Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday, April 20, 2013 - 2 comments

Hennaed Hands and Houses in the High Hills (Wedding Part 1)


I don’t normally shoot weddings. Okay, I avoid it at all costs.  It’s mostly out of a preference for photographing inanimate objects, a hatred of the pressure (after all, you only get married once, inshallah) and a feeling of general terror with regards to using my external flash.  But when the request came for this one, I was intrigued.  

Friends of a friend, Nurcan* and Murat* (not their real names) have been in love for ten years, kept apart by feuding families and a not-always-just justice system.  When Murat, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial, was released on false charges last month, they decided not to wait a day longer than they had to, and friends and relatives threw a (rather impressive) wedding together in a matter of two weeks.

A few days before the big event, sitting on the floor of her apartment over dinner, our common friend Ipek* filled my roommate and I in on the plans.

“Have you ever been to one of our weddings?” she asked.  We hadn’t.  “It’s way more fun than a Turkish wedding.  The music is better, the dancing is better - everything’s better.”

“Sometimes things get a little out of control,” interjected Ipek’s roommate Kadriye*.  “Usually at least one fight breaks out.  But it’s nothing to worry about, really.”

My thoughts drifting to the Mardin wedding massacre of 2009, I hoped she was right.

“It’s not going to be anything big,” Ipek continued.  “Just ‘bizimkiler’.”  (“Our group.”)  “We’re not going to do a düğün (wedding party) - just a kına gecesi (henna party) with lots of dancing and then the nikah (official wedding ceremony) at city hall the next day.  Their family situation is....complicated...so we’re putting the whole thing on.”  

It turned out “putting the whole thing on” meant setting up the couple’s new apartment, too.  

“The bedroom set arrived today and the kitchen is coming tomorrow.  You’ll have to come see it when this is all done.  Nurcan is from Mardin - she’ll make you some great food.”

When the yer sofrası (tablecloth for eating on the floor) had been shaken off the balcony and the tea served (“kaçak” - illegally imported - of course...none of that Turkish stuff!) the conversation turned to who was going to wear what, followed by an impromptu fashion show.  And, oh, the sequins that emerged from the closet!

When I confessed that weddings here make me nervous because I’m hopeless when it comes to the fancy footwork that goes into the traditional dances, this prompted a little living room dance lesson.  In no time, Ipek had found some wedding music videos in their mother tongue on YouTube and, linking pinkies all in a row, we clumsily attempted to follow them in the şemame and delilo.  

Having danced these dances at every wedding since they were in elementary school, it took the girls awhile to figure out how to break the steps down for us inexperienced yabancılar (foreigners), but eventually they got the hang of it and so did we.

Bir, iki, üç, dört! Bir, iki, üç, dört!  Relax your arms and don’t squeeze my finger so tight!  Careful of the tea pot.  That’s it!  Now, faster!”

It’s a miracle there was no broomstick-on-the-ceiling from the downstairs neighbours.  

Round and round we went, and when we could do it without looking at our feet, our teachers applauded with delight.  When it came to the çiftetelli - freestyle involving snapping and a whole lot of hip wiggling - I was pretty hopeless, but since I knew I’d be behind the camera most of the night anyway, I wasn’t too concerned.  

I left that night sweaty and giddy, armed with two borrowed sparkly tops and a new set of dance skills.  A pair of glittery blue flats I bought for 15 lira downtown completed the ensemble.  Now all I had to do was become friends with my flash.

In my experience, most henna parties take place the night before the wedding in the bride’s home with her close friends as well as female relatives from both her family and the groom’s.  This henna party was something else altogether.  “Bizimkiler” turned out to be more than a hundred people all crammed into the street in front of the bride’s house and the empty lot beside it.  

Plastic chairs were set up in a circle, the groom’s side commandeering three quarters of the lot while the bride’s relatives and a contingent of curious neighbours out for some free Friday night entertainment camped out in chairs on the end in front of the market.  The groom’s side, most of whom I knew, were all eager to have their pictures taken and they made sure I didn’t miss capturing a single sparkly dress or slicked back hairdo.  When I approached the bride’s side, however, I was met with clucking tongues and turned-away heads from the women, most of whom were covered.  They probably thought I was a curious tourist excited to have stumbled upon a wedding.  As if any tourist could have ever found that neighbourhood.

