We’re acquainted with a Turkish family in the neighbourhood (in Germany) and followed the elder daughter’s way from getting to know a young man up to the wedding. It’s not enough to describe only the wedding ceremony, the steps before must also be mentioned as they differ from our customs. They whole procedure lasted a bit more than a year.
The two young people, let’s call them Sema and Mustafa, are second generation immigrants, both their families come from the same small town in Anatolia and know each other well because they frequent the same mosque. Sema and Mustafa were schoolmates but had lost sight of each other. When they were 21 (she) and 22 (he) they met again and liked each other. Not even two months passed and Mustafa proposed. Many Turks marry young as for the strict ones there is no other way to go beyond holding hands.
Sema agreed and they told their parents. The six people met at Sema’s house to discuss details. There were no objections, so not long afterwards the community at the mosque was officially informed that they were engaged or rather kind of. This event can be called a pre-engagement. The Imam delivered a speech, then an uncle came with two rings connected by a red ribbon. When the rings were on Sema’s and Mustafa’s fingers, he cut the ribbon and everyone was clapping, congratulating them and taking pictures.
About two months later, the engagement was celebrated officially with about 350 guests. Not only the families and the friends from the mosque were there but more neighbours and also colleagues from work. It also took place in the community room of a mosque. The guests were dressed up, there was music, dancing and the handing over of presents. I’m going to describe this in detail when we come to the wedding ceremony because this was repeated then, only on a bigger scale.
Some months passed and then the couple went to the registrar’s office accompanied only by immediate family members. For a pious Muslim the civil ceremony means nothing. My husband wanted to say something to Sema’s father and began with the words, "Now that your daughter is married…", but was interrupted. "Sema isn’t married", there wasn’t even the word ‘yet’. Only after the Imam has given his blessings, a pious Muslim feels properly married. For Sema and Mustafa this still meant only holding hands. No living together yet in the completely furnished and equipped flat they had rented, both were still staying with their parents. I asked another Muslim woman if she considered people as properly married after going to the registrar’s office, and she said, "Of course". Bad luck for Sema and Mustafa to have such strict parents.
Interestingly, Sema doesn’t wear a headscarf although all her female relatives including her 12-year-old little sister and also the female relatives of her husband wear one. But she isn’t adverse to doing so one day, maybe when the first child is born. Mustafa would like this. We tease her, especially when she comes back from the hairdresser’s and proudly shows a new hairstyle, but we have no illusion that we can win again a whole headscarved clan.
So Sema and Mustafa were married and not married, a strange situation for non-Muslim onlookers. But the big day of the ‘real’ wedding was getting nearer and nearer and we followed the preparations in awe and disbelief. 1000 guests were invited (10 non-Turks among them), not surprising for a Turkish wedding. A cousin of Sema’s had had 1500 guests a short time before. Who were all these people? Besides the ‘usual suspects’ there were now also relatives from Turkey, relatives who have emigrated to other European countries, not only close friends and neighbours but also old schoolmates and neighbours from places where they used to live years ago. 500 guests per head, Sema told us that they couldn’t possibly invite fewer, there just were so many. As we had only 30 guests at our wedding, I was dumbfounded.
Two weeks before Day X the Henna night took place. It’s a women’s only affair. I wasn’t invited because it’s only for close relatives and friends. What happens there? Sad songs are sung, the bride weeps and then they all dance. The songs deal with departure and loss and the bride weeps because there’s no way back now, she knows that she’ll leave her parents’ house for good.
In the afternoon of the wedding party the couple was at last married Muslim style by the Imam. The ceremony took place in the living-room of Sema’s parents’ flat with only the closest family members present. The street in front of the house was full with friends all already dressed in festive clothes. A cage with two white doves was given to the couple who set them free. Then they climbed into a car and drove off with the cars of Mustafa’s friends following who were all honking like mad. The brides’ friends didn’t participate, Sema was now a member of her husband’s family. This noisy car tour through the town went on until seven o’clock when the party was due to begin.
Special halls have been built in Germany by Turks for Turks and their festivities. Unfortunately they were all full at the date Sema and Mustafa had decided on, so they moved to one of the town’s event halls which once was a hangar for helicopters. This is important to know because the doors of the building can be opened wide and so the black Hummer the couple had rented for the occasion could be driven directly into the hall. Showing off is a vital part of a Turkish wedding, it seems to me that the lower social strata are better at doing this than the middle class.
The Hummer stopped under an enormous Turkish flag friends were holding up. All the while the Turkish band which would entertain us for the rest of the evening from a stage beside the throne was creating a pandemonium of noise with shrill shawm-like wind instruments and loud drums. The couple got out, Sema in a flouncy white dress with a red sash around her hips, a tiara in her hair, a small white veil fixed to it and a larger red one covering the whole head. Mustafa lifted the red veil and kissed Sema on the forehead.
The couple danced together for a while, then Sema danced in the centre of a circle of women, Mustafa in the centre of a circle of men. After this general dancing commenced, and general means here that every possible combination of dancers could be seen. Men with women, women with women, men with men, grandmothers with grandmothers, a group of old men hand in hand, men alone, women alone, children alone, young couples with newborn babies on their arms. The last constellation makes it understandable that all Turks present could dance without ever having ‘learnt’ it, they obviously internalise the rhythm, the steps, the movement of hips and shoulders in their earliest childhood days. Without anyone announcing anything the dancers occasionally formed long lines and did round dancing, opening and closing this way and that way. It was a worthwhile spectacle but the music is an acquired taste. This was Türk müzik, gürültülü Türk müzik to be precise, loud (read: ear splitting) Turkish music. I put some tissue in my ears.
The dancing was interrupted by a dance of the couple under an umbrella from which baby clothes were hanging, later several women dancing around the bride shaking a large egg in which sweets were rattling, a meal for all the 1000 guests and the handing over of presents. First it was the turn of the closest family members, they gave the same they had already given at the engangement party, namely gold in the shape of necklaces and bracelets. When this was over a long queue formed, the guests came with banknotes in their hands. A man with a microphone asked them their names and then announced for the whole hall to hear which family had given how much! Without talking about it beforehand the non-Turkish guests had put the money they wanted to give in an envelope and handed this over to the gift collector. The evening ended with the eating of the wedding-cake.
The whole wedding party, everything included cost 10.000 Euros. How can a qualified baker (Sema) and a track worker (Mustafa) with fathers who are unskilled factory workers and mothers who’re housewives pay such an amount of money? They don’t, the guests do. We’re not so intimate that we can ask them how much money they sacked, but we know that in the case of the aforementioned cousin with 1.500 guest it was 28.000 Euros.
When we went home at midnight, we knew that the saying ‘Other countries, other customs’ is spot on.