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Charles James Wills:

A Persian Wedding, 1885

LOVE at first sight is unusual in a country where the women are habitually veiled, and a glimpse even of a lady's face is seldom to be got, save by stratagem or by what is considered immodest---the raising of the corner of her veil by the lady herself. Shrouded as she is from head to foot in an immense sheet of blue, two yards square, a yet further precaution must be taken. Over all this is placed a ruh-band or veil---no transparent or flimsy device, as in our own lace "fall," or the thin and gauzy yashmak of the Turkish belle, serviceable alike to triumphant and to fading beauty. The ruh-band is a piece of white calico or cambric, a yard long, which hangs down like a long mask in front of the Persian woman's face, when clad in her hideous and purposely unbecoming outdoor costume: which costume, sad to say, is also an impenetrable disguise. In it all women are alike. An aperture four inches long, running transversely across the eyes, enables the Persian lady to see her way, and little more; for even this aperture is covered by elaborate and curious embroidery, between the threads of which she can only peep. But the Persian belle will yet find a way of rewarding an admirer with a glance, and thus the marriages so carefully brought about by parents and relatives are not infrequently the result of predilections slyly manifested. The outdoor dress, being a disguise, cuts both ways; and the intrigante amuses herself with impunity.

Certain marriages take place because in the eyes of the Orientals they are natural ones, such as the union of first cousins. The children have been like brother and sister from the cradle, and they are married as a matter of course; it is their fate, and they submit to it. But outside these marriages of custom, and far more numerous than the marriages of predilection to which we have referred are the marriages usually arranged by "brokers." These brokers are old women, who always keep themselves in a position to quote the state of the marriage-market, which fluctuates. In hard times, even girls of good appearance are comparatively a drug. In time of plenty, they " rule firm." The marriage-broker is ever a welcome guest where there are daughters to marry, and also in houses where the sons wish to find a suitable bride. The young people are not consulted by the broker. She deals with the parents, and generally with the mothers. Crafty as a horse-dealer, she runs glibly over the various advantages, mental, physical, and pecuniary, of her clientele of both sexes. So-and-so is a steady, quiet man. Such-an-one has brilliant prospects---has (important consideration!) no other wife. As for Yusuf, how good-looking he is! And Hassan, no man was ever so good-tempered. Of the other sex she sings the praises no less. The skill of Bebe as a housekeeper, the wealth of the ugly daughter of the banker, the dangerous charms of the portionless Zuleika, she can never say too much about. Her main business is to bargain for the sum to be paid to the father for his daughters hand; a sum which is usually expended by that father in pots and pans (all of copper) and other utensils, which he presents to his child as her separate property. The details being settled after much haggling, the young people are engaged, and the marriage-broker gets her commission from both the parents of the bride-groom and those of the bride-elect. Among the poor and laboring classes the bargain is arranged on other grounds. The peasant takes a wife for her thews and sinews, or her skill at weaving carpets or making cheese; while the bridegroom is or is not eligible according as he may be capable of hard work, or may hold some small office, or have a bit of land or a shop. Here the marriage-broker is generally an amateur, who conducts the negotiations purely from that love of match-making which is such a blessing to the world.

The akd, or marriage contract, is simply a legal form; but it is marriage and not betrothal. A few friends are invited; the bride---perhaps a child of ten---is seated in a room with her parents and relations; over the door hangs the usual curtain. Or, if the ceremony takes place in one room or in the open air, the women are all veiled. At the other side of the curtain, in an outer room or in the open air, are the male guests; and here squats the mullah or priest of the quarter, who now drones out in a monotonous voice the marriage contract, which has been previously drawn up by him. "It is agreed between Hassan the draper, who is vakeel [agent] for Houssein the son of the baker, that he, Houssein, hereby acknowledges the receipt of the portion of Nissa the daughter of Ahkmet the grocer." Here follows a list of the property of the bride in lands, money, houses, cattle, dresses, furniture, carpets, pots, pans, and so on. Always a copy of the Qur’an and a certain weight of sewing-silk are mentioned. This detailed account of her property, constituting the woman's separate estate, her husband merely holds in trust during their life together. At death or divorce it goes back again to herself or her heirs. And it is this mehr, or separate estate, that renders secure the otherwise precarious position of the Eastern wife in a polygamous country; for the various things enumerated, though acknowledged by the husband as received, may only exist on paper. Still, he has acknowledged them; and if he wish to put away his wife, or if they separate by consent, he is bound to refund the mehr of which he has legally acknowledged the receipt, or to obtain her legal discharge for the same. "And," continues the mullah, "he acknowledges the receipt of the aforesaid mehr." Then follows a hum of delight at the extent of the lady's property. "You, Hassan, how do you say as vakeel for Houssein---is this so?" --- "Yes, yes, I agree," mumbles Hassan. "And you, Ahkmet, do you give your daughter, Lady Nissa, to be the wife of Lord Houssein?" " Yes, yes, I agree," replies Akhmet the grocer. "And you, Lady Nissa, are you there?" "Yes, yes, she is here, mullah," replies a chorus of women from behind the curtain. "And you agree, Lady Nissa?" Here there is a giggle from the child-bride. "Yes, yes, she agrees," comes in a triumphant chorus from the women. " Then," says the mullah solemnly, "in the name of God the compassionate, the merciful, and of Mohammed the prophet of God, I declare you, Lord Houssein, and you, Lady Nissa, to be man and wife." Here the mullah puts his stamp of seal to the document: the various parties seal it too, it is carefully witnessed, and formally completed. The mullah receives his fee of a few shillings; and then, and not till then, he hands over the document---her settlement and "marriage-lines" in one---to the agent of the bride or to her father.

