My Big Sudanese Wedding (Traditions)

Muslim Wedding Customs and Traditions
By Reem Abbas
Journalist- Sudan

Drawing with henna on hands is a popular tradition in Sudanese wedding.

I remember my very first big Sudanese wedding, I was 12 years old and we were in Sudan for the summer. Our preparations began a month before we arrived, I had two dresses tailor-made and I bought two other dresses. I was disappointed when the wedding went on for over a week and I ran out of pretty dresses to wear.

The bride was my mother's first cousin and they were rich and had a spacious house which is a necessity in Sudanese weddings since more than half of your extended family moves in with you weeks prior to the wedding.

At least a month prior to the wedding, the bride is barricaded in her house or a relative's house. She is scrubbed, massaged, pampered and transformed into a completely different person. It is not uncommon for the groom to be utterly confused and shocked at the sight of his bride on their wedding day.

Almost every day for a whole month, the bride goes through a process called "Dokhan" in which she wraps her entire body in a blanket and sits on a hole in the ground. The hole contains burning "Talih" or ember-wood, an aromatic wood that gives the skin a breath-taking glow. During this time, the bride only bathes with water until the layer formed by the "Dokhan" is removed by home-made scrubs made out of lentils, fresh cream, oranges among others and for the more affluent, and a Moroccan bath.

The Sudanese value their traditions from Dokhan to incense (Bakhour) and making their own perfume.

We arrived at my cousin's house at 5 p.m, the July sun was a bit hot and we didn't know what to expect. It was the perfume-making day. Women are hired to sing while making perfume and incense for the bride. From Acacia seyal wood to white musk and sandalwood, Sudanese perfume is made.

Sudanese Sari, not the wedding ring, can tell whether the lady is married or not.

Wedding Dress and Perfumes Party

You don't have to see a ring to tell whether a woman is married or not, if she is not wearing the traditional sari, then you can tell if she is married by her scent.

Opheera Mcdoom, a Reuters’ reporter who was married to a Sudanese in 2007 describes perfume-making perfectly.

"My Sudanese family spent many hours making traditional perfume. They picked what they call the "fingernails" of sea creatures from the Far East and stuffed hundreds of cloves in apples that they left to dry." She then tells Chanel to eat their heart out.

We could see the gifts purchased by the groom for his future wife showcased in big baskets. Parisian perfumes, lotions, soaps, clothes and accessories.

Sudanese weddings are costly. Before a wedding, neighbors, relatives and friends contribute any amount to help the family pay for the costs. If the family insists on having a long wedding no matter how lavish it is, it is costly because family members who live far tend to stay with the family and thousands of pounds are spent on food alone for guests.

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We went home only to come again the next day for the henna party. The indoor party was exclusive, only family members and friends. We sat inside while Farfour, the most popular singer at the time entertained the audience. Plates with ten different kinds of cookies and exported chocolate were passed around. Chocolate, dates, nuts and home-made cookies are a staple in Sudanese weddings, however, the affluent export them from Dubai, Cairo or Europe.

"I want my daughter's wedding to be a tale in 1,001 nights, I want people to talk about it for 10 years," stated the bride's mother.

They did. I for once couldn't stop thinking about the bridal dancing.

Two days later, the bridal-dancing was scheduled. Sobheya or bridal dancing is an age-old tradition where a woman learns up to 100 dance routines and dances in front of a large crowd of women. My cousin's bridal dancing was inspired by Ancient-Rome (her brother is a designer/ businessman). There was smoke and a mini-temple for the bride's entrance. She was wearing a white dress, contrary to bridal dancing, my cousin did not change her dress. Some brides change up to 4 times and the average time it takes to change a dress is 30 minutes since new makeup is applied and the accessories are usually hard to wear.

The Sobheya ended with "jirtik", a tradition I cannot understand. During this ritual, both parties drink milk and whoever spits milk at the other's face first is supposedly "the leader at home". They are also blessed with perfume and incense to prevent the evil eye from befalling the love birds. The bride traditionally wears a red sari (called Toub in Sudan) and the groom wears a white Jallbeya with red ribbons tied around his head and wrists.

If the bride chooses to have a bridal-dancing then the official wedding ceremony happens in the afternoon of that day or a day before, men from the bride's family and men from the groom's family head to an agreed upon a mosque to sign the documents of marriage contract. Then, they head back home where men and women, mostly elders, will be waiting to have lunch.

Cooks are hired or women from the host family end up making one meal for thousands of guests. Many families including my own value the "bride's mother breakfast". It is breakfast that consists of everything from meat to cookies to salads to bread. It usually arrives in a big pick-up truck where the big pots full of food are beautifully decorated with colorful ribbons (pink is a favorite color).

It is a trend among the richer families to give non-food items as gifts, like refrigerators and microwaves. This ritual is costly and stressful for the bride's family, but it can always be done based on her family's income. Humble families usually skip this tradition and only take home-made cookies as gifts.

Sudanese weddings are costly. Before a wedding, neighbors, relatives and friends contribute any amount to help the family pay for the expenses.

Where Weddings Held

The actual wedding is held at a club (Coptic Club and the Police Club are popular),  or in a hotel or a tent set on a large plot of empty land in the bride's neighborhood.

The bride's family is usually responsible for the dinner costs at the wedding. The groom is responsible for hiring the musician and the bride's dress and makeup. Due to Sudan's emergency law, all parties end at 11:00 pm. Guests start arriving at 8:00 and the couples arrive at 9 or even 10 since they take a long time at the studio to take pictures with their loved ones.

Some weddings end with an overnight. It is called an overnight because it starts after 12 and is held at a house. A security permit is a necessity if the party is held outdoors, but indoor parties can go on until the morning.

Overnights are exclusive and are for very close family members and friends. They are usually the best part of the wedding and I always look forward to them.

A few years ago, I went to an overnight that went on until 7 in the morning. We all had breakfast and tea before arriving at our house at 10 a.m.

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese journalist. She graduated from the American University in Cairo with a BA in journalism and mass communications and a minor in sociology. As a journalist, she writes about everything from humanitarian issues from a gender-sensitive perspective to Art and enjoys interviewing writers. Reem contributed a chapter to Voices in Refuge, a book published by the American University in Cairo press in January 2010. In her free time, she reads Doris Lessing, Dave Eggers, Jamal Mahjoub, and collects bookmarks.

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