Celebrating the Traditional North African Bedouin Wedding
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
We know that Muslim women have traditionally been held to a strict code of modesty. It was reinforced by such practices as segregation, seclusion, and concealment. Islam places responsibility on the sexual behavior of women. Some critics feel that not enough emphasis is given to men’s self-control; any transgression is often blamed on women.
Unlike the statement made above, the people of this oasis, named Awagila, were Berbers. Within that population, women were once accorded a high status, sometimes surpassing that of males. The Awagila people, however, had adopted all of the key rituals and practices of Muslim Arabs following the latter’s arrival in Libya during the 7th –11th centuries.
One such practice involved the subject of this piece, the wedding rite. Here, the protection of the bride, her family’s honor, and its reputation is paramount. In the wedding rite, this protection is symbolically represented through the code of modesty.
I was always invited to weddings, which drew significant numbers of Awjila’s residents. Attendance at weddings included the many relatives of the family. These were people related biologically and through marriage across the major clans. There were many weddings, and since I was treated as either a neighbor or a guest, I couldn’t refuse an invitation.
Weddings went on for four-six hours a day, involving many scenarios. While the wedding festivities lasted for seven days, it’s the evening wedding dance that is our focus.
At the beginning of the wedding dance in the groom’s home, the younger, unmarried male members of both the bride and groom’s parties form a single line to dance and sing. The songs don’t reveal explicit sexuality, but they contain some innuendo.
The men’s dance involves thrusting their hips forward in rapid motion to the rhythm of a penetrating drum beat. In concert, they thrust their arms forward in a resounding clap of hands.
Women of both the bride and groom’s parties, including the bride, sit in a darkened, adjacent room, peering through a shrouded window or doorway. They rendered their approval of the men’s performance by making the zaghareet/zaghrouta, a shrill, piercing sound — known in America as ululation — made by the rapid back-and-forth movement of the tongue.
Meanwhile, the groom sits to the side of the dancers assuming a very serious demeanor, maintaining his new sense of modesty in the presence of the younger, unmarried men, who are free to act boisterously.
After an hour or so of male dancing, the women send out their ‘emissary’ to the men, usually a young, unmarried woman from the bride’s family. She is dressed in a white blouse, a modest, shin-length skirt, and white stockings. Her face is veiled in a gauze-like material that allows an outline of her face to be seen but not necessarily revealing her identity. She carries a white baton, about two feet long, which she holds out in front of her, facing the line of males as if she’s choreographing the dance of these serenading men.
A male singer then begins to serenade her, having possibly discovered her identity. Taking on the guise of uncontrollable emotion; he sings about her physical beauty with the tone of a distraught lover. His emotion mounting, his voice quavering, he is simply overwrought. Then, he covers his eyes with his hand, leans his elbow on the next male’s shoulder as if in need of both physical and emotional support. He mournfully warbles a single, punctuated verse. If he overdoes his expression of feigned love, the female dancer, with a sense of equally feigned anger, strikes him on the head with her baton. She or another female dancer will repeat this several times during the evening. While this ceremony is layered with symbolism, it can be boiled down a bit. First, based on a local interpretation, the white baton is said to represent the virginity of the dancing woman. It also symbolizes the protection afforded her by the bride’s male kinsmen. The baton, when used to strike a male, also represents the fleeting illusion of female control over the world of the seemingly intransigent male.
The dance ritual upholds the separation of females from males, except for the appearance of the woman dancer, who is both praised and ridiculed. She alone; however, has the momentary power to sanction the men. Throughout the ritual. the woman never utters a single word.
It’s in this way that the woman gets the upper hand. Symbolic as it is, fleeting as it is, this ritual brings to the surface and recognizes a sense of equality, even superiority, of the female over the male.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.