A traditional Emirati wedding reception


Women dressed in couture gowns every colour of the rainbow, bedazzled with the most exquisite jewels twirl, flutter, and glitter in a sea of pale pink and white roses, the smokey smell of traditional Oud incense swirls around the ballroom, and the soft sighs of Arabic flute music embrace every guest – it is like being in  fairytale.

Acres of tulle, lace and bead-work adorn the guests, it is astounding. The younger ladies flit between each other giggling and pouting, air-kissing and throwing back their heads in gales of laughter, while the older generation sit next to each other on the plush cream sofas sharing gossip, and tidbits of insider information. The older ladies’ faces are covered with the traditional metallic cardboard burqa. They lean close to each other and give some of the more scantily clad younger ladies a skeptical eye-brow raise. Their wrinkled, expressive faces hinting at the characters beneath.

The bride, a slender beauty is sitting in the bridal suite alongside the marriage hall being primped and primed for her great debut. Her corseted, bead-encrusted dress stands on a mannequin waiting for her to step into it. I have doubts this slip of a girl will be able to carry the dress and the train, which must almost rival Kate Middleton‘s for length and beauty – and , which I am sure, must weigh more than the bride.

There are stories that many an Arabic bride after her wedding reception carries scars on her hips from the weight of the dress, the bigger the scars, the better the dress, although I cannot verify if this is true.

The bride’s arms and hands are covered with intricate henna designs; leaves and vines swirling between her fingers, outlining her delicate wrists and sail up her slender arms, stopping just below her shoulders.

Its time. Her maid is smoking the inside of the dress with traditional Oud incense from a gold incense burner, the powerful smell in such enclosed quarters makes my eyes water a bit.

She steps into her dress minutes before her husband is due to come and visit her before the reception. Two helpers lift the dress onto her and hook her into the under-corset and then the dress, making her impossibly tiny waist even smaller. She looks incredible. She is ready to start a new life in her husband’s family’s home.

The ladies helping her get ready sneak off – her husband is approaching behind the double doors to get a first look at his wife. She turns to face the doors, her veil cascading behind her, her train smoothed out across the grey marble floor – the doors open and a young regal-looking Emirati man dressed in a traditional Bisht over his Kandora opens the doors. He is beaming from ear to ear as he sees his gorgeous bride.

It is time for the couple’s photoshoot prior to the reception.

Both of us photographers have to help her move, the dress train is heavy and stiff and restricts her movement. We carefully position her and her husband. They cannot kiss, it is against tradition, but they pose together and look lovingly into each other’s eyes.

It is time for her to face her public. Alone.

We move through to the ballroom, a sea of colour and chatter and women only. Shoulders bared, faces uncovered, these ladies are having the time of their lives. The bride enters via a back entrance behind the stage, and walks up and down the white vinyl catwalk several times, showing off her beauty and her dress, allowing the few hundred ladies gathered to take notes, gossip and compare the brides dress, make-up, the reception setting and decor, the music, and the food – and speculate on the cost of it all.

While the bride is walking, the food is served to the guests.

The bride seats herself on the kosha, a traditional sofa placed in the middle of the stage, in front of her relatives and friends, and ladies come up one-by-one or in groups to congratulate her and take pictures with her.

A voice comes over the intercom in Arabic, and a wave of black sweeps across the room – the sea of jewel-coloured couture, immaculate make up, designer shoes and bling becomes a sea of traditional Abayas, with heavily kohled eyes peeking out from Shayla‘s.

The husband is entering, and in a traditional family such as this, women cannot be seen by anyone outside their direct family without being covered.

He meets his bride half-way down the catwalk and they walk together to the kosha, take a few pictures with family, and then he leaves. He cannot have been there more than 15 minutes in total.

As he walks out with his bride, some of the older ladies begin ululating, voicing their congratulations for the couple in a high pitched sing-song, while sprinkling the back of the brides train with cash. Kids come surging out of nowhere snatching up the dirham notes as they land, collecting the good luck for themselves. A tiny boy dressed up in his kandora steals the show, helping a smaller girl in a green tulle confection of a dress gather up notes.

The couple leave, the Arabic pop music starts and the abayas come off, the ladies begin dancing. We, the photographers follow the bride and groom back to the bridal suite for family photographs. The bride’s four brothers in their kandora’s are waiting and can’t hide their smiles at their sister. Her four sisters are also there, all wearing sugary cupcakes of dresses in pastel shades. Her mother wears a full-length gown with a waterfall of silver beading. Her mother and father are so lovely together, and I have hardly ever seen an older couple that in love. Her father looks so proud, and hugs his girl close. We do the family group shots and manage to capture a few candid moments between the family members.

The men again leave, and the bride and her sisters head back to the party. With music blaring, ladies flood the catwalk, shimmying and undulating to the latest tunes. One of the older ladies – a grandmother by the looks of the children holding onto her skirts – wearing a gold Burqa, and a heavily jeweled, emerald green Jalabiya leaps up from an overstuffed couch, leaving her fellow old ladies to the serious task of looking stern and whispering behind their hands, wiggles over to the middle of the dance floor, throws her hands up in the air and shakes what her mama gave her. That’s an image I wish I could share!

The whole wedding was an incredible sight – and it was so special to be allowed to see into the most intimate of celebrations in a culture that despite living in the UAE for 10 years, I have rarely been privy to.

Due to these weddings being private, and very traditional, photos of the guests and bridal couple cannot be shared, so, I have shared a couple of the detail photos in the hope that they convey even the smallest part of that night.

© Georgina Ford Photography and http://www.georginafordphotography, 2018.