Getting Married in the Middle East

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Post-wedding sightseeing.

I’m from a multicultural background. I’m ethnically Asian, grew up in a Western country, and moved to the US for school + work, where I’ve been living for the past 10+ years. I love reading blogs about cultural differences (A Cup of Jo‘s motherhood series comes to mind), so in this post, I thought I’d share some of my experiences. In particular, my experience having a wedding in the Middle East.

My partner is from a Middle Eastern country and came to the US for school, which is when we met. We dated for 5 years before getting married. We had an American wedding, which both of our families attended, and we also had a second wedding a few months later in the Middle East, which most of his family attended. The second wedding was largely ceremonial, as we were legally married in the US, and was basically a chance to include more relatives from my partner’s side of the family who couldn’t travel to the US for the first wedding.

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Wedding venue. Could easily be any generic venue in the US.

The wedding

The wedding itself was pretty Westernized. I suppose that’s probably true in many countries around the world – although some traditional elements can be incorporated, like dances, many weddings follow the Western format ofย  white dress + black tux + big meal.ย  It’s kinda sad that these cultural traditions are being lost! In our wedding, the agenda was: we walked in, did a solo dance, and sat down on a raised platform to our meal. From there, the guests either came to us, or we went around to all of the guest tables, greeting the guests.

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Fancy platform where we sat.
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One of the gold coins.

The way that people give gifts is different from American weddings. Instead of having a registry or cash, people give gold coins. The size of the coin is roughly proportional to the closeness of the relationship ๐Ÿ™‚ When we went around to all the guest tables, the guests either pinned the coins onto my dress or dropped it into a little bag especially for that purpose. So it was literally a bag o’ gold ๐Ÿ˜€

There’s an interesting custom where people can bar the bride/groom from passage and ask for small tips. For example, after the wedding, as we were driving back to the hotel, the car ahead of us stopped, and two men came out and demanded tips. Our driver was expecting this and handed them an envelope. Or at the hair salon, the ladies blocked the door and wouldn’t let me leave! I was totally clueless, of course, and thought they were telling me the car wasn’t there yet. Luckily, my partner’s sisters helped handle this for me. This custom sounds a bit strange to my Western ears, but when in Rome, do as they do…

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Traditional dance performance.
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Our turn.

Hospitality

My in-laws’ family were beyond hospitable. They showed us around town and organized an overnight trip to a nearby tourism area. They made us feel like part of the family, with home-cooked meals and casual hang-outs at home. My mother-in-law took me out shopping for a whole day, since I guess it’s tradition to spoil your daughter-in-law! I had to keep refusing purchasing various items, which I hope didn’t offend her, since I’m not that into (a) gold (b) rugs or (c) antiques. I did pick up some nice small rugs which we’re using right now at home, and some delicious snacks that my American relatives gobbled up right away.

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One of the rugs gracing our bathroom, plus an escaping cat.

The guests during the wedding were also very kind to me. I was worried that they might think it strange to marry someone outside of their culture, but some of the guests went out of their way to pass on blessings for happiness (translated through my partner), andย also complimented my attempts at traditional dance…

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Some amazing rock formations from nearby sightseeing.

Language

I don’t speak the language of my partner’s country, except for a few basic phrases. Was this a good or a bad thing? Although it made it difficult to talk to my in-laws, it also made it easier in formal settings, since I didn’t feel any social expectations except to smile and look happy. I did practice the words for “welcome” and “thank you”, which I had basically perfected after visiting 20 guest tables ๐Ÿ™‚

Religion

Ah, the touchiest subject. My family is not religious, and my partner’s family is relaxed religious. However, with all the events you hear on the news, there is quite a bit of stigma against religion. Because of this, my family didn’t want to have any religious symbols in the wedding, even if they had no legal meaning. It was tricky to communicate these wishes without offending anyone’s beliefs. In the end, we had a clergy member perform a blessing during the wedding, and I just hoped my family covered their ears and didn’t hear. (If they did hear, they never mentioned it!)

