One of the most unique experiences I had in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was attending an Emirati wedding in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaima (RAK). It is the Northernmost Emirate located not far across the Gulf from Iran and borders a small part of Oman. The Emirate has many outdoor activities, tall mountains and beautiful beaches.
RAK is a three to four hour drive from Abu Dhabi, where I lived. I went to my bank about once a month on saturdays to withdraw money to send home via the exchange house. The teller was a very kind Emirati woman. Her last name was Al Shehhi and I knew that family would be from the RAK region. I would speak my limited Arabic with her and she suggested I come to her brother’s wedding. She remembered and invited me months later.
The thing is that the weddings are done separate by sex. I only knew her and wondered how that would work. My family booked a couple nights in a nice hotel and we drove there. She gave me the map via WhatsApp and lo and behold I found the ballroom.
I arrived quite early and there weren’t too many people present. However, it was clear that my bank friend had alerted her family. I was greeted warmly and brought to sit next to the bride’s father and family. As the evening began to unfold I met all of her family members and many in attendance. I wore a western suit, so I stood out quite a bit with the hundreds of others in attendance wearing the bright, white robes called khandouras.
The room was large and rectangular with seats three to four deep on all sides. I was later seated next to the groom’s family, always in the front row. For about two hours we remained seated in luxurious chairs, rising each time a new guest entered. The entering guests would circulate around the entire room greeting all present, including myself. There were handshakes and the traditional rubbing of noses which is reserved for those close to you. While rubbing the noses a sound is made with the mouth. I need to read up on that, but if you get one, feel honored.
As the hours passed many different types of teas and juices were delivered to guests. At some point, traditional dances took place with swords and high leaps and then dinner occurred. The dining room was quite quiet and the food disappeared quickly. I thought the night was pretty much over, so I drove back to the hotel. My bank friend sent me a video taken later in which the groom made a grand entry into the female portion of the wedding which took place down the street.
As I digested the experience, I felt so blessed and humbled and a little bit in awe with the openness and generosity provided me. Often it seems that the Emirati culture is perceived as closed. In my experience, I was always welcomed. I wondered if the same would happen in my country. A bank teller inviting a client to a brother’s wedding on the other side of the state or country??