Peoples around the world celebrate weddings with feasting and religious or folkloric rituals to mark new beginnings and, especially in ancient agricultural times, the hope for new generations. But for Palestinians weddings are more than a time to look forward; they are a time to connect Palestinian history and age-old traditions with a Palestinian future, and to create a Palestinian national identity by honoring a common cultural heritage. Muslim and Christian wedding ceremonies are different but the celebrations bring both communities together in a common bond of solidarity in the face of the Occupation and often serve as a time for reconciling past tensions or differences.
In Palestine it is the village or the town that hosts the week-long series of ceremonies that comprise a Palestinian wedding. The slaughtering of the sheep is done by the groom’s father and family members and friends complete the task by cutting or chopping the meat into the various cuts for different uses. Women in the bride’s family mix the crushed and powdered henna leaves with liquid to make the paint that will be used on “Mehndi Night” when older women will decorate the bride and her female guests with traditional designs. For some a design will be painted on the bride’s legs to represent the soil that the dove brought back to the prophet Noah on the ark as evidence that the flood and destruction was over and the earth was ready for a new beginning.
The over-arching element in all the wedding ceremonies is song. There are songs while preparing food, old Arabic songs of sadness and happiness for the bride who is leaving her family, songs for the bride going to a new home, songs to accompany the groom’s family when they bring sweets to the bride’s family on “Mehndi Night”, the henna celebration. The poet who comes to the groom’s family home on the wedding day sings his poems and the crowds of villagers and friends who line the street during the procession of the groom to his bride and their new home sing their joy.
On the day of the wedding, the groom is shaved in a public ceremony to show the bride that he is clean and shining after having spent the previous month not shaving and wearing dirty clothes. The procession then begins with the groom, very clean and well-dressed, mounted on a horse or donkey, surrounded by his family who sing for him. As the group proceeds along the streets to where the bride is waiting, villagers come out from their homes, bringing food for the coming celebration and adding their voices to the songs. After the exchange of vows, there may be a “tajalay” ceremony in which the bride declares herself to be a “good girl” who has not humiliated her family. Before the married couple enters their new home, each slaps a piece of dough on the wall above the door, first the bride, then the groom, in an ancient ritual that signifies a hope that joy will grow in the house in the same way as the baking soda grows inside the dough.
The final celebration begins with more singing and exuberant dancing of the “dabka”, a dance passed down the centuries from Phoenician or Canaanite times and popular wherever Palestinians congregate. It is the concluding act of the Palestinian passion for keeping intact their unique culture. A poet, Moussa Hafidh, stated at a recent wedding: if a people loses their cultural identity, they lose their political identity. The Palestinian wedding, with its many time-honored customs and rituals, tells the world that Palestine is a nation with a culture and therefore a nation with a history and its own political identity. Rozana opens the Birzeit Heritage Week each year with a shortened version of the wedding, reminding all Palestinians, from the West Bank, the Golan and Gaza, the land of ’48, and the far-flung diaspora, of their common culture and identity.