On Friday, Saleem's house was all activity. Every near relative had his, or her, own duty; and many were the busy hands that contributed towards a brilliant wedding.
In the afternoon, several men were dispatched all over Baldah to call at every house, rich and poor, and invite all who might be found within doors to the wedding, which was to last, as it was customary, for three days.
Invitation cards were unknown at the time, and in every door that the inviters found locked, they put a splinter of wood in the lock-hole, which told as much as a modem invitation card left with the porter.
Immediately after sunset, crowds of both sexes began to pour into the bridegroom's house. The ladies of each quarter came together, and were received by Um-Saleem, in a special apartment. The men came in families, each headed by its elders, and most of them preceded by musicians.
The musical instruments were chiefly tambours, tambourines, labours, pipes, fifes, and reed flutes.
The arrival of each family was announced by special songs which were answered, in a like manner, by the bridegroom's relations, from within.
The bridegroom, who kept his ordinary dress on, was seated in front, on a cushion, while all the rest sat on carpets. As a distinguishing sign, he held a long rosary in his hand, with which he amused himself very solemnly; and both he, and the next of his kin, who sat to his right and left, rose and answered the congratulations, and good wishes of each family, on coming in.
That that evening was a most merry one, was a fact which everybody avowed, especially those who partook of singing, and dancing, while revelling amidst a profusion of dessert, and liquors.
Two poetasters, sitting opposite each other, with tambours in hand, and surrounded by their respective partisans, had a competition of skill in extemporizing vulgar songs, or ballads, each endeavouring to get the better of his rival by composing a more refined praise in favour of the bridegroom or a sharper sarcasm, of which his rival was the subject. These off-hand ballads they sang slowly in turns, while beating their tambours, and each verse was repeated apart by the partisans, in the same melodious tone.
A hot controversy, all in song, followed; and the crowds of listeners would, from time to time, either burst into a roar of laughter, or clap their hands, in approbation of a witticism, or some piece of fun, until sleep called the merry party to separate.
On the next day upwards of twenty persons of both sexes were dispatched to Kafrah, as forerunners to the bridal cortege, which was to follow on Sunday.
According to the custom of the period, this party had to provide a banquet at the bride's house, and to make the necessary arrangements for the reception of those who were to follow on the next day.
It was part of their duty, as well, to distribute henna powder among those who were invited by the bride's mother, for dyeing their fingers, in token of common joy.
At both the bride's and the bridegroom's houses, Saturday evening was spent in singing, dancing, and practising all kinds of mummery and buffoonery, it having been a custom to keep up that evening as sprightly as it could be.
But, of all the wedding amusements, nothing was more applauded than a play performed by two young men, who imitated an old hunch-backed couple of husband and wife, wearing rags after the European fashion.
This couple who performed their play in a comical cant, supposed to be the language of Franks, made the spectators outburst into roars of laughter, with their ludicrous gestures and droll accent.
The bridegroom's house exhibited a perfect theatre that evening, and when, after midnight, the majority of attendants had gone for repose, the latter part of the night was enlivened by the young men, who left no heroic deed, or funny trick, undone. At about an hour before daybreak, food was ready for the overtired youths who, having satisfied their hungry stomachs, dyed their hands, and lay for rest.
On Sunday, Um-Faris was all vivacity, and animation. She went out and went in, apparently for some purpose, but, in reality, to no purpose whatever, as if the many duties thrown on her had made her forget all. She would, sometimes, spend half an hour in looking for an article she held in her hand, or put in a certain place, with her own hand. But thanks to the good management and wise arrangements of Faris, without whom there would have been no saying to what state of confusion the house would have been put, in her present condition, when her dear daughter was all she had mind to think of.
Ilya was seated on an adorned throne, surrounded by maidens who, every now and then, danced round, with the bride in their midst, singing gaily to her praise.
When the bridal cortege, which arrived from Baldah, had refreshments, and dinner, the bride was placed on horse back, amidst joyful shouts, and firing. It was a moment of general glee. Everybody looked gay except Um-Faris, who stood at the door, shedding abundant tears.
It having been, then, a custom that every friend of the bride's family shall offer a pecuniary present to the bride on her leaving her father's house, many were those who thronged into the yard with their presents, which were noted down together with the names of presenters against them, in order that they might be repaid by the bridegroom, on a similar occasion. Another man stood by Paris, crying out the names of presenters, and the value of their presents, with as much exaggeration as his inventive faculty dictated. Throughout this tedious process, the bride had to keep her red-dyed, right hand lifted up, with a fine silk handkerchief to her head, as a mark of respect to the men whose names were being cried out.
As soon as the last name was declared, a ponderous stone mortar, with a wooden handle firmly fastened to its cavity, was placed before the riding bride, and a silk cocoon was hung on the top of a pole which was planted at a considerable distance calculated to form a good range for a trial of the marksmen's skill.
