With Joy & Glad Tidings: The WEDDINGS Issue of ArabLit Quarterly

You can order the Fall 2022 WEDDINGS issue of ArabLit Quarterly in print via GumRoad and Amazon; digitally on GumRoad or Exact Editions; with issues forthcoming at the very best bookshops, including Khan Aljanub.

By Nashwa Nasreldin

It was exactly 10 years ago that I stood in a small museum in Nicosia, mesmerized by a selection of black and white photographs of couples in wedding attire, gazing solemnly at the camera. I stared at one photo after another, trying to uncover even a hint of a smile, but…  nothing. I knew that people often didn’t smile in photographs taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is usually explained by long exposure times, or the formal nature of photography before handheld cameras were widespread, and how people posed the way one might for a painting. But something about their unsmiling eyes held me in their thrall. I obsessed over those photographs for weeks, willing the subjects to appear less victimized. 

Maybe it was my own brooding mood imposing itself that day at the museum, but I felt those unsmiling faces were genuinely unhappy, their wedding attire simply masking an expectation of the miserable fate that awaited them. Who knows. And, of course, it’s true that contemporary weddings aren’t always happy occasions. When they are connected to forced marriages, such as those involving a child bride or where women are betrothed to men who have assaulted them, they can certainly represent violent and traumatic experiences. Yasmeen Hanoosh’s “The Bride,” a short story translated for this issue by Levi Thompson, gives us a quick, sharp glimpse into the darker side of marriage. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s rom-com-esque “The Wedding Night,” in James Scanlan’s translation, shows us that even a union entered with expectations of pleasure can suffer a speedy downturn. 

It’s true that those of us who choose to enter into marriage (in its myriad forms) are voluntarily relinquishing control, as we sign over a portion of our liberties and sign up to a lifetime of compromise. Perhaps this is what many of us find so daunting about the prospect. And so, the wedding—a fleeting event in the grand scheme—is bestowed an inordinate amount of power. Regardless of whether the ceremony is simple or extravagant, the moment that vows are exchanged, prayers read, or documents signed, is charged—I still remember the way my knees trembled so hard I worried I would tumble. 

Is it a fear of the unknown, or perhaps the trepidation as we inch a step closer to the prospect of divorce? Since, of course, even unions borne out of love can end in hurtful ways—think the closing scene of the 1989 film War of the Roses, where the doomed couple lie flat on their backs on a broken chandelier, limbs akimbo, as the wife refuses her estranged husband even a fleeting, final comfort. Indeed, the day itself can be a source of gross provocation, as Barbatoze’s graphic feature “The Battle,” translated by Nadiyah Abdullatif, wisely (and comically) reflects. Its depiction of the dangers of buffets echoes a long tradition of wedding feasts, which have long been a focal point of nuptials, as Leonie Rau’s feature on medieval Arab wedding banquets explores. But just as fraying tempers can explode at a wedding, it can also be a source of community healing, as we read in “The Aunt’s Marriage,” a short story by the late Samira Azzam, in Ranya Abdelrahman’s translation.

And sometimes, weddings take such a surreal turn, it’s hard to know what will come of it. In Ibrahim AlMotoly’s short story, “The Final Dance of the Night,” translated by Ibrahim Fawzy, a seductive, hypnotic outdoor wedding in an Egyptian village violates expectations, bringing us to a confrontation between an old man and a young belly-dancer. 

Performers and performance are also central to weddings, both for their ability to entertain and to temporarily violate social norms. Many popular singers began their careers at weddings, and it seems that the great Abd al-Halim Hafez was known to slip into a wedding party uninvited. Although he would soon be forgiven, since he often ended up singing to the newlyweds, as Nicholas Mangialardi tells us in his essay on “The Nightingale and his Lovebirds.”

Traditions and rituals reign in the preparations and often-spectacular processions involved in weddings, which involve presenting the bride on display, as we read in Fowziyah Abu Khalid’s poetry, translated by Moneera Al-Ghadeer: “I walk down the aisle / covered with arms of ornaments / I stand vigilant, unspeakably lost / on the wedding stage / at once waiting for Godot / waiting for the barbarians.”

But women are seen taking control in Ouissal Harize’s feature on the “Grim Symbolism of Weddings in Algerian Oral Literature,” which recounts two popular folktales that upend gender power dynamics, in keeping with the country’s history of women’s resistance.  From Sudan, we have “Wedding Parade,” a poem by Muhammad el-Mahdi el-Magzoub, translated by Adil Babikir, in which the beauty of both the “queen” and “her maids” with their “kohl-lined eyes,” are placed under the spotlight; but then another affection is revealed as the speaker endearingly addresses his beloved homeland. 

With so many regional variations on the celebration, it would be impossible to attempt to encompass them all. Atiaf Alwazir’s illustrated glossary of Sana’ani wedding terms introduces us to a seven-day Yemeni celebration, while Zahra Marwan’s visual feature explains a more challenging context where heritage and traditions are not as easily classified, and sometimes even shunned. 

As the world continues to emerge from an extended period of intermittent lockdowns and forced separation, with this issue we also wanted to take a moment to rejoice and celebrate long deferred reunions. Despite all the darkness the pandemic brought, there have also been some positive relationships borne: with nature, neighbors, families, friends. Some of us may have developed newfound passions that are surely worth celebrating, just as much as Abu Nuwas rejoiced in the courtship between the anthropomorphized wine of his poetry (translated here by Michael Payne) and its drinker.

So, let us pass round the sharbaat and celebrate joyous unions of all kinds, and hope that any newfound affection will prove ever-lasting.

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