I managed to get my essay finished (well, a draft, anyway – I’ve emailed it to my lecturer for comment before I hand in a final version), which was lucky because yesterday morning I got a phone call from my ESOL student inviting me to a henna party, the start of the celebrations for her son’s wedding.
The party started about 6 pm, and was of course for women only. I’m sure to most Westerners the idea of a party with no men (at least none over the age of about 4), no alcohol, and an age range spanning from newborn babies to elderly grandmothers would sound like a dull affair, but Afghan parties are in fact wonderful fun – the women let their hair down (sometimes literally – with no men around nobody cares if their carefully arranged veils slip from their heads), dress in their finest and dance and laugh and talk the night away.
When I arrived my student and her daughter were hidden away with the bride, but an elderly woman I’ve met at other gatherings (she doesn’t speak English, but we manage quite well with smiles and hand gestures) took me in hand and led me into the lounge, which had had all its furniture removed apart from the stereo (playing loud Arabic pop music) and a small couch, which she insisted I sit on (she and all the other women were of course sitting on the floor, but she knew my Kiwi knees wouldn’t be used to sitting cross-legged for hours).
The first hour or so was admittedly a little boring, because so few of the women speak enough English to have more than the most basic “How are you?” type conversation (plus of course I’m shy at the best of times, so I’m not great at sustaining a conversation with people I don’t know well), so I just sat there while the Farsi conversation flowed around me, listening to the music and admiring the beautiful clothes and jewellery of all the women (and feeling seriously under-dressed myself, despite having worn what I’d normally count as nice going out clothes!). Eventually though there was a fuss out in the hallway, and one of the women told me the bride was coming, and would I mind sitting on the floor for a while?
(Actually, the floor was quite comfortable, padded with several layers of thick Persian rugs, and I discovered my tolerance for sitting cross-legged has definitely improved over the years I’ve worked with my student, because over the rest of the evening I stayed mostly sitting on the floor, and I found I could manage about an hour at a time cross-legged before the pins and needles kicked in and I had to move to another position.)
The bride, dressed in an outfit that, incredibly, managed to outshine all the other women in the room, was led in by my student and her female relatives, and was sat in state on the couch, where she was warmly greeted by a few of the older women (I assume the heads of the various families?). And then the dancing started.
I should mention that by this time there were probably 50-odd women and children packed into a smallish living room (for those of you who’ve visited my house, it’s probably three-quarters the size of ours), all (except the bride) sitting on the floor. It was ever so slightly crowded in there! There was a small open area of floor in the centre, and in that small gap women would take turns dancing, either alone or in twos or threes. I think I’ve mentioned before how much fun the dancing is at an Afghan function – it’s not about showing off, or about attracting the opposite sex, it’s just about having fun, and entertaining each other. The dancing is beautiful, but the laughter is even more so. Those who hadn’t taken their turn were dragged up to have a go, including me – my performance wasn’t any better than the last time I tried, but I had fun anyway
Through all this the bride was looking bored and a bit sulky. At first I put it down to being in a room full of strangers (even her mother- and sister-in-law-to-be she’d only met a couple of days ago), or maybe it was just boring sitting there on show while everyone else was having fun, but later I found out it’s a tradition that the bride shouldn’t smile at all during the party – she’s supposed to look like she’s reluctant to marry. (And I did spot her sneaking a smile a bit later in the evening, sharing a joke with a couple of the younger girls, so the sulkiness obviously was all just an act).
After an hour or so of dancing, the bride was led away, and enough women left the room (to go and sit in other rooms – just about every room in the house was being used as a sitting room!) for long tablecloths to be spread out on the floor for dinner. Huge platters of rice, plates of naan bread, and dishes of chicken and lamb were brought in, and everyone tucked in. By this time I wasn’t the only non-Afghani at the party – they’d also invited the woman from Refugee Services who’d helped them arrange the bride’s visa, so we sat together and chatted during dinner.
After the dinner things were cleared away there was more dancing, then the bride returned in an even more fabulous outfit. By this time it was after 10 pm, and I was starting to think fondly of my bed, but the party was only just getting started, and I had to wait for the henna ceremony, which was heralded by everyone from the other rooms crowding into the main room. I reckon there must have been about 80 women and children, and by the time everyone was seated there was about a square metre of floor space left for dancing, but it was put to good use. It just meant if you were sitting at the front you had to keep your toes well tucked under you to avoid being stepped on!
Then the henna was brought it, in an elaborately decorated tray with lit candles stuck in them. The tray was passed from dancer to dancer, and each danced holding it as the candles burnt down (they obviously have a better source of candles than the typical birthday-cake variety, because I think it took about half an hour or so before the last candle finally sputtered out), while the rest of us clapped along to the music.
Ok, now it’s time for any men reading to close your eyes, and I’ll show the women a photo of the dancing – this is one of the older women dancing with her daughter. It’s not a fantastic photo, because it was so crowded, and because I was aware I’d be posting it on-line, so was trying to avoid getting too many faces in the shot (because of course some of the women would find it offensive if I was to display somewhere where men might see it a photo of them in a women-only environment – I’ve blurred out the two faces that are visible for that reason). Gives you a bit of an idea, anyway.
Right, you can open your eyes again now guys
Once the candles were gone, the tray was laid in front of the bride, and each of the women took a dab of henna and rubbed it into the bride’s palm (which got very messy very quickly, as you can imagine, so she had a helper to wipe it clean again every so often). The first seven women to do so were my student’s daughter and her friends, because tradition says if a single young woman is one of the first seven to apply henna to the bride she will soon find herself a good husband (very similar to our tradition with throwing the bouquet, really, and caused the same sort of giggling and joking among the girls), then everyone else took their turn, some of the older women pressing gifts of money into the bride’s hand along with the henna.
By this time it was nearing midnight, so I made my goodbyes and left, but not before my elderly friend had run off and found me a small packet of henna to take home with me, so I can decorate my own hands ready for the wedding on Sunday (yes, this party was just part 1 – there’s an equally long reception on Sunday night to attend… getting up for work on Monday morning is going to be fun!). I had my hands hennaed when I was in India many years ago, so luckily I know how to do it (and that it takes a couple of hours for the dye to sink in, during which time you can’t touch anything – think I might have to put a DVD on…) So that’s my project for this afternoon. If the finished product looks ok (not sure how artistic I’ll be able to be doing my right hand!) I’ll post photos later.