A live band had set up on the cement platform in front of the electrical boxes, and within minutes of our arrival, the speakers were threatening to render us deaf.  Conversation clearly impossible at this point, people started to take to the dance “floor.”  There was a group of five at first, all related, pinkies linked, moving their feet in a definite but almost imperceptible pattern as they slowly snaked their way counter-clockwise around the lot.  One by one, new people jumped in, either taking their place between two dancers or taking over the waving of the mendil (handkerchief) from the person at the end of the line.

It quickly became clear that we had a professional dancer among us.  While the movements and facial expressions of many of those dancing were indifferent, bored even, the middle-aged man at the head of the line was in his element, giving himself completely to the dance and playing to the crowd.  The way he moved his body was amazing.  Sometimes it looked like he was a puppet who suddenly had his strings jerked and he’d go flying, like there was a shot of electricity moving through him, causing him to jump like a piece of bacon.  Every so often, Mr. Folk Dancer was apparently overcome by the music and he’d break away from the line and move into the spotlight for a solo dance, swooping like a bird with his wings spread and then changing direction rapidly, dancing into the camera or egging on the band.  Another man would come and toss American dollar bills in the air over his head, sending all the kids scrambling in to collect the money, often resulting in fistfights and tears.  I found the whole thing to be a little much, but all night people kept asking me, “Are you getting shots of the guy at the head?  He’s a real dancer.  Isn’t he amazing?”


As more cars arrived, the line grew longer and the band sweatier, the music pausing only for the call to prayer.  Women occasionally grabbed the microphone to ululate, eliciting cheers from the crowd.  I jumped in for a spell, trying to keep up as my feet found the rhythm they’d learned a few nights before.  How all those women managed to dance in high heels without twisting their ankles on the stony ground, I’ll never know.  



Scanning the line, it seemed to me that any time a guy and girl were dancing next to each other, they were related.  Once, when the woman beside me pulled out, I ended up next to a guy I didn’t know.  We didn’t even make it a quarter of the way around the circle before one of my friends stepped in between us, giving the guy a look of death made all the more intense by her sparkly blue eyeshadow.  

Most of the women wore evening gowns, with little jackets invariably covering their shoulders.  Those in headscarves work the extra shiny kind, and the not-so-conservative ones had clearly all spent hours at the kuaför having their hair straightened or styled into elaborate up-dos.  The littlest girls pranced around in satin dresses or Ottoman costumes with “genie pants” and jeweled headbands, clearly excited about the chance to wear lipstick.  


Nurcan, the dazzling bride, wore a cream-coloured bindalı that reminded me of Princess Jasmine’s clothes in Aladdin.  It had a sleeveless satin bodice with large gold flowers embroidered along the edges and tiny droplets down the middle.  A matching piece of fabric formed a half-skirt the split down the front to reveal a pair of billowy pants that tapered towards the ankle, also fringed with gold.  Another sheath of satin extended from the back and was attached to jeweled wristbands, making for quite the elegant effect when she raised her gold-bangled arms to dance. She was crowned with a crystal-studded headband with a droplet gracing her forehead, her long dark curls cascading freely.


She and Murat danced some, but spent the majority of the evening receiving congratulations and having their photos taken at a table on the side.  All the little girls seemed to have hero-crushes on  Murat, draping their arms around his shoulders and fighting to hold his hand, and the boys were always looking for a chance to climb on his lap.  Most of them would’ve been too small to remember him before he went to jail, but clearly he was legendary in their eyes.

A tray of çay made the rounds about halfway through the night, though it only ever made it to the men.  Women passed around little baggies of nuts and sunflower seeds, which quelled my hunger but made me wish desperately for water.  

