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How to plan an Arab-American wedding that will please everyone (except you)

Terrifying traditions, curious customs, manic musicians: welcome to the happiest day of your life
"But then, you look over. Your spouse is being lifted in the air and is now spinning like an amusement park ride" (Illustrations by Mohamad Elaasar)

Years after my own wedding, I still cannot believe we survived it. 

I think back to the months of planning, the ever-expanding guest list, and the budget that kept growing like a balloon that would surely – at some point – explode.

Even now, whenever I am invited to a cousin’s or an Arab friend’s wedding, I ask myself: “Why would any prospective wife or husband subject themselves to a full-on Arab-American wedding?”

It’s right to offer advice to those determined to follow this route. So I’ll begin by saying this:

I know you want to have a good time. But nobody really cares whether or not you do

The odds of throwing a wedding that satisfies everyone are in your favour.  Take comfort in this. After all, Arabs love a party. (And everyone is stunned that you’re finally getting married, so there’s that added excitement).

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But realise it’s not actually your wedding. I know you want to have a good time. But nobody really cares whether or not you do. 

I mean, your name is on the invitation and you’re probably paying for it, but your job is to make sure that they have a good time.

So, your Arab-American wedding is not about you. At all. 

'It’s about the Aunties - that army of older women'

It’s also not about your spouse, who is merely an unwitting accomplice in all of this. Your spouse may not be Arab, by the way. It’s not like back in 1978 when your cousin married an Irish guy from Trenton, New Jersey and his whole family showed up in kilts.

The Aunties have finally relented on the issue of marrying non-Arabs. It could be because your cousin and her Irish husband are happier than anyone else you know (I think it was My Big Fat Greek Wedding that made it cool). Either way, your spouse should have no problem blending in, so long as they greet the oldest person in the room first and can drink arak without dying. 

So what is your Arab-American wedding about, you ask?

Haven’t you guessed already?

It’s about the Aunties - that army of older women who decides who gets to live and who will die in the gladiatorial battle that is your Arab-American life. It’s about pleasing them - even the ones you’ve never met.

Remember Samiah, your father’s second cousin’s former schoolteacher? The widowed 90-year-old lady who lives in the village back home — no, not Cleveland-home, I mean “home-home” — and has 12 kids and still tends chickens and a goat? 

A day after your wedding, Auntie Samiah will sit down on her balcony, in her village on the other side of the ocean. She will make black tea, stir in some sugar, and wrap a shawl around her shoulders. And then she will reach into the bodice of her thobe, pull out her iPhone, and watch your wedding video on Facebook. It’s about this moment, about making sure she nods and smiles and says: “Al-hamdulilah.” Thank God, indeed.

Pleasing this auntie — and all of the Aunties — is your goal here. Yes, I know you’ve never met Samiah. That doesn’t matter. It’s not about you, remember?

Finish your prayers (you’ll need them), and let’s plan this wedding.

1. The venue

Not as important as you think. Arabs can party under a tent at the park or they can jam in the Hilton Grand Ballroom as long as nobody will come along to say “It’s 3am, time’s up, folks”. Just make sure there’s a big sturdy dance floor where there are Arabs. There will also be spirals and spirals of dabke.

2. The wedding party

To clarify: Your wedding party is NOT an assembly of your favourite people. It’s not a collection of friends who have been on “this journey” with you. There is no heartfelt dinner with your best friend, where you tearfully pop the question: “Will you be my maid of honour?”

No, the wedding party is a representation — a United Nations of sorts — of all the branches of the family. Sure, you have 64 first cousins, but the Arab quota system requires you ask one cousin from each family to participate. So, accept that you’ll have 14 bridesmaids. Maybe three flower girls. That your photographer will have to arrange everyone like a football team and use the wide lens. 

The Arab quota system requires you ask one cousin from each family to participate. So, accept that you’ll have 14 bridesmaids

Furthermore, the best man will be one of your brothers. Possibly all four of your brothers. Your maid of honour will likely be your cousin Seema, who resents you because Rami, the doctor’s son, danced with you, not her, at the Arab Heritage Festival six years ago. That doesn’t matter. The Aunties have decided that she is The One.

