Wedding in Sur, South Lebanon
I am here -- and here is home for now -- I slide into the single bed against the wall and leave the other one free. A flame flickers on my nightstand and I slowly turn to watch the wall shadows dance, the whir of the ceiling fan cooling Beirut’s summer’s heat. The blanket is thin and I push it down to the bottom, the sheets even thinner and dotted with pale yellow flowers. To live life fully, one must live simply and so, I have accepted the girl’s room as my own for two weeks. Her room extends from the wall, over my shoulder past her single bed and then it steps down into a smaller room set aside for a maid. In this smaller room is a wide window open to a moonless sky and a city that never sleeps. Days and nights flow seamlessly in Lebanon. Down the hall is the master bedroom where women’s voices echo over the stone flooring. The excitement of eighteen-year-old Fatme’s wedding has kept her sixteen-year-old sister Silvia and thirteen year old Nadine with their mother. The men of the family are waiting in the South. Tomorrow, the bride’s fiancée will come with the men to escort her court down the Mediterranean coastline to the south. Between the whirring of the ceiling fan and the prayer cry from the mosque outside, I drift off into sleep.
Deep in the night, I am awakened by a stirring presence. I glance over my shoulder and find Fatme standing between the two beds, her back to me. She is bathed in the glow of the candlelight and cloaked from head to toe in a white abaya, a rush of prayers spilling forth from her lips like leaves in the wind. I watch with curiosity as she gracefully bows, then slowly descends to her knees, disappearing in the musty shadows of the night. I return to the wall and search for meaning.
In the morning, daylight stabs across her empty bed. I gather my cotton thobe and find my way to the dining room, where I discover a white wedding gown carefully laid out across the finely polished dining room table. Cross breezes billow the silken curtains in the living room and sweep through the open sliding glass door. The apartment is quiet. I go to the kitchen to make Arabic coffee and find something peculiar on the marble kitchen countertop; a plate of golden goo, the substance resembling honey. A tall pot with a wooden spoon stands on the stove. What is all this and where is everyone? I set water to boil, then wander into the master bedroom where I find Fatme’s mother sitting on the edge of the bed, a white strip of cloth dangling from her fingertips, her bare legs extended beneath her.
“What are you doing?” I ask coyly.
“Don’t you wax?” She responds without removing her eyes from the strip she diligently places to her leg then tears away. “Ah.” She exclaims.
Not like that, I think to myself.
“Where are the towels?” I call out as I pad down the hallway to the small bathroom. Oh God…it’s cluttered with hair gels, creams, and rollers, a wet towel tossed across a low cabinet and a towel in the sink as well. There is a tiny window nearest the ceiling and I can barely make out apartments across the courtyard. I find my way into the kitchen to start my coffee then walk out the kitchen door to the back balcony, grab a towel from the clothesline, and return to the bathroom. Doors and windows are always open in Lebanon.
After a long cool shower, I shake my hair out and let the summer’s heat dry it naturally. From a honey gold armoire in my room, I pull out a floor length teal colored gown I’d brought from the States for such an occasion. I step down to the maid’s room where my suitcase sits on the empty cot. I am looking for hair clips, adornments, anything that will help dress up my otherwise unruly parched strands, thanks to the un-chlorinated water. If I am not careful, my hair will be as dry as straw soon. I don’t understand how the Lebanese women deal with the harshness of the water, another mystery among many. I find one single hair clip. Great, I think to myself. How am I going to work with this?
The doorbell rings.
“I’ll get it!” Ali yells and he runs towards the door, but Sylvia races past him while adjusting her headscarf. As I fuss with my own hair in the mirror, trying to comb through a broom, thanks to the water, I listen to agitated voices rising from the master bedroom. What is all the fuss? I go and see and find myself in the middle of tears and whines from Nadine. Everyone is in the room pleading with her. Apparently, the delivery of the little white satin jacket she was to wear for the wedding celebration over her spaghetti strapped dress did not fit right.
