Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Bad and the Good of Culture Clash

This weekend has shown me new sides to Jordanian culture, both the good and the bad. I got my first job with Modelicious Modeling Agency as an usher at an engagement ceremony. I was cancelled for the job last minute and instead went to a Halloween party that my friends told me about. Apparently, in Jordan, you are a Satanist if you celebrate Halloween. Read this excellent blog post about the issue and what happened to the party I went to: Halloween and Satan in Amman. My friends and I got out of the party safely, but I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was exactly as described in the blog post, a really fun and very safe party on the inside (the DJ from Ministry of Sound was spinning amazing tracks all night), but a battleground on the outside, and it all started with an online media rumor. The experience demonstrated to me even more the clash between Eastern tradition and Western culture that is happening in Jordan right now.

However, the melding of East and West doesn’t have to be bad. I had an amazing time last night at a Jordanian wedding at the Grand Hyatt. I will take you step by step through the parts of the wedding so that you too can appreciate the mix of Jordanian tradition and Western influence that was present.

First a little about the bride and groom and how I got invited to the wedding. The groom is my friend’s first cousin (on the maternal side) so I was fortunate enough to get a spot as a +1 at the expensive wedding. The marriage was arranged, but not in the way that you would expect. The families had met and the bride and groom had started talking. They continued getting to know each other on facebook and hung out more and more. They didn’t live with each other but they continued getting to know each other for a year before having the wedding, and of course the families had to give their consent. The signing of the marriage contracts and religious ceremonies took place at the engagement. The wedding, however, is when the marriage is consummated and thus made legitimate. I guess that is how modern arranged marriages happen.

In the beginning of the wedding the groom’s family (and this includes extended family!) picks up the groom from his house and goes with him to take the bride from her house. At the bride’s house they meet the bride’s family and the two families celebrate coming together by dancing a lot. I missed this part though.

On the way from the bride’s house to the hotel where the main wedding party would take place, my "date" for the wedding and his cousin picked me up. We arrived at the Grand Hyatt, one of the best hotels in Amman. This hotel was one of the victims in the horrible hotel bombings of 2005, where a member of Al Qaeda bombed three luxury hotels in Amman, including a wedding, in the name of jihad. Therefore to get into the hotel we first had to go through security, which required me to put my bag through an x-ray, go through a metal detector, and be body-searched for weapons. The banquet hall was beautifully decorated, and ushers who were probably hired by a modeling agency like mine greeted us and took us to our table. I was sitting at the young cousins' table, so most of us were university students. Only the close relatives were present. The friends and distant relatives would arrive later.

After being introduced to all the uncles and aunts and cousins and drinking mango juice (the biggest difference between a Jordanian wedding and an American wedding is the complete lack of alcohol in the former), it was time for the bride and groom to arrive. The groom’s family greets the bride since the groom pays for the whole wedding so it is therefore the groom’s family’s wedding. The groom’s family and close relatives gathered around the stairs leading down from the lobby, where the bride and groom were slowly descending. A traditional band was dancing dabke, playing drums and singing well-known songs that everyone belted out as we clapped our hands and moved to the beat. The noise grew louder and louder as the couple came down the staircase and gradually walked across the floor into the banquet hall, surrounded by wildly dancing relatives.

Once inside the wedding hall we returned to our seats to watch the bride and groom have their first dance together, and for the bride to have her last dance with her father. The Western nature of this aspect of the wedding was emphasized by the use of American songs for both dances. However, when the music switched to Arabic songs it was time for everyone to get on the dance floor and dance with the newly-weds. I tried to move as best as I could in an Arab way, but alas maybe it is something you’re born with. Aunts, uncles, and cousins would come up and dance with me to show me some basic steps, but I fear that I moved my hips too much and my arms too little, probably thanks to my salsa skills. Anyway, what I lacked in skills I made up for in spirit.

After dancing for a while the time was suddenly 10:30pm. Time flies at a Jordanian wedding! The enormous cake was rolled in on a wheeled cart, and the bride and groom cut it with a huge silver sword. The buffet opened up and I filled three plates with traditional treats such as tabbouleh, baba ganoush, hummus, lamb with lebneh and rice, musakhan, and lots of warm kunefeh for dessert. There were also continental salads, fresh vegetables and fruits, smoked salmon and shrimp, Italian pastas, Chinese stews with rice, kebabs, and on the dessert table ice cream, chocolate fondue, cheesecakes, and more. All of it was absolutely delicious!

While everyone was eating, the bride and groom would go from table to table, personally greeting each person with kisses on the cheek and taking photos. After dinner it was time for – you guessed it – more dancing! A tabla player bounced into the crowd on the dance floor and the bride and groom took turns to hit the huge drum. I also got to try, and although my first tries were a bit weak I think I got it in the end. After a while a whole group of traditional dancers came in to give a show, dancing dabke in a circle around the exultant bride and her family.

After impressing some of the relatives with my limited Arabic skills (I spoke for over 20 seconds in Arabic! They thought this was remarkable, coming from a Swede.) it was time to return to the dance floor. After some popular Arabic songs the music switched to American/International music, starting with the already classic Gangnam style. I thought the dance floor would break in the chorus! Even the bride and groom danced gangnam style. After some more international hits where most of the young people broke it down on the dance floor, the music returned to Arabic hits and some of the older relatives returned to the dance floor. I actually recognized some of the Arabic songs! By now it was around midnight and most of the friends and distant relatives had gone home so it was only the close relatives on the dance floor. Every song was just as good as the next one which made it impossible to leave the dance floor, and even though my stilettos were killing my knees, I couldn’t stop dancing or laughing. Jordanians know how to party! There was even a 10-month old baby on the dance floor.

Eventually I took a rest and the music started winding down, cueing the time for the relatives to give the bride and groom envelopes with money and to take family pictures. I was included in the family picture of my date. By now the time was 1:30am and my host family was anxious for me to go home so they could lock the door and go to sleep. I was lucky they even let me stay out so late! I got back at 2am, with aching feet but a happy heart. I think I would rather have a Jordanian wedding than an American one when the time comes…

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