Atraditional henna party, called ghumra, takes place a few nights before the big ceremony. For centuries, henna has been considered a sign of good luck in Arabia. During the pre-wedding party that’s organized by friends of the bride, henna is applied to beautify the bride and invite blessings. The bride’s female relatives and friends are invited, and intricate designs are applied to her hands, wrists and feet with dark henna paste. Once the paste dries and falls off the skin, it leaves behind an orange stain that gradually turns brown, resulting in a beautiful work of temporary body art. In some Saudi families, a female relative of the bride paints the bride’s hands. Superstition says that the relative should be happily married or she will bring bad luck to the bride. Otherwise, a professional henna artist is hired. Friends and family members in attendance also have their hands painted with henna.
The bride wears an ithyab, a colorful, elaborately embroidered gown, to the party. She also wears gold jewelry, such as a headdress and bracelets, accessories that are gifts from her husband-to-be.
Wedding ceremonies in Saudi tend to be grand affairs, held in glamorously decorated ballrooms or hotels. On the evening of the reception, men and women gather in separate halls, which are filled with tables laden with food and drinks. Bands play live music, and the guests dance the night away, often until dawn. The celebrations tend to start late in the evening, usually around 10 p.m., and the bride will likely not make her appearance before midnight.
“The bride finally arrived, and everyone got up and cheered,” says Mazgab Kinde, a Virginia resident who traveled to Riyadh for her friend and former classmate’s wedding. “The bride made her way to a chair that looked like her royal throne and was surrounded by women who were basically her bridesmaids.”
Thegroom, but usually not the groom’s party, will also arrive to take photos with the bride and cut the wedding cake. (Usually the bride’s father and brothers will come in at this point too.)
“After about an hour of dancing, the groom made his entrance, kissed the bride on the forehead, and the crowd cheered,” Kinde says. “The bride and groom sat together for a little bit, [cut the cake], and then he left to go back to his party.”
While the women are dancing and celebrating in a nearby ballroom, the men attending the wedding are dancing as well, but in a much more traditional way. They dance in a style called Ardah, which is performed with two rows of men standing shoulder to shoulder facing one another while holding long, thin swords and moving to the beat of drums and chanted poetry. The men raise and lower the swords with the rhythm of the drums. Once performed to energize warriors before battle, Ardah is now staged for all kinds of ceremonial events, including religious holidays, births and graduations. This type of folkloric dance is so important in Saudi culture that in 2015, UNESCO inscribed it on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
No one will go hungry at a Saudi wedding. The buffet dinner often includes a baby camel —a tender delicacy, which stems from tribal traditions, only served for special occasions —or whole roasted sheep with rice and flatbread. A huge spread of salads and side dishes is served buffet style. Guests can also enjoy free-flowing fruit mocktails and traditional Arabic coffee. Desserts can include gooey dates, pastries and chocolates.
“My favorite part was all the great fashion, food and dancing,” Kinde says.
— Lauren Keith