At 10.00pm, on the first day of the Omani weekend, a colleague and I entered the Al Bustan Palace Hotel for the wedding. My student, Aisha, led us into the ballroom where five hundred women wearing elaborate evening gowns and gold jewellery were sitting at tables under enormous chandeliers.
We joined Aisha’s relatives. The older women were covered in their black abayas, but the younger ones wore make-up and low-cut evening dresses. At school Aisha always wore the abaya, but that night she was in a long, elegant, pink dress and her waist-length hair was dyed with henna. In the middle of the room around thirty young women and children were dancing together, either Arabic style or the kind teenagers do everywhere. The music over the loudspeakers was at ear-splitting volume. “You can dance too, if you want,” said Aisha. Already wilting from the noise, we said we’d watch.
At 10.30pm loudspeakers announced the arrival of the bride. The lights dimmed and a smokescreen appeared over a flower-decorated gazebo. When the smoke cleared the bride was revealed to the accompaniment of women ululating, a sound produced by vibrating the tongue and shrieking at the same time.
The bride walked to the end of the ballroom behind three little girls in white dresses. Five hundred pairs of eyes scrutinised her. She wore a western-style white wedding dress and veil, gold jewellery, gold wings painted on the sides of her face and an intricate design in henna on her hands. “It’s the groom’s responsibility to provide the jewellery,” whispered Aisha. She’d already explained that the bride, her husband’s sister, had met her groom in Egypt where they were both studying. As Islam forbids dating, the man had to approach his prospective bride’s father to negotiate marriage. This took a year, said Aisha, firstly because the girl’s father was unimpressed with being approached in this way. In Oman, the father usually picks the husbands for his daughters and will initiate negotiations himself. Secondly, the groom’s family were unknown to him, so they needed to be thoroughly investigated before any settlement could be reached. First cousins are still a favourite choice of spouse in Oman, although this is slowly changing as more young people go abroad to study. In addition, the Sultan has recommended that people should not marry close relatives to avoid passing on genetic illnesses.
The bride sat on a gilt and red velvet throne on a raised dais decorated with sunflowers and huge multi-coloured butterflies. Members of her family and the groom’s family went to greet her. Aisha asked her if I could take photographs. Many Omani women dislike being photographed and at some weddings only the families of the couple can take pictures. Even the groom is sometimes not allowed to see the pictures of women guests at the wedding. The bride had no objections to my taking photos, but when I approached the dais I felt the disapproving gaze of some of the older women.
At 11.00pm the arrival of the groom was announced and all the women put on their abayas and headscarves. The groom entered with ten of his brothers and cousins, dancing up the length of the ballroom to Bedouin music, swirling their swords over their heads. They wore white dishdashas and turbans with their Khanjars ‒ ceremonial silver daggers ‒ tied around their waists on silver belts. The groom also had a black semi-transparent bisht ‒ ceremonial robe ‒ on top of his dishdasha. His appearance caused a ripple amongst the younger women, with one whispering to me, “He’s very handsome, isn’t he?”
The bride stood up to greet her groom. He kissed her on the forehead. That was, officially at least, their first physical contact. Aisha told me that the official marriage declaration had taken place four months before the wedding celebration. At this declaration the bride and groom had separately declared their intention to marry, in front of an imam – a holy man. Although they were then married, they had to live separately until the day the wedding was celebrated. All that day the men had been together, praying in the mosque, but judging from their relaxed and gleeful demeanour, some partying had been fitted in somewhere.
The men brought the groom back down to the middle of the ballroom where they began a slow, rhythmical Bedouin dance, waving their swords above their heads. It looked strange and lovely. After this, all the men left, except the groom. He’d probably never seen his bride uncovered, nor dressed so glamorously, let alone been in a room full of appraising women.
The lights dimmed and an enormous three-tiered wedding cake was wheeled in and sparklers on the middle tier were lit. The groom cut into each tier with a long knife. He put some in a dish and gave a spoonful to the bride and in turn she gave a spoonful to him. After this they left. In a traditional village wedding the bride stays huddled in a corner covered in an old abaya to ward off the evil eye. The groom comes to the bride’s house at the end of the segregated wedding celebrations to take her to his own house to consummate the marriage. A bloodied sheet must be produced next morning to confirm her virginity and his virility. That custom was dying out, Aisha said, especially in the capital, and she’d heard rumours of chicken blood being used. “For various reasons,” she added.