It’s worth the family peace, if only because Auntie Fayrouz won’t dance if her son isn’t the ring bearer. No, she will sit like a stone on her seat and sniff: “How can I dance with a broken heart?” 

3. The invitations

Invite everyone. Even people you are sure will say no. So you don’t think Auntie Randa in Jordan will attend? Because, you’ve reasoned, the flight alone would cost her $1,000? You’re right, she won’t come - but you’d better invite her anyway.

'No matter who is footing the bill for this extravaganza, your parents’ names will be listed first.'

Why? Because her daughter’s brother-in-law lives in your town and if she’s not invited, then he’ll be forced to boycott the wedding. Really, you’d be leaving him no choice. 

A word about the invitations themselves: they must mention your parents’ names. No matter who is footing the bill for this extravaganza, your parents’ names will be listed first.

The card will not read: “Maher and Gabrielle cordially invite you…”  It will read: “Mr Zaid and Mrs Faten Omar cordially invite you to the wedding of their son, Maher….” 

Just so you know. 

4. The RSVPs

Monitor your RSVPs carefully. Three hundred will reply that they are coming. Expect 340 to show up. Plan accordingly, because Lamia’s sister dropped in for a surprise visit from Rhode Island and, well, Lamia couldn’t leave her at home, could she? By the way, her sister has three children and doesn’t know any babysitters in town, so she brought them along as well. They want the filet mignon. 

5. The seating plan

The tables at the front, closest to the wedding party, are prime real estate. Everyone will look to see who’s sitting there, especially Samiah. And if Uncle Jamil and his wife and four kids are not there, well, it was nice knowing you, habibi

Keep the chart fluid for those 40 people who will show up unannounced. Auntie Rosa didn’t tell you she was coming, but she will expect to sit near the front.

6. The non-Arabs

They can attend; that’s who the tables at the back of the hall are for. And they won’t mind because they’re happy to experience “your cultural traditions”. Warn them about the zaghareed so they’re not startled when all of the Aunties pierce the air with their ululations.

Impress upon the non-Arabs to dress like it’s the Oscars, even if the reception is held in a tent near a creek

Teach them a few dabke steps. They will love it and apply themselves enthusiastically to learning it.

NB: Tell them not to jump to the front of the line as that spot is reserved for the best dancers. The non-Arabs will only slow it down.

Impress upon the non-Arabs to dress like it’s the Oscars. Even if the reception is held in a tent near a creek, they must still wear gowns and high heels. Otherwise, Samiah will wonder why they are insulting you by wearing flowered maxi dresses and gladiator sandals. 

7. The booze

If your family drinks, there needs to be an open bar. Period.

8. The band

You need one. A kick-ass one. Wait, is your budget tight?  Too bad. Cut costs elsewhere. I mean, who needs a diamond ring, anyway? Haven’t you seen Blood Diamond?

And just so we’re clear, when I say “music”, I mean Arabic music. 

'You want the band that is still performing at 1.30am'

“But,” you say, “my spouse is Italian-American”. Fine, we can be flexible here. You can have an American DJ for an hour or so, but 80 percent of the night has to be a combination of Arabic songs and dabke. Your future in-laws will love it, especially if they are Italians. Italians are actually better at dancing to Arabic music than Arabs. Puerto Ricans are the best, though. Just saying.

Do your research. Visit the band’s local events to verify how good they are. (Translation: Crash other Arab weddings and pretend you’re the groom’s cousin. There will be 600 people there — you will blend).

Observe: Are people sitting down and eating their dinner instead of dancing? Are people able to hold a conversation? If that’s the case, then YOU DON’T WANT THIS BAND.  

No, you want the band that is still performing at 1.30am. You want the band whose lead singer ends up on someone’s shoulders, leading a sahjeh – the call and response singing that everyone loves – while swinging his tie around like a lasso. 