To satisfy the custom, the bridegroom's men had to knock the cocoon down, and lift up the mortar, with one hand to the shoulder, or the bride would be kept waiting on horseback till doomsday.
Of course the customs could not be disputed, or made light of, and the Baldah marksmen, ranging themselves in a row, began to shoot at the scarcely-visible, swinging mark; while some other strong youths engaged in trying the strength of their arms in lifting up the heavy mortar. Few men lifted it up to the shoulder, and one only succeeded in raising it overhead at full arm's length, and was enthusiastically applauded by the spectators.
But the oscillating cocoon could not be knocked down, as it offered but very insignificant resistance before the cold bullets which, being shot at a distant range, could but make it vibrate in a wider area. The dexterous shooters, utterly discouraged, were going to give up their task, seeing that any further attempt on their part was useless.
The unyielding cocoon swung more rapidly still with the increasing wind, bidding defiance to the marksmen; and the bride could not stir until the custom was satisfied, it having been considered disgraceful to her to proceed in the company of men, who could not prove themselves fit for a bridal train.
In vain did the Baldah elders try to prevail upon the bride's relations to suffer her to accompany them, and an earnest contest threatened to ensue,
Just at that moment, a happy idea struck one of the marksmen who, having left his post for a while, returned with a piece of fine wire which he coiled into a ring-like coil, loaded his long, heavy gun with it, and took aim. All the spectators bent their eyes, in suspense, upon the object aimed at, anticipating failure.
"Bravo! Well done! Splendid!' were the shouts of the crowd, coupled with prolonged applause, when the whizzing wire rent the air, carrying the swinging cocoon up to the sky. The music struck up, shouts were raised, and the jubilant train set off with flying banner, singing praises to the bride who rode in their midst.
The way was not very long, and when the jubilation, accompanied by a flourish of the music, announced their arrival back, the bridegroom stood on an elevated terrace, commanding the village course, with his next of kin around him, and thousands of spectators crowded into the windows, and on the roofs, to catch a glimpse of the foreign bride.
The train moved on very slowly, and from each window under which the bride passed, handfuls of wheat, barley, rice, lentils, and other grain, were strewn by the women over the bride and her train, it having been believed that a handful of grain thrown at a passing bride would invoke God's blessing upon the supply, or provision, out of which it was taken.
The bridegroom had provided an apple which he threw at his bride, upon coming within his reach.
The crying out of presents and names of presenters soon began, in the same style, already described; and while this tedious proclamation of presents was going on, the horsemen held their customary race. It was a competitive race in which every good horseman had to prove his skill in throwing jereed. Two horsemen went for each other at a time, and the report of guns, and shouts of approbation, filled the sky, at the sight of skilful blows dealt and received.
Having dismounted, the bride kissed the hands of her father and mother-in-law. Um-Saleem then showed her daughter-in-law to the apartment got ready for her, and high were raised the special women cries, when the bride walked before them to her new home. On stepping in, Om-Saleem stuck the customary leaves over the door, as an emblem of blessed union, and again kissed the bride, with tears of joy in her eyes.
After the bridal cortege had had sharbaat, and coffee, a rich banquet was served up, to which everybody attending the wedding was invited.
The wedding banquet consisted of various descriptions of dainty dishes, which were ranged in rows, upon mats spread in the extensive yard. As soon as the bridegroom, who presided the repast, took his seat on his special cushion, the long rows were besieged from all sides by the hundreds of people invited, and a heavy attack followed forthwith. Cushions were provided for only a few leading-men, who took their seats next to the bridegroom, and all the rest assumed an attitude of half-sitting half-kneeling with cross legs.
Knives and forks there were none. Everybody used his spoon for soup, and his hands as fork and knife.
Bread was made in very thin loaves which proved very serviceable to take up food with, without soiling the hands. Every man on getting satisfied, withdrew without waiting, and his place was soon taken by another, until all had shared in the festive entertainment. The fair sex were not allowed by the custom to sit down with the men. Therefore they had to wait until the strong sex had done.
Controlled by the custom of the period, the bridegroom had kept his ordinary dress, and an unshaved appearance, until shortly before the bride arrived, when he got shaved while the young men danced with his wedding dress lifted overhead, on a straw tray. The nuptial suit consisted of a long tarboosh (cap] which was worn over a sort of a white, calico coif — a zouave cloth jacket, with closed sleeves, falling on both sides, and embroidered with silver lines - a velvet waistcoat — a cashmere belt - a cloth shirwal or saraweel, and a pair of dark-red, pointed shoes.
A few hours later, the bridegroom, with his bride to his right, stood before the priest and the nuptial service began, very solemnly. The crowd stood all around leaving a very small circle for the merry couple to move in, and when the word amen announced the close of the service, all advanced one by one, tendered their final congratulations to the happy couple and retired, leaving the bridegroom to enjoy a solitary look at his wife.
A Narrative of a wedding ceremony in nineteenth-century Syria
Dr. Khalil Saadeh