulder, strapless, kimono sleeved, etc. It was basic, but the color was beautiful and I knew I could make it pop with accessories. I was going to buy emerald accessories, but I was too shopped out at that point, so I borrowed really beautiful pieces from my generous friends.

What I had heard about Emirati weddings was that, because they are segregated by sex (sometimes the men and women celebrate simultaneously, but in separate spaces, but this one was held on two different nights), the women dress quite provocatively. I was expecting something like this:

Normally, Emirati women are covered from head to toe in black abayas (the robes) and shaylas (the head scarfs), but at a wedding, they show a lot of skin, especially the younger women who are trying to impress potential mothers-in-law. Another blog post I read likened the hair and make-up to Jersey Shore prom-meets-Toddlers and Tiaras…with bigger hair and more make-up. To get in the spirit, I piled on my eye make-up as thickly as I could and stuck on some ridiculously long fake eyelashes (funny story: the woman at the drug store tried to dissuade me from buying the lashes and suggested I might prefer simple mascara, because fake eyelashes were more appropriate for people “not like” me. Whatever that means.) I was feeling pretty confident with how well I had glued them on until I realized that I had forgotten to curl my real lashes, so my lashes stuck straight down, while the falsies curled skyward. I guess I’ll start a new two tiered lash trend! I also broke my cardinal make-up rule: either eyes or lips, but never both. I figured, when in Rome… When I looked in the mirror, I looked like a drag queen. But a pretty nice looking drag queen.



I was rather surprised to see that I was perhaps one of the more made-up women and was showing more skin that most. (I still felt comfortable, though, and never needed to cover up with my pashmina. I did feel a lot of eyes on me at all times, but I assume that’s because I was only one of merely a handful of “Western” women in attendance, though several mistook me for “local”.) Perhaps this was a very traditional family. Most of the women kept long coverings over their gowns, but they were gorgeous formal caftans, sometimes sheer with lace decorations or sequins or gold embroidery. I was most surprised by the number of burqas I saw. Usually, these are only worn by the oldest generation, but I saw quite a few younger women wearing them as well.

A quick note about burqas: in the UAE, the burqa is a face mask made out of leather, but painted to resemble gold. It covers the space between a woman’s nose and upper lip, which is considered one of the most sensual parts of her body. It should not be confused with the fabric burqa that is worn in other Middle Eastern countries, which completely covers a woman’s face.

Like I said at the beginning, photography was not allowed, though I did catch quite a few surreptitious selfies being taken. There was a videographer filming the whole event, but only the bride will be allowed to watch the movie! I’m going to try to find pictures online that will give you a sense of what the venue and the people looked like. [Ed: I tried really hard, but couldn’t find good pictures that accurately matched what the guests looked like. I guess that’s what happens when photography is banned. Boo.] This is important, because 50% of the reception was just people watching. The other 50% was eating and drinking.

This reception was held at the Emirates Palace:

We didn’t even leave to drive to the reception until after 9pm. These people are nocturnal! (Which totally makes sense when it’s 118 degrees, which it truly was last week.) We entered into a long hallway that led to the ballroom. The hallway, like all parts of the Emirates Palace, was gold with gold gold and more gold. But the visual theme for the wedding was diamonds and roses. So there was a long banquet table down the center of the hallway covered in crystal candlesticks and giant bouquets of red roses. I’m still not quite sure what the point of this table was. I guess just something pretty to look at. Several women were lined up at the entrance to the ballroom and greeted each guest with a kiss, though we only got handshakes. Inside were about 50 round tables, each with ten chairs. The whole place eventually filled to capacity with more women than chairs, so there were easily 500+ guests (I wonder how many of us were crashing?). There was a stage in the back half of the room with a runway jutting out toward the entrance. The background of the stage was covered in a wall of red roses and a wall of crystals.

