It wasn’t the wedding of anyone I knew and I was definitely in unfamiliar territory but all the same, it was a captivating experience.
Last night as I was eating dinner with a co-worker, I received a phone call from an Air Force captain who used to live and work in Afghanistan before she joined the military. Did I want to go to an Afghan wedding? Of course, I replied. Could I be ready in five minutes? Um, of course.
I dropped everything, ran to her room where she had laid out a few outfits that were appropriate for an Afghan wedding. I put on a pretty dark red flowing tunic top and loose pants and beaded pointed shoes and ran back to my office for my camera, all the while feeling completely conspicuous. In a small base where everyone wears either a military uniform or khaki pants with a polo shirt (the standard contractor uniform), an American woman in Afghan garb stands out.
The large wedding hall was filled to the brim with women and children running around. For the most part, hte men were in a separate room, with the younger boys and children mixed in with the women. The women were decked out in their finest, with the dresses ranging from garish to beautiful, some in bright gaudy colors and some decorated elaborately with hundreds of beads and intricate designs. Everything sparkled under the soft yellow lights – their sequins, jeweled hands, hair pieces and shimmery make-up.
Although the celebration had started an hour or so before we got there, in typical Afghan fashion, nothing ever starts on time, so we hadn’t missed much. After we arrived, the band got started and the dancing began. Other than the circle dance where a large group of women were dancing at once, the rest of the time just one or two dancers were out on the floor.
Shortly after the band started, the bride and groom, who had completed the formal part of the wedding ceremony the day before, showed up. They sat in a pair of chairs on a platform behind a table decorated with lots of flowers. One by one, guests came up to have their picture taken with them; although the guests smiled, I noticed the bride never did. I was told it wasn’t appropriate for her to look cheerful; even though the bride and groom knew each other and were both agreeable to the union, it would be an insult to the bride’s family for her to look happy.
Overall, the women were so welcoming and open with me. Some stared at me curiously, probably wondering who I was and what I was doing there, but all were friendly. They smiled, nodded and encouraged me to dance, tried to communicate and let me hold their oh-so adorable babies. And while I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I wanted, the kids absolutely loved my camera, and kept coming around my table hoping I would snap a photo. They were a curious and open bunch; we wrote down each other’s names, drew birds, hearts and stars, and I taught them how to play tic-tac-toe. Several of the women spoke fluent English, including one young woman who had spent most of her life in Germany; she made the trip to Afghanistan for the wedding and was meeting most of her extended family for the first time.
Like American weddings, Afghan celebrations can go long into the night; when we left at 10, the food was just getting ready to be served; I’m sure it would have been an impressive spread. From what I learned about Afghan traditions, the dancing would have gone until well after midnight.
Despite all the unfamiliar rituals and language barriers, I had an amazing time. I know with my pale skin and red hair, I stood out, but these women, who had to know I was no relation the bride or groom, made me feel completely welcome. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and something I’m thankful I got to participate in.
And I'm not 100 percent sure but I might have participated in some obscure Afghan wedding rite; a very insistent mother kept pushing me to talk to her son and she liked to play with my hair. When she gave me a baby to hold, I knew it was some sort of a test to see if I liked children. Unfortunately, I think I passed ... as I left, the son slipped me his phone number. So the next wedding I dance at just might be my own!