Last night I went to the engagement party! It was really fun and different from anything I have ever experienced.
Before going into my experience, however, I want to provide a brief descriptions of weddings in Oman. The way it works, as to my knowledge, is that before the wedding there are two engagement parties. The first party is for the groom, so he invites his family and friends. Only men attend. At this party they take some pictures, talk, and it is here that the bride and groom are officially married (though the bride is not there). At this particular wedding, a man came who is very influential in Islam today: for example, on TV he predicts and announces when Eid will fall. Then there is the bride’s engagement party for the bride’s family and friends (women only attend, though at the end, the groom comes). This is a more fancy affair and women dress up in their traditional wear (they wear more Western outfits at the wedding party). By now the bride and groom are married, but they do not live with each other until the wedding. The wedding can happen at any time (in the case of this wedding, it will happen in 2 or 3 years as the bride is in her third year of undergraduate college and wants to finish before getting married). So currently, they are married but will not live together until after the wedding party. The wedding party is a bigger affair with many people and gifts are given to the bride and groom at this party (though at the engagement party I attended, they were given the gifts, perhaps since the wedding will be in a few years).
Now to the more exciting stuff! At 3:30 we went to the salon (the same one in which I got my henna done). They styled my host mother’s hair into a large bun with curls underneath it. We went to the house and quickly put on our makeup and got dressed before driving to the bride’s house to help her younger sisters get dressed. My host mother put makeup on them and I straightened hair. After the finishing touches, we drove to the hall where the engagement party took place. We were one of the first groups there (we got there a bit early– 7:30) and brought in the gift that my host mother had assembled.
The decorations inside were very sparkly and girly. It was a long hall filled with small round tables that were separated in the middle of the room by a red carpet that stretched from the door to the front. At the front of the room was a stage with a white backdrop decorated by sparkles and lights. On the stage a pink couch and the different gifts were placed on the edge of the stage. A DJ was playing music (a combination of songs from around the Middle East– some traditional and some modern– as well as some Indian songs). We couldn’t see the DJ, though, he was behind a screen so he could not see us.
The women started to arrive and they settled at different tables. All removed their abayas to reveal brightly colored and ornately decorated (I saw a lot of people wearing velvet or sequined dresses) Omani dresses on top of high heels. Some of the dressed were low cut or had slits on the sleeves. Many (but not all) removed their hair covering to show off their hairstyles. Most had big high buns or updos. A lot of women also wore a lot makeup, with heavily powdered faces, lipstick, and a lot of eyeshadow. This was clearly a time for people to dress up and I felt a bit underdressed in my simple Western dress and light makeup.
The first hour or so as people arrived was spent by people taking pictures. The women went around the room to have a friend or family member take pictures of their different poses. This was a perfect chance for me to observe everyone’s outfit! People especially liked posing beside the two white cakes and plate of cupcakes!
By 8:30, most of the women had arrived and there were about 100 or so women there. Waitresses walked around the room serving people tea, coffee, and different Omani sweets. A girl came up to me and asked if I wanted to come talk with her and her friends, so I went, excited to meet Omani girls my age. She spoke English really well (no accent at all, actually) and we talked for a while. Then the DJ played some popular songs and the girls got up to dance.
The dancing here is very different from the dancing at parties in the US. Omani dancing has a lot of hip movements, almost like a belly dancer. In fact, many girls tie a scarf around their waist to emphasize that their hips are moving. There is a lot of foot movements too, and the girls dance with each other and move around the room. I sat in awe of their dancing skills and then the girl and my cousin grabbed my hands and pulled me up with them. I felt so awkward (it didn’t help that we were in front of the room with everyone watching) and I am in way able to move my hips like them– add this awkward moment to my awkward list! They were really nice, though, and grabbed my hands and showed me some of the steps. Dancing with Omanis? Check!
A lot of ululating also happened at the wedding– after good songs, during songs, when the bride came in… They told me that people make the sound at wedding events whenever they feel happy. Basically, it is a sign of joy.
At around 9:30, everyone sat down as the bride was going to come in. Apparently, all this time she was in another room waiting for this time to walk in. As the music started, she walked through the door and walked along the carpet to the couch on the stage. The walk was very slow as after each step, she would do a pose and a photographer would take a picture. Her dress was also very different from wedding dresses in the US (though I was told that at the wedding party, the bride wears a white dress). Her dress was a bright tight short pink dress with sparkles. Underneath she wore skin colored leggings with sequins decorating the bottom. Her hair was piled high and on top was a long veil that extended to form a train behind her. At the end of the train were orange and pink lace ruffles. In her hand was a basket filled with flowers (like a bride has bridesmaids carrying flowers in the US!). Once she reached her seat, she took some more pictures, and then different family members went up to congratulate her and take pictures with her. People also went up with the gifts (huge baskets or chests of presents) and had their pictures taken as well.
Dinner was then served, buffet style. Some people left as they had a long ride home, so we waited a bit to eat since my host mother wanted to say goodbye to people. At the buffet there were salads, pita bread with humus, biryani, chicken, pasta, and sweets. The bride did not get food, however, she stayed on the couch to talk to different people. After a while, people sat down again because the groom had arrived (it was about 10:45). Women quickly put on their abayas and covered their hair. The music started and the groom walked in, wearing a dishdasha and carrying the assa (Omani cane). As he walked, a girl threw money behind him and then threw money over them as they sat together on the couch. The little girls quickly got up to pick up as much money as they could. Then pictures were taken of the two of them and them with family members. Next it was time to cut the cake, so they went down and cut a slice together and then fed each other a bit of cake. Then two glasses of orange juice were poured and they simultaneously held the glasses up for each other to drink out of. Then they went back up to the couch for a few more pictures.
There were a few other differences from the US that I noticed. In weddings in the US, the bride and groom normally hold hands, have a dance together, and kiss in front of everyone. Here there was very little physical contact. The most physical contact was at one point when he put his arm around her for a picture and they held hands when cutting a cake. I think that this is because physical contact between opposite sexes is not culturally appropriate. Another difference was that people did not eat the cake. There were no plates or forks for people to go up and get a slice of cake. My host mother, though, somehow did manage to steal a slice of cake! Another difference was the presents. In the US, individual families give gifts that normally can be used for the bride and groom, like household items. Here, however, the gifts were given from groups in the family and were ornately wrapped and decorated with big flowers. The gifts were also catered towards the girl, such as lotion, makeup, and perfume. The last difference, and to me, biggest difference, was that the party was only for girls. In the US, one’s father or brothers would always be at the party, but in Oman, it is very separated between men and women, so this party was only for women (with the exception of the groom at the end).
After the cutting of the cake, people left. My host mother and I stayed a little bit to talk. It was late at this point, so by the time we got home, it was 12:30. She told me that the party normally ends earlier, but it got delayed. She also said that this engagement party was more elaborate than most engagement parties (she said normally the buffet is smaller and the decorations are simpler). Either way, I’m happy I got to experience an Omani engagement party and had a lot of awkwardness time and definitely, fun!