Several hours in, it was time for the main event:  the lighting of the henna.  All the younger women as well as several prominent older ones formed a tunnel, holding high lacy baskets and makeshift tin foil holders full of the creamy green henna paste, each with a candle in the centre.  Nurcan with a red veil over her face and Murat looking solemn, the bride and groom made their way under this glowing canopy amidst cheers and tongue trilling and then sat at a table in the middle of the lot.  


The girls pressed in close and moved in a slow circle around the couple as the band played “Hine Binin” - “Bring the henna” in their language.  When they switched to a canned version of the Turkish “Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere,” the kids belted it out like they were at a pop concert.

“Yüksek yüksek tepelere ev kurmasınlar
Asrı asrı memlekete kız vermesinler”

“Don’t let them build me a house high in the hills
Don’t let them send the bride to a far away country.....”

The song was meant to go on until the bride had shed tears over leaving her family’s home.  I think Nurcan was too happy to have her love out from behind bars to cry all that much, but she managed to squeeze out a few.  With Ipek’s mother standing in for Murat’s, who wasn’t present, the mothers pressed a blob of henna into Nurcan’s palm, with a coin in the centre for good luck.  They dipped Murat’s pinky into the mix, too, and then placed lacy red pouches over the Nurcan’s hennaed hands and a red ribbon around Murat’s finger to let the colour set overnight, the orangey dye marking them as sacrificing their lives to each other and their new families.


Next, a red sash was draped across Nurcan’s shoulders, and a white one across Murat’s, and the time for giving of gifts was announced.  No blenders or barbecue utensils - that’s for the families to take care of.  Gifts at weddings here are all cash and gold. Starting with the groom’s side, couples or individuals came up and pinned their gifts onto the sashes while the gift and giver were announced over the loudspeaker:  the groom’s Uncle so-and-so, one hundred lira; groom’s aunt’s sister, a gold bracelet;  bride’s father’s cousin, fifty American dollars.  No being a cheapskate here without risking public shame!

When it was the bride’s side’s turn, the announcer switched to their language.  After every name, he’d say a phrase that, literally translated, meant “Your house was flooded,” meaning “May blessing come on your house for your generosity.”  The bride didn’t smile much as the weight of her sash increased, but I did catch the groom counting a wad of bills on the side.  I suppose it’s bad form to look too excited about how much you’ve raked in!


The final event was the “çiftetelli” dance.  This was met with whoops and giggles from the girls, who eagerly jumped up and formed a circle around the bride, hips wiggling and fingers snapping in the air.  The group of men dancing around the groom were more subdued, clearly more comfortable with line dancing, though there were definitely a few talented ones in the bunch.  Different people took turns dancing in the middle while the others clapped around them, and then the bride and groom’s first dance was announced.

Seemingly out of nowhere, cannisters were produced and set up around the perimeter, shooting out waterfalls of white sparks that encircled the couple as they slow danced awkwardly, talking a little but not looking each other in the eye.  When we’d had our fill of gawking at them, more couples moved in to join them - husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, and pairs of women when there weren’t enough partners to go around.  This went on for about fifteen minutes, and I couldn’t help but think they were all much better at their traditional dances than the dispassionate semblance of a waltz with which the evening finished.



I don’t think there’s such a thing as a noise bylaw here, but the party wrapped up at a respectable hour, with the bride’s mother urging her to hurry up and quit posing for photos so she could head home and get some rest before the wedding ceremony the next day.  But it was her last night at home before her groom would take her away to their "house high in the hills" (or, rather, a high rise downtown) and, judging by the swarm of relatives streaming into her mother's house, I didn't think there'd be a whole lot of sleeping going on there that night....

(Stay tuned for Part Two:  The Wedding Day)

2 comments:

Great pictures Jamie!! And writing, you definitely caught some of the uniqueness of the weddings here! But I wonder what Mr. Folk dance would say about you liking him with bacon ;)

Ha! How about "sizzling like sucuk"? Ooh, or pastırma. I had a burger with "dana bacon" on it yesterday - nearly the same thing, minus the pig! :)