It’s been an intense few days here in my Saharawi family home. I knew before I arrived that one of my Saharawi sisters would be getting married three weeks into my stay here so I was excited to see all the customs and traditions and be blown away by the differences compared to our traditions at home.
And I wasn’t disappointed. I was baffled and astounded most of the time but utterly privileged to be welcomed into such an important family event and a chance to witness the most important of a culture’s traditions so soon into my time here.
Now, I may well have misunderstood many of the facts I am about to impart but my misunderstaing merely adds to the hilarity and the joy! And my Saharawi friends can correct me where I’ve totally got the wrong end of the stick.
Weddings take place at the bride’s house. We spent a couple of weeks deep cleaning everything and the bride had two weeks off work for the preparations. Part of the kitchen cleaning involved taking everything out of the cupboards, painting the walls inside and adding pieces of a pretty plastic tablecloth to the shelves on which to lay the spring-cleaned crockery and utensils. We also gave the fridge what can only be described as a bit of a shower. I have honestly never worked so hard in my life as I did the one morning I seriously helped this strong-womaned household get the jobs done. A local woman also came to give us a hand washing all the blankets. It’s a very involved job with feet in the washing tub so it takes a particular skill.
The bride disappears a few days before the wedding and stays with friends locally. A few of us went to visit her on a daily basis. All the other women start getting henna-ed and head off to the hamam to get themselves scrubbed up. Everyone’s henna is totally unique but something particular about the Saharawi henna tradition seems to be the total colouring in of the soles of the feet. Many of the girls in my family added braids to their hair, with jewels or beads woven in and some serious combing and straightening took place in preparation.
Just before the wedding, the bride is whisked away somewhere to have her henna done: intricate work on her hands, feet, ankles and forearms. It takes hours, apparently. My Saharawi sister also had braids and long extentions done and even added some coloured contacts to her dark eyes. She wore a large jeweled headpiece on her actual wedding night too. Quite a piece of work and something you hire from a local hairdresser. I honestly hardly recognised her when I saw her a couple of days later.
That’s the thing, see: you actually don’t see the bride or groom until day two of the wedding. The bride’s family began arriving the day before it all kicked off and much hustle and bustle ensued.
I woke early on the first day of the wedding to the usual smell of caremilising sugar as the teapot bubbles over slightly and the sweet contents simmers on the hot coals beneath. There are many more men here than usual and one is on the roof trying to erect an awning to create more shade for all the people who are chopping onions and vegetables for the couscous.
An enormous jaima (bedouin tent) is being erected at the front of the house (a JCB had been here a few days before to flatten out the sand a bit, the operator of which had asked my Saharawi mum if she would give me to him… Something about my eyes. Thankfully, my mum Salka’s got my back.)
The bread we eat for breakfast is crunchier than normal with a crusty outside and a freshly made inside. I’d just seen a group of lads load a huge bin full of the baguettes from someone’s boot so there had clearly been a bread run to the bakery up the road.
All the excitement is building and I’m trying my best to respond to as many of the 200 guests who ask me if I’m married as possible, as politely as possible. Great Aunt Juiata, who is one of my favourites of the guests I met, gently taps my pelvic bone to intimate that time is ticking on and I’d better get some action and a bun in that oven. I think I’m decidedly geriatric in terms of marriage material here. I try to explain that it’s slightly different at home but it washes over everyone: of course it is, dear.
Everyone has a job to do: there’s a real sense that this wedding is going to belong to everyone here as part of the incredible community spirit of which I already feel just a little bit part. And during all of the morning preparation time, the head of the animal we’re going to eat for lunch is staring at me across the courtyard, eyes wide open. Breathe in.
Given that my Hassaniya is verging on the none-whatsoever and few of the guests speak more than a ‘Qué tal?’ of Spanish, the children are my allies in this wedding (to be fair, they’re my allies in most places where adult conversation is lacking, like the 343 bus ride from Elephant to Peckham). They’re observing and mischief making, catching my eye and smiling while I pull ridiculous faces and play throwing and clapping games with those who are brave enough to venture closer to the slightly eccentric foreign lady.
The jaima is full and I mean full of women. There’s a beautiful smell of cologne and handcream as a Saharawi tradition is to offer people both upon arrival to your home so there are many silver trays being passed around which are laden with large bottles of different options of both. All the women are making tea and having a natter. In Saharawi weddings in the Camps, I am informed, the men do the cooking and the serving. Excellent. The merriment builds as one of the women picks up her drum and starts to sing; the clapping to the beat of the masses begins and eventually some women start to get up and dance. It’s totally brilliant and I forget all the difficulties of the language barrier.
Lunch is served and it’s a feast of dates and date syrup followed by couscous and a yoghurt each. We eat from the low plastic tables they have hired for the wedding. I actually managed a nap in the afternoon too which was definitely needed and should actually be introduced into weddings at home, I reckon…
I am called to my post which I have been informed about in advance. At about 7pm the family of the groom arrive and bring with them presents for the couple’s new home. From what I can see this is all the separate parts of the couple’s new brightly coloured sofas attached to the roof of one of the vehicles. The noise of the car horns is intense and several of the younger drivers establish a norm of a bit of sand skidding as they drive into the parking area the bride’s dad is ushering them into.