There were several hostesses (employed by the hotel) with identical braided updos milling about and one of them led us to a table. Waiting at our place setting were several small dishes of classic mezze like hummus, muhammara, olives, kibbeh, etc. Then the food just starting coming and coming and coming. There were so many different wait staff, each with a different outfit denoting their position in the service hierarchy and plate of goodies to proffer. There were women wearing white and gold caftans pouring qahwa (Arabic coffee perfumed with cardamom and other spices) from a dallah into tiny cups:

There were also similarly attired women serving Moroccan tea and chai karak (strong chai plus milk and sugar). Waitresses could also bring a variety of juices or sodas, but I primarily drank the tea, which I’ve become a little addicted to since living here.

There were women dressed in french maid costumes with trays of chocolate truffles all through the evening, even before dinner was served. There was one type of date available on the tables and date women walking around with more varieties.

One of the more unique offerings during the evening was bakhoor, which is a type of incense. Women would walk around with large gold cauldrons and the guests would wave their hands to pull the scented smoke into their abayas and shaylas to perfume them. There were also several set up on the tables, so the entire ball room was scented with oud. I can still smell it on my dress three days later.

Several side dishes were served before the main courses, such as harees, which is a sticky meat porridge (I try to be embracing of different food tastes, but blech):

and regag, a sweet crepe flavored delicately with saffron (good) along with a pungent fish paste (not good). There were also European dishes like lasagne and spinach ravioli.

The main dishes were all rice based. My favorite is chicken machboos:

but there were also a couple biryanis. I love a good biryani, but I was already so full at this point that I had to turn all subsequent offerings down. Well, there were a few more desserts being passed around that I enjoyed, like blue macarons with whole blueberries and raspberries smooshed inside and a raspberry-pistachio tartlet. And then they brought out plates of dessert. Wait, what? Desserts had been passed out the entire evening! But they brought each of us a dinner plate with about five different tortes on it. I did eat as much of the chocolate torte as I could, because it was topped with gold leaf, and I am obsessed with the idea of lining my intestines with gold.

We completely lost track of time, because we didn’t have our phones and no one wears a watch anymore. At some point, oh, say, around 11 or 11:30, the bride finally made her debut. She appeared from behind the stage and proceeded to walk verrrry slowly around the stage, beaming and waving, pausing in every corner to pose, for about the next hour. I heard that the groom had not met her before the wedding, so I was interested to see what she looked like, as I’m sure he had been! (Poor girl wasn’t even named on the wedding invitation, just, “Daughter of X.”) She was drop dead gorgeous, so, lucky boy (well, assuming she’s kind and smart as well). Her dress had long sleeves, but a plunging bodice, with a large skirt and train, and a beautiful veil studded with sparkles and blooms covered the whole thing. She looked a little like Kim Kardashian before she had any plastic surgery done or an Italian starlet from the 1950s.

The dress kinda looked like this (but with more sparkles and no hippie flower crown):


After all the slow walking and posing, the bride sat down at the back of the stage and groups of women, presumably in order of familial importance, began dancing down the aisle toward her. They all danced the same, waving one hand in the air and shaking their hips ever so slightly. Some of them who had long hair would rock it back and forth, but I didn’t see anyone perform the traditional Emirati hair dance (YouTube it). There were, however, a couple of women who yelled “ayayayayayayayayayay” into megaphones. Ululation (YouTube it). Now that was festive!

We stuck around for a while, because usually the groom and some men come in at the end to rendevous with the bride (and all the women in the room cover up – I had a pashmina at the ready!). But that never happened! Hm, not sure what that means. So we dragged our bedraggled selves home around 2am.

All in all, it was a magnificent cultural experience that I am so grateful to have had a chance to participate in. However, even though they’re gigantic affairs, they’re really all about family, which I was not, so it was a little boring. There is no alcohol, and there is also no real dancing. Young girls in their pastel princess dresses danced throughout, and there was a singer on stage along with a violinist and oud player, but it’s not the kind of thing where all the guests join in. It is more about socializing. We just sat at our table the whole time along with a Bulgarian cosmetologist whose husband managed the bride’s family’s business empire and two middle aged Emirati aunt-types, eating, drinking, and people watching. Speaking Arabic would have helped immensely.


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