When Boy Meets Girl – Courting in Veggiestan

Veggiestanis love to feast, at no time more so than at a wedding. Which set me to thinking about Middle Eastern courtship.
Self-styled matchmaker, that’s me. Part time of course. Thing is, I see so many young Middle Eastern lonely hearts: I consider it one of the sovereign duties of the shopkeeper to, er, try and help.
Just at the moment I am trying to find a bride for Mohammad. He is one of our suppliers – a nice chap, with his own car and his own teeth. At thirty something he really ought to be settling down. His family in Lebanon have found him several potential lasses, but negotiations have repeatedly broken down. His problem is that as he is ensconced in the West he is perceived as being wealthy; the pressure on him to fork out for not only a huge wedding but also a sizeable trousseau are untenable. He is now wondering whether he should find himself a nice Western girl instead: he is willing to forego a shared culture and a degree of modesty for the peace of mind that comes with laid back in-laws.
Finding a bride is even harder for many of the young Afghans who come over here. In Afghanistan marriages are often arranged when the couple are still very young, and so when a boy ends up as a refugee, he is often left wondering what to do on the marital front. In extreme cases the marriage takes place without the groom being there: a mullah will bless the union, and the families will celebrate, and the groom is left to hope that one day he will actually be able to be with his bride.
You will surmise from this that I approve of arranged marriages. Contrived introductions. They are a very different proposition from forced marriages. Whilst the Middle East is a-changing, and boys and girls kind of hang out without raising eyebrows anymore, when it comes to the wedding business the approval and involvement of one’s family is pretty much essential. Whilst the Western media is quick to highlight the weaknesses of such a system, and the appalling cruelty that can ensue when consent is withheld, there is little written about the success rate of this ancient system. I would even go so far as to suggest that we could do with a bit of it over here: a shopkeeper gets to see a lot of lonely people, ill-advised relationships and broken hearts.
Each country might have a different name for it, but once a girl has set her sights on a chap (or vice versa) there is pretty much a set sequence of stages that the couple will need to go through before they can consider themselves wed. Firstly the two families involved get together to lay plans, usually after plenty of behind-the-scenes chatter has taken place – although occasionally one family will descend on another unannounced and declare their intentions. In Iran this process is known as khastegari, and it quite often (tragic-comically) leads to a refusal.
Once the nitty-gritty has been ironed out (like who is going to pay for what), a formal betrothal party is held: in Arabic this is known as al khotoba. This provides the families with the first real chance to get to know each other. This is followed by a religious binding of the couple, usually in front of a mullah, although it can be done just by reciting a formulaic vow: this is called the katb al kitab, and for good Muslims it is important as it means that their relationship is now lawful in the eyes of Allah. It is an odd concept for middle Westerners to grasp however, as the length of the bond is often defined in the terms of the vow: this is in some cases used as a way of legitimizing anything from casual relationships to prostitution, wherein a bond can be for just one night.
But the real wedding is what we would call the reception, and it is a very different matter: weddings are huge across Veggiestan, and represent not only the (supposedly) happiest day of a couple’s lives, but also a golden opportunity for the families involved to show off offer lavish hospitality, quite often to their whole village or neighbourhood. Brides are always done up to the nines, and more often than not covered in intricate henna designs (see page 000). Wedding parties can last days, and involve much feasting and dancing (and posing for the camera). Modern Arab weddings are usually mixed, but very devout Muslims will feature two rooms where women and men can celebrate separately. Depending on which bit of the Middle East you are in, it is quite often at this stage of the proceedings that some of the more ancient (pre-Islamic) elements of the wedding can be witnessed: grating sugar into a couple’s hair (for sweetness), circling this tree or that building, eating honey from each other’s fingers, breaking bread together – these are all really old rituals.
And then at some stage during the knees up the newly-weds will sneak off to, well, get on with busy married things.
Again contrary to what you read in the press (but you really don’t believe all that stuff anyway, do you?), polygamy is rare. Officially under Islam a man may take four wives, as long as they all agree and as long as he treats them all equally and with respect. I do know one or two Egyptians who are involved (very happily) in this kind of arrangement, and it is still common in Saudi Arabia, but elsewhere the practice has all but died out.
Now, does anyone know a nice young Lebanese lady…?

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