There was a funny incident when the call to prayer went off at 5am in the morning. It was super loud because the speaker was next to the hotel. My family was not expecting this, and thought it was a police siren. It went on and on for at least 10 minutes. I woke up my partner, who sleepily mumbled, “it’s saying that it’s better to pray than to sleep”.

Safety

Unfortunately, the country we visited is one where there have been random attacks on civilians. The city that we visited was one of the most conservative in the country. Although the area we visited was safe, and we stayed in a big Western chain hotel, it did take some time to reassure my family that the travel plans were safe.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think it went really well. Although I was worried about some elements (like language, religion, and fitting in with the culture), it all went over reasonably smoothly. It helped my family get to know my partner’s family more, and feel more comfortable with their culture. Although the trip wasn’t exactly relaxing, since it felt like the spotlight was on me the whole time, in reality the spotlight was mostly on my partner. So I could basically sit back and be a passenger on this ride, since most things were organized for us. And I’m beyond grateful to my in-laws for handling all of that! This was not the case for our American wedding, which I’ll talk about another time.

Have you ever been to a multi-cultural wedding? Does your culture have different traditions than the place where you currently live?

7 thoughts on “Getting Married in the Middle East

  1. Cool post! I really enjoy reading about people’s experiences with things like this.

    (We’re not quite at this stage yet, though I think it will probably be necessary to have at least a second ceremony/event abroad to make sure that more of our extended families can be included. So someday we may be navigating some similar considerations!)

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    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Before the trip, I was pretty apprehensive and tried googling for “weddings in XX country” to learn more, but mostly ended up with descriptions of verrry traditional old-school weddings, or obvious stuff like “don’t wear skimpy clothing in a conservative country”. I think there must be more people like us who have to navigate these multi-cultural issues in a modern context, so if it’s useful/interesting for even one person to read, I’m happy!

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  2. This was such an interesting read, Jess! Your dress is beautiful!! I’ve never heard of asking for tips but I know in Chinese culture for the groom to be able to get in the door to get the bride, he has to pay up. Usually the more 9’s in the number the better. Usually, bridesmaids and other bride’s family members are bargaining with the groom and his groomsmen and ask for $999 haha. It’s never that much though or at least I haven’t seen it.

    I had a small dinner as my “American” wedding and then months later my mom organized a Chinese banquet style wedding for us. I originally wasn’t thrilled but it was going to make my parents that much happier so I went with it. It honestly felt like we were just props for relatives to take pictures with. Overall, it wasn’t terrible but I definitely wasn’t comfortable with all that attention on me. It was also interesting because my husband’s family is much much smaller than mine so making sure that they didn’t feel overwhelmed was a concern too. But in the end there’s only so much I could do. It all worked out though.

    Seems like you had a memorable experience with your wedding though! Can’t wait to read about your other wedding! I love wedding posts ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it interesting! Haha, I guess there’s a theme of asking for money. I love these old traditions – I went to a friend’s wedding in India and they did a thing where the bride and groom scooped (dry) rice over each other, while surrounded by all their friends and family, to symbolize wealth. It was super touching.

      I agree with you that weddings are partially for the parents! Ah well, whatever makes them happy. I also had the “showdog” feeling, even with just our friends, just because a bunch of them flew into town and I guess needed a souvenir of our meeting, haha. I totally get the one side of the family feeling overwhelmed too. In our case, only my dad and sister came to the middle east, and they stood in the front greeting all the guests, without speaking the language. I’m really grateful that they did such a good job and flew all the way there to support our wedding.

      I don’t think I was following your blog back then, but I’m going to have to go back and read about your wedding ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • I agree, wedding traditions are so fascinating. And what I’ve learned from having my own wedding is that family members will come through for you and surprise you too. I was so surprised when my younger brother gave such a heartfelt speech at our wedding. It made me laugh out loud and was such a nice moment to share with everyone I love.

        Haha would love to know your thoughts once you read it ๐Ÿ˜€

        Liked by 2 people

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