I am dressed to impress. I have what can only be described as a bright pink, slightly stiff fabric curtain draped around me. I am to hold a wicker tray with dates and a wooden bowl of milk to offer the groom’s family as they arrive. (I am being slightly rude about the melfha I’m wearing which my Saharawi sister chose for me, but it really isn’t me. People often hate the bridesmaid dress that’s chosen for them, right?). We carry all of the household items that have been bought for the couple’s new abode into the room we have cleared out especially for this purpose.
As night falls, the dancing and music begin again. From my point of view, there has been a fair bit of waiting around by this time, my least favourite of all the activities I do here which is only exaccerbated by not really knowing anything about the schedule of things and part of one of the incredibly British traits of which I need to let go. This time a man joins the female singers. Again I am involved in much mischief with the littlest guests and marvel at the sounds and delights of this very Saharawi wedding.
We eat our steak sandwiches, i.e. a piece of bread each and a big plate of meat between us (it’s camel meat roulette though as I’m with some of the family eating in the dark in the courtyard so I’m petrified of eating one of the bits I would not be choosing could I actually see it). All those not staying begin to depart and the rest of us find somewhere to sleep amongst the masses.
At some point earlier in the day, unbeknownst to me, the families had decided the bride and groom could get married and so that’s it, they are (nothing legal to sign here). They’ve been phoned and they spend the night together. The sheets of their wedding bed will be brought to the bride’s mother the next morning for inspection!
The next morning there’s a bit of a charge over all the phone chargers. I didn’t manage to use mine overnight as someone else had borrowed it (my British politeness didn’t ask nicely for that not to be the case) so I was just charging my phone over breakfast when one woman made me remove my phone and charge hers. No one is backward at coming forward and charged phones are very important to all.
Note: Salka had put two of my pairs of sandals away so they didn’t go walkabout and of all the many expensive technological things I own that Salka kept making sure I carried with me in a bag at all times, it was one of those hidden pairs of sandals that has gone missing (the one covered in juices from when one of my Saharawi sisters wore them to carry the goats their slops, I might add. For those who read the last instalment, you can imagine my fury.
More women ask me if I’m married. The jaima is taken down and later, after a good deal more waiting, the women change and the bride is brought to her house, shrouded from head to toe in the stiff fabric (white over her body and black over her head). We take her to a room where we have laid out treats and drinks (this is everything we have bought for the equivalent of a hen do). We’ve set her new sofa and rug up for her so she can see it in all its glory. She is calm and demure and doesn’t speak while the women all sing and chant and do that shrill thing with their tongues. The song is basically about the fact she’s no longer a virgin. The groom has had a similar party with his friends back in his hometown.
The bride is soon taken away to the neighbour’s house which will be the couple’s home for the next few days and we can all go and attend on her throughout the afternoon. We eat (camel) steak and chips for lunch. More waiting and then eventually much make-up application happens in the evening as all the women put on one of the stiff melfhas (they are considered much posher than the lovely soft ones they wear on a daily basis) and apply lots of whitening foundation and large quantities of eye and brow liner. I have put on some mascara and different earrings and changed my dress. I think they are all a little astounded that I’m not applying more make-up (I’ve not explained my new mantra to them).
Eventually we young’uns descend on the couple’s new jaima all together for a party where the bride and groom cut a cake and the groom and his possee of fellas throw sweets from a flight case to all the women in the jaima. The bride is wearing a beautiful transparent white melfha but we still can’t really see her face and she carries on in a demure fashion with her husband’s arm draped around her shoulder. This all came to a close at 1am after the groom’s family had brought us the dinner that they had prepared (another meat and bread dish but there was a fresh salad, only my second since I got here…with olives…and it was AMAZING!)
Slowly over the following days the family begin to depart as we put the house straight and the bride pops in from time to time (though her brother and father must not see her during the week following the wedding while her henna remains) but the groom keeps his distance and may never ever come to the house out of respect for the bride’s parents.
Over the next few days the bride’s mother will give out some of the 100 melfhas she has been gifted by the groom’s family along with toiletries, little mirrors and hairbrushes (I got one each of the latter two and some spray deodorant) to all the women she wants to gift to for their part in the wedding. Then about half of the melfhas are later returned to the groom’s family along with anything else she would like to give them. The bride has been showered with gifts from the groom and his family: a set of leopard print suitcases full of melfhas, pyjamas, underwear, bags and shoes as well as toiletries, as well as all of the things for their new house together. Over the next few days, people will come to her jaima and decide how much her new husband loves her based on how lovely these things all are.
The day following the end of the celebrations, we had a little disco in the Desert. A carpet was laid out, speakers and instruments and mics ran off car batteries and when it got dark some headlights were put on. Two men sang and all the women danced (I even got up and strut my Western stuff). We danced under the stars but went home after not too long. And I fell asleep dreaming of the Saharawi rhythms and notes which will become the soundtrack to this whole experience.