“I won’t wear it! It’s too tight, I can’t even move my arms up!” She demonstrates for all to see then tears it off and tosses it across the queen-sized bed. Little Ali comes to the door not wanting to miss the action. Nadine’s mother rises up with fire in her eyes, retrieves the jacket and pushes it back into her daughter’s hands. “Try it again. There is nothing more we can do at this point. Hallas!”
“La! I can’t.” Nadine stomps her foot down and turns to the mirror as she struggles with one arm, then the other. A gentle breeze billows the bedroom curtains lifting them over the bed then drawing them back. With glistening eyes Nadine shakes her black curls out in an angry fit.
“Why can’t she go the way she is?” I offer. Of course, my suggestion falls flat to the floor. I had forgotten about the Islamic code of modesty in my attempt to implement calm. They continue to argue in Arabic as their voices rush past me.
“Put it under the straps and let’s see.” Sylvia suggests. Nadine tries this then implores her sister’s aid as Sylvia tugs on the satiny jacket for their mother’s approval. No, they all decide for her, better to be worn over the spaghetti straps bolero style. Nadine struggles with the short jacket and cries out again. She turns to her mother’s mirror searching for a solution, her black eyes fierce upon the room. Finally, her mother rises, resolute. Nadine will have to make do with the failed alteration on the sleeves and of course, any correction at this late hour is out of the question. Modesty, not fashion, comes first in this Shiite household. Little Ali leaves the room as if he too, has decided his sister’s fate, although he has not said one word.
In time, all the women find themselves ready with Fatme’s mother coming to me to ask what I think of her own outfit. I give her a quick once over. My opinion would be for her to wear her auburn locks wild and free, as God intended. Shouldn’t a woman’s hair be one with the sky made to trap the wind and the scent of the seasons? I want to tell her this, but of course my thoughts do not escape my lips and instead I find myself expressing how the lovely autumn colored hijab upon her head picks up the ivory of her suit perfectly. I also add that her face looks radiant without a single drop of cosmetic assistance and at this, her right hand goes to her rose cheeks in embarrassment.
Fatme returns magnificent from a morning spent at the hair stylist and professional makeup artist. Lebanese women are known as the Italians of the east and rightly so. Her dark brown hair has been upswept with a floor length veil attached to the top of her head; her almond shaped eyes have been heavily kholed in black. She dons her wedding gown and goes to her mother to be buttoned up and fussed over. She will not wear the hijab. Wearing the hijab is a choice in Islam, not a mandate. She, like her young Australian cousins, prefers not to. Sylvia comes to me donning a shocking pink hijab over a floral print jacket. She smiles through a set of braces. In two years´ time, she will forgo marriage, turn down all suitors and pursue a college degree, but for now, she follows tradition. We gather our things and make our way down to the carport where a black Mercedes awaits, fully decked with a white floral arrangements glued to the front hood. The ancient apartment buildings tower over the small alleyway below as everyone takes a seat. Hassan, the groom, has come to get his bride and he is the distinguished driver. Fatme will sit with him up front and the rest of us: mother, Sylvia, Nadine, and I will cram into the back seat, with little Ali balanced precariously on Sylvia’s lap. I’m grateful to be pressed up against the window; at least I have a view of the sea along the way.
We leave Beirut city with all its traffic and noise and head down an empty highway to Sur in South Lebanon. Along the way, we pass acre after acre of farmland with great stone mansions dotting the distant mountains. We also pass a checkpoint without trouble. It will be an hour before we make a quick stop at a nondescript building where Fatme’s father waits. I step out to greet him for the first time. He is a proud father of seven somewhere in his late fifties. He smiles with his tobacco stained teeth and shakes my hand vigorously.
“I finally meet the teacher,” he says, his voice deep and robust.
“Why, of course.” I laugh. I follow the wedding party into an elevator and up to the third floor where terribly handsome young men in black suits greet us. Fatme stands alongside her groom. She will build a life in Australia. This is the way with the women in the Arab culture; they follow their husbands to the ends of the earth literally. After the picture taking session, we continue onward along a glistening coastline, the sun breaking through the silver clouds over the great expanse.