When the couple left the buffet was opened and everyone dashed for food. Breaking another tradition, the bride and groom re-appeared a few minutes later. They would stay in the hotel for two days then hold a lunch party in their new home before flying to Indonesia for their honeymoon. In traditional village families the couple stay sequestered in a room for a week before receiving visitors, so they can “get to know each other”. Several weeks earlier we’d met a young couple while exploring a fort in the interior. The man was keen to try out his English and told us they’d been married just two weeks. I asked him what his wife’s name was. He looked at her, hesitated and asked her something in Arabic. Judging from her embarrassed expression I guessed he’d forgotten her name. “Every wedding is different,” said Aisha, when I told her this story. “It depends on region and family.”
I told Aisha I found it strange that those women dressed so beautifully just for each other, danced with each other and celebrated only with each other, and that even though the groom was the only male left at the end, most of the women stayed covered. “Things are changing,” she said. “Some couples entertain separately when they are married. My husband and I, however, have our friends of both sexes round to our house for dinner.” She explained that it takes a long time for a man to save up to get married unless his family is rich. He has to pay the bride price as well as the wedding expenses. “It costs a fortune,” she said. “The Sultan has decreed a limit on bride prices, but a lot of families ignore this. A girl who is beautiful and educated can fetch a good price. Those who aren’t, or who are too old, can only hope to be the second or third or fourth wife of an old man.”
Girls are marriageable at puberty while men are often older. One of my students told me his father disapproved of him still being single at twenty five. He took him to a village to show him a boy of twelve who was married to a girl of ten. Finally, to appease his father, he agreed to an arranged match, although he was leaving for university in Australia a month after his wedding. Another student, in his thirties, had been married for five years. His twenty year old wife was pregnant with their fifth child. All the students agreed they preferred the idea of monogamy, although up to four wives are allowed in Islam. Many of the students had grown up with multiple mothers. “These days, our wives would not allow it,” they insisted.
A few days after the wedding Aisha told me she’d been shocked to see the way couples slobbered over each other in public in Europe, and the sight “made me thank God I am an Omani.” She asked why the government or the Church in those countries didn’t stop such behaviour. She said she’d heard that in western countries couples lived together before marriage and was amazed to hear that such an arrangement didn’t make a girl unmarriageable, even if she had a child. “But whose name does the child have, if he has no father?” she asked.
An English nurse at one of the hospitals told me there were three orphanages in Muscat. The children there were usually the result of “illicit liaisons”. When a child was born the hospital authorities had to inform the police if there was no husband to sign the documents. The girl was arrested and jailed for six months. The man was also arrested, unless his family was influential. The child was sent to an orphanage. The nurse added that babies born in such circumstances at home were sometimes discarded in bins. She said if they were found in time the hospitals could help them, but too often, the ants found them first.
When I asked my mixed class of adult students about this the men looked down at the floor. One of the girls began to tell me about a case in her village where a girl gave birth and was then imprisoned and later locked up in her own home. “The child has no name, so he can’t go to school.” Some of the other girls hissed at her and she turned on them angrily, “No, I won’t shut up! This happens in our society and we should be able to talk about it!” Another girl commented, “We don’t have stoning to death in Oman for these offences. But I believe we should have this to discourage girls from these illicit relationships.” “Do you think the men should be stoned to death too?” I ventured. The class was silent. My contract allowed me to introduce “new and controversial ideas” but forbade criticism of Omani culture. It was a thin line to tread.
An Omani woman who’d recently returned from doing her MA in the USA, came to talk to my class about adapting to studying overseas. The students were looking forward to her talk. When she walked in they looked astonished to see an Omani woman without an abaya. She was intelligent and forthright and soon had the whole class engaged. They fired questions at her as she spoke about the cultural differences they would encounter in Australia. She said to the men, “When you go to Australia if a woman smiles at you it doesn’t mean she wants to sleep with you.” They looked sheepish, but the girls fell around laughing.
Later that day Aisha said because there was no history of love marriage in Oman there were no love stories in their literature, but because many people study abroad, or mix with the opposite sex at work, love matches were becoming more common. She had met her own husband at a gathering of his sister’s and he then began negotiations with her father. When an agreement was reached Aisha was not allowed any further contact with him until the wedding, but her mother allowed her to talk to him on the phone, although they kept this from her father. “At first I didn’t love him,” she said. “Love came later.” She looked at me and smiled, “There’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you, Ms Sandra. What does it feel like to fall in love?”
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. www.sandraarnold.co.nz