The invitation to a Tunisian wedding comes late, perhaps just a week before the event. The paper invitation, while beautifully written in elegant Arabic script, is really just a formality. There is no need to RSVP. As a guest, you surely have been aware the celebration was coming for months and repeatedly asked about your attendance.
The wedding ceremony is the capstone of a week of events. While the specifics vary according to local traditions and family preferences, these include a party for the groom, one for the bride, and a contract-signing featuring the symbolic transfer of a small sum from the groom’s family to the bride’s. A ceremonial five-dinar coin may be exchanged to fill this traditional gesture. Throughout the week, the homes of the bride and groom host a large number of visiting family members. The married couple is undoubtedly eager to set off on an exotic honeymoon when it is all over, enjoying some distance from countless aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Do not go to a Tunisian wedding on time. If the invitation says 7 p.m., under no circumstances should you go earlier than 8. Doing so would leave you waiting in an empty room with the bride and groom likely not to appear for quite some time. The wedding is a party and, like all parties, it is best to be fashionably late. Upon arrival, guests are welcomed to the wedding hall by the proud parents of the bride and groom and led to their seats.
At the front of the wedding hall, the bride and groom sit on a pair of ornate thrones on a stage facing gathered friends, family, and neighbors. Here they will stay for hours. It is a lot of attention for a young couple to handle, and they may seem a bit stiff and uncomfortable at times under the watchful eyes of everyone they know. They are frequently asked to smile for the camera, and it is likely that the whole event is video recorded as well. The groom may wear a suit as in a Western wedding or a traditional embroidered jebba gown. The bride, however, likely appears in a extravagant, bejeweled white gown, often paired with a tiara. Her makeup is done just as lavishly, lashes thick with mascara and face thoroughly coated with white powder.
Some towns have their own rituals and traditions regarding wedding attire and specific dances that must be performed. Couples in Sfax, for example, typically dance around and step over a fish during their wedding ceremony. Some women ululate in the traditional trilled cry of celebration, perhaps borrowing the singer’s microphone to do so.
The music at Tunisian weddings is loud. It is common to have a small group performing live music, inevitably featuring a gifted singer and a synthesizer player who seems to only play the very highest-register notes his instrument is capable of producing. If you want to talk at all with others at your table, it is best to steer far clear of the PA system. The songs are generally good, but much more enjoyable from a distance.
Where there is music, there is of course dancing, but wedding dancing is a bit different in Tunisia. Perhaps the most interesting thing for a Western observer is that the dance floor tends to be somewhat gender-segregated. Young men dance in one group, while the ladies gather in another cluster a short distance away. Curious glances are exchanged between them, but it is likely that the only couple you will see dance during the evening is the bride and groom. Over the course of the wedding, friends regularly go on stage and drag either the bride or groom onto the dance floor. After a short shift of dancing with friends, the newlyweds reunite on stage.
Know that guests are by no means expected to stay for the whole wedding party. Weddings in Tunisia can be hours long, and there is not a great deal of actual ceremony to observe. Stopping by for an hour should be sufficient; enough time to say hello and show that you made the effort to attend. Before you leave, make sure you go up to the bride and groom, say your congratulations (“mabrouk” in Tunisian Arabic), and pose for a photo with the happy couple, one of surely hundreds they will smile for throughout the night.
Do not go to a Tunisian wedding hungry. There is no reception with a decadent spread of food and drink awaiting you after the ceremony. If you plan on hanging around for some time, you should be prepared.
You will not be totally deprived, however. Standard at all Tunisian weddings are servers bearing trays of halou, Tunisian sweets resembling small cookies that are often made with nuts. They will only pass by once or twice during the wedding, so savor them. Guests are also offered a glass of juice, perhaps strawberry or pear. These are freshly made and very thick, to the point where you might wish a spoon was provided as well.
While delicious, these treats will not fill an empty stomach. Faced with this predicament after a two-hour car ride to a recent wedding, a hungry colleague and I realized we could stay for about half an hour, leave to grab a meal at a nearby restaurant, and then head back for the closing ceremony. After a filling kafteji, we returned in time to catch the last dance and a round of pictures with the bride and groom.
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