Sur will be a destroyed city in two years to come, but for now, it is a Camelot as we finally arrive and drive down a winding road to the heart of a lush green valley. The Quala, which literally translates into castle, is traditionally the chosen spot to marry for those who come from South Lebanon.
We pull up to valet and our entourage is set free to descend a set of steep stairs leading to a wide outdoor patio with its salmon colored marble floors and decorative white tables. The bride’s family lines up along the stairs to welcome each guest. Front and center, is a short stage where a satin blue loveseat awaits the bridal couple. Red rose petals have been strewn everywhere and Roman columns enclose the patio.
I approach an empty table and take a seat next to a strange woman who sits solemnly undisturbed by the jubilant guests. She does not look at me. Her eyes are small black buttons and her skin is dark brown. She does not wear a head covering either. I attempt to make conversation with her. Her smile is controlled. She barely looks at me. Small plates of pickled beet, olives, humus, and pita bread are placed on the table. She does not move from her position. I offer her bread and humus on a plate. She shies away and leaves the plate untouched before her. “It’s ok,” I tell her, “we can eat now. We don’t have to wait.” She stiffly folds her hands into her lap. Fatme’s brother, Mohammed, has been watching us and comes to my aid. He tells me to leave her alone; she’s their maid from Sri Lanka. “We treat her right, so don’t give me that look,” he adds. I try to make sense of the class system, but cannot.
Suddenly, there is a drum roll and from a path on either side of the garden setting come young men dressed in black sherwal, their heads crowned in a white kaffie. Under one arm, they each beat on a dumbak. They dance a traditional dance; drumming with pride and strength, then fall to their knees as they wait breathlessly for the bride’s appearance at the top of the stairs. All eyes turn upward when Fatme enters under a colorful firework display high above her head. The drumming resumes and she slowly descends one step at a time, her face a sweet sadness. She will not see her family for years once she leaves Lebanon. Hassan waits for her as she makes her way to his side. In tradition, he places a kiss on her forehead and one on each cheek. This is a sign of affection and one of respect. Their hands clasp as they make their way across the stone flooring to the throne set before them. After the lamb, piles of almond rice, mint yogurt and fatoush are served and eaten; the couple is free to mingle with the guests. They go to each table greeting extended family. The Lebanese come from all parts of the world to visit each other here in Lebanon for such occasions. There will be the cutting of a seven-tier cake with silver swords and the traditional Dubke line dance with Fatme leading her brother and the men, women to follow. Ten-year-old Ali will assert his manhood obnoxiously jumping into every photograph, regardless of whether he should or should not. My efforts to restrain him will be lost among the loud music and revelry of a festive night.
After a full evening, I am taken to each table by my gracious host and brother to Fatme, Mohammed, to meet a hospitable people. I am introduced to cousins, aunts and uncles, my reputation as an English teacher preceding me. I am shocked to see one of my students. “Miss!” His face lights up. “I didn’t know you would be here!” He shakes my hand with much enthusiasm.
“Someone has to check up on you. Right? Read any books lately?” I ask.
He breaks out in laughter at this. “Hell no, miss. No way!”
“Ok, just wait until you get back to the States then. Enjoy your freedom while you can.”
After the celebration, after the guests have left, Mohammed offers to take me back to Beirut. As we drive along the coastline, we pass the Palestinian refugee camps; a mere smudge in the dark fields. We pass a deserted checkpoint and eventually arrive at a small market open for business in the middle of nowhere. He stops for cigarettes. Some men glance my way, but since I am with Mohammed, they do not question the late hour. His parents will one day sit with me back in Los Angeles, explaining their narrow escape from South Lebanon on this very road while under attack by the Israelis in 2006. Rola, Mohammed’s older sister will share how she frantically waved a white t-shirt outside her car window in a desperate attempt to dodge missiles and bullets. A young student will share with me how the walls of her apartment had been blown to bits leaving her standing in the middle of rage and ruin, but for now, there is only calm reflected in the black waters along the coastline back to Beirut.