You want the band whose drummer has a drum the size of a banquet table and who spends half his time airborne on the dance floor. It’ll look amazing on the video when Samiah sees it.

9. The entrance

Your entrance to the reception must be the entrance to destroy all entrances. The drummer will lead you in. If all the singing and clapping and dancing goes according to plan, it should take about two hours to enter. 

10. The food

If you’re thinking about an afternoon reception, where you serve champagne and finger foods, then please, do the right thing: elope.

'Don’t underestimate how much food you will need. Especially meat.'

Your parents will get over that a lot faster than watching your uncle Fuad eat a crab cake off a napkin. (Back in the village, Samiah will call you cheap for not using plates).

Don’t underestimate how much food you will need. Especially meat. 

You may be tempted, since many of your guests are vegetarians or vegans, to serve the chef’s delectable “curried red lentil on a bed of couscous with a side of pepper kale.” Don’t be led astray.

The Aunties will wonder why you are serving lentils ("addas?!") at the biggest event of your life. Your parents will want to know why you listed their names first on the invitation if you planned to humiliate them. 

11. The lift

This is one of those big wedding moments, like the entrance or cutting the cake. The wedding can’t be over until two of your cousins suddenly grab you and toss you up in the air. They’ll bounce you around. They might hand you a cane or a handkerchief and expect you to wave it gracefully. While you try not to die, your spouse will be thrown up there too.

'Make sure one of your bridesmaids guards that chair with her life'

The danger is obvious: They might drop you. You could break your arm. Or your neck.

If you’re the groom: someone will come up behind you and scoop you onto his shoulders. Your abs must be ready for this, so you don’t flop back and smack your head on the ground. Do sit-ups and lower-body curls for weeks before the wedding. Also, arrange beforehand that cousin Walid will be the one to lift you. Walid played varsity football when he was a freshman. He can devour a whole tray of warak dawali by himself. It must be him because your ass is on the line here. 

If you’re the bride: two men will lift you up in a chair. You are more likely to be dropped than the groom because Arab men cannot coordinate lifting something together. Studies show that most brides fall because, as two guys lift the chair from the sides, some fool tries to help by boosting the chair from the back. This unnecessary action thrusts the chair forward, and, in her satiny smooth dress, the bride slips right off like it’s a water slide at Six Flags.

You are more likely to be dropped than the groom, because Arab men cannot coordinate lifting something together

Therefore, before the reception, ensure that somewhere in the venue there is a chair with arms. Most banquet halls have chairs without, so get that chair and make sure one of your bridesmaids (not Seema!) guards it with her life. Instruct her to smack anyone who approaches it with her bouquet.

Halfway through the party, put on some flat shoes with treads. If you do fall, at least you’ll land on your feet and not break an ankle. Next, recruit two football-player cousins as your accomplices: when the crowd chants for The Lift, they will retrieve the chair, stand on either side, and put you up. Make sure these men are of equal height. Balance is key. 

Your warrior-bridesmaid who guarded the chair should stand behind your two cousins, armed with the bouquet, swatting anyone who attempts to lift from behind. 

Now, just hang on.  

12. Finally…

'Your spouse is also not happy. Just like you. Inshallah, it will bond you together for a lifetime.'

While you’re up there, you will gaze down at everyone below. As the throng of family and friends clap to the drumbeat and sing to your happiness, rejoice! Although you’ve been popping Xanax for weeks and are now bankrupt, at least they are having a blast. 

You may wish that you’d eloped instead, under cover of night, to Aruba. You may wish that everyone would learn of your deception tomorrow on Facebook.  And yet, you stuck it out. And look, you succeeded. Everyone is happy - except you. 

But then, you look over. Your spouse is being lifted in the air and is now spinning like an amusement park ride. Your spouse is also not happy. Just like you. 

Inshallah, it will bond you together for a lifetime. Mabrouk.

A longer version of this piece can be found on Susan Muaddi Darraj's website. Follow her on Twitter at @SusanDarraj. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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