Let's Get Married. Kuwaiti Style (part two)
KTM April 2002
Obviously, before people get married, they must first be engaged, meaning to have the intent to marry. In Western countries this process is normally done first between the couples themselves and then announced to the people, after which an engagement party may or may not take place. This often depends on the social standing of the couples or their families. In the USA, for example, this engagement party might be circumvented by a wedding shower, (which is not, in fact, a bunch of women taking a shower together, which some well meaning, but uninformed, foreigners have interpreted to me on several occasions when I mention it to them!), which, for those of you who are not privy to American cultural customs, is like a "hen party" for giving serious, and, often, not so serious gifts to the bride to be. It is a time when many pranks and jokes are usually played at the expense of the future bride and people have great fun all in all. Where, in the end, in reward for her good humor throughout, she receives a slew of really nice gifts to start off her married life with. I have heard that in England, there is a similar practice that involves extremely embarrassing activities that I can't even discuss here in this forum, which is another story altogether! But in Kuwait, things are much, much different, much more serious.
In Kuwait, it is pretty much imperative that the families are directly involved with the entire prenuptial process, from A to Z. In times past the engagement could even take place before the couple have ever seen each other, although, in Islam it is not recommended to do so in order to avoid the inevitable problems that are faced when two people with entirely different personalities get together and have to live together. So, nowadays, they almost always see each other, at least a picture, to give initial approval at least. Many families allow and encourage the two to meet before the engagement takes place, and both parties have the right to approve or disapprove of the union.
Another trend that has seen some increase in Kuwait is the happening of the couple having worked or studied together. Considering that Kuwait University is co-ed, there is certainly plenty of chance for people to meet, although, in reality, tradition still takes precedence overall in this society. It is still far more common that the boy will come and ask for the girl, who he probably has seen somewhere in school, or as one of his sister's friends, or a friend's sister, or a cousin, etc. This is all done with the full participation of both families, and is not only between the couple. But still, often, as in the age old tradition, the families will choose a cousin, even a first cousin for marriage, and in many Kuwaiti families, especially Bedouin families, if there is a ?bint ?am" (daughter of the father's brother) or "walad ?am" (son of the father's brother), they will be given precedence over all others. Sometimes, though, there is no cousin, and the family doesn't know an appropriate girl for their son. so then what?
That is where the tradition of the marriage broker comes in. The matchmaker, a woman, who is called "Al-khatabah", plays an important role in Kuwait. In practically every old culture in the world there is an equivalent person who traditionally is kind of a busybody and tries to fix young women and men up together for marriage. Here in Kuwait their role is much more formal and more like a computer marriage service, but Islamic style, and with personalized service. The "khatabaat" (plural for the word) are very serious about what they do.
I met with one. I got her number from a business card that was put on my car at a wedding I went to once. I was intrigued at how professional the idea of a business card was. Different from what I expected. I don't know what I expected. maybe a charlatan witch type of person who sort of used magical spells in matching the couples? But, the person I met was an ordinary human being, a woman who had met her fate with men in a bad way and had needed to overcome her plight as a single mother. She became a "khatabah"! She felt like it was kind of her calling in life. She liked the idea of helping herself (financially), while at the same time helping others to become happy. Even though her own story hasn't been that nice, and hasn't yet had a happy ending, she still wants others to have one. So she goes. Um Talal is her name, and making matches is her game. But, she takes it very seriously, and there is a kind of professionalism here that I thought would only happen with computer marriages!
She has files on each and every person who comes to her looking for a mate. The files are separated according to general specifications like age, divorced or not, handicapped, in perfect health, etc. I was really surprised about the perfect health thing and asked her about it. She said that it is as important as any other thing, since when a person comes to a marriage broker (khatabah) they have a list of conditions that they want her to meet. She even rejects people based on certain conditions that she feels will not be met, and is honest with people when she feels they are not marriageable. (In her opinion, of course.) She has a strict code of morals with regard to cheating, and doesn't appreciate people who hide the unsavory things about their daughters or sons. She says it is interesting that when people come to her they will ask for and insist on certain conditions being met, like the family should be of a certain standing, the girl being tall, thin, educated or whatever, but in reality, that same boy might chase behind a short, heavy girl after seeing her in the neighborhood. so it is never an exact science when it comes to marriage. She says she gets loads of people from Kuwait, and even from outside Kuwait, from all walks of life and nationalities that want her help in finding a life partner. And there she is with them, right up to the hopefully happy ending. She even attends the engagement process, which can be quite involved sometimes here in Kuwait, due to the dowry (Maher) and other things, from the initial discussions to the party. Then she goes away pleased with herself, knowing that she has done a good thing! Lately, her grown up daughter has started in the same business she is in, so they are a mother/daughter team now.
After all the conditions are agreed upon and the parties have seen each other, both parties have had their chance to do their checking to make sure that the boy and girl are both up to par, socially, morally, etc., things proceed and the "maher" is brought to the girl. Usually, the dowry is brought by the mother and sisters of the potential groom to the potential bride's home, and sometimes aunts and other relatives will participate as well. This can be a formal affair or a very simple one, all, of course, leading up to the big day, which is the actual wedding. The dowry would be brought in a special wooden box, and in the old days used to be accompanied by pieces of cloth, gold, and other items, or nowadays could be in another form of presentation, but generally is very fancy. Once this is accepted then the engagement ("milcha") plans would go ahead.
The "milcha" is technically when the couple get married. The engagement party could be very extravagant affair, rivaling the wedding itself, and has a lot of invitees, a big dinner and the whole thing. Others are smaller, and mostly just between the immediate families. This is usually when the actual marriage contract is signed and thus, after that the couple is legally married.
The first "milcha" I ever went to was for a close Kuwaiti friend of mine. I was very happy for her, and so was her family, since she had a habit of rejecting every man who came along asking for her hand in marriage. Finally she was convinced that she wouldn't die if she agreed, and that if she ever wanted to have a family, the step of getting married would have to take place first, so she relented. Because they had waited so long for it to happen, this particular occasion was an extra happy time for all!
Her "milcha" was at home, which is often where they take place, and the home was brightly decorated and filled with flowers. As I entered the place I could hear the beat of the drums, and the loud singing of the traditional and new songs typically played at engagement parties and other happy occasions. Everyone was wearing either evening gowns or special Kuwaiti traditional dresses called "dara'a", which have embroidery down the front and sleeves and can be extremely intricate. All the ladies wore beautiful makeup, and had their hair done up like princesses, and many were dancing in joy in the middle of the seated ones. I didn't think I had ever seen anything quite like it! This carried on for some time, when my friend came out, looking very beautiful and sat in a throne-like chair. At this "milcha" the groom was not going to be there, so no one would have to go and cover up again later (since in Islam is it required for ladies to cover up in front of men who are not their close relatives). Everyone continued to dance the whole time, until they were summoned into the yard, which was also decorated and had been filled with chairs and tables for people to sit at. A tent had been set up, although this was not a Bedouin family, still being a deep Kuwaiti tradition, and a lovely buffet had been set up inside the tent. We had a wonderful dinner and sat and chatted for a few hours. Some returned to the hall, where the dancing and celebrating continued, and my newly engaged friend was collected by her "husband" for an evening out on the town. (This, of course, was perfectly fine, since they were already legally married, although they would not go and live together until after the wedding). After having eaten their fill and danced up a storm the people slowly started to leave, and they all had smiles on their faces, each and every one of them. Goodhearted people do love it when others are happy!
The "khatabah that I visited, Um Talal can be contacted on: pager number: 9308168 or 6128430!