The legal ceremony is over; the young people are married fast, fast as the Mohammedan law can bind. And, theoretically, as yet they have never seen each other's face. But really Houssein has had many a glimpse of the fair Nissa: her mother has often allowed him to see her child from behind a curtain or a cupboard door. All this is understood. And the young people are now legally married. The wedding, as distinct from the espousals, may take place the same evening, in a week, a month, or not for years, according to the age, rank, or circumstances of the bride and bridegroom. Men and women feast separately; and after many water-pipes have been smoked, many pounds of sweetmeats consumed, and a plentiful banquet has been disposed of, the guests separate. All promise to be present at the actual wedding. No music, no rejoicings---nothing but what we have described is seen at the ceremony we have detailed.

From an early hour in the morning of an arusee or wedding---I speak of a wedding in the middle ranks of life---there has been considerable bustle in the house of the bride's father. The house has been literally swept and garnished. Carpets have been borrowed, and rooms that at other times are unused and empty are now furnished and decorated with flowers. The poor are standing in a crowd at the outer door, sure of being plentifully regaled. The outer court has been got ready for the men. Vases of flowers are placed in rows at all the open windows, and in every recess thirty or forty pounds of tobacco have been prepared by pounding and moistening for smoking; the courtyard is freshly watered. If it be a calm day---and spring and summer days in Persia are always free from wind---rose-leaves are sprinkled on the surface of the water of the raised tank in the center of the courtyard, so as to form the word "Bismillah" [in the name of God], the pious welcome of the Mussulman. Similar preparations, but on a larger scale, have been made in the anderun, that hand somer and larger courtyard which contains the women's quarters. In this courtyard the Negresses may be seen busily engaged in the kitchen preparing the breakfast for perhaps a hundred guests; and the visitors will stop all day, only leaving to escort the bride to the home of her new husband, whither she will go after dark. Large samovars, or Russian urns, which are in use in every Persian house, are hissing like small steam-engines, ready to furnish tea for the guests on their arrival: not our idea of tea, but a pale infusion sweetened to the consistency of syrup, from the center of each cup of which will project a little island of superfluous sugar. The sherbet-dar, too, is preparing in his own especial den immense quantities of ices and sherbets; and these ices will be served from china bowls, and each ice will be the size and shape of a fair-sized sugar-loaf. As for the sherbets (delicately scented and sweetened fruit-syrups dissolved in water, and with lumps of ice floating in the clear and various colored fluids), they will be supplied in gallons. Orange sherbet, lemon, pomegranate, rosewater, cherry, quince, and an endless further variety of these refreshing drinks will be offered to the thirsty guests. And now come the musicians in two bands, the Mussulmans', and the Jews'; the latter a ragged and motley crew, but more skillful than their better-clad rivals. They carry with them their strange Old-World instruments, and soon establish themselves in a corner of either courtyard. They, too, partake of tea, and then they prepare to strike up. Noticeable among the Mussulman musicians is the dohol player and his instrument. It is a species of big drum, only used at weddings; and, once heard, the awful resonant roar it makes can never be forgotten.

All is ready; the master of the house, dressed in his best, gives a last anxious glance at the preparations, and has an excited discussion with his wife or wives. He waves his hand to the musicians, and hurries to a seat near the door, to be ready to welcome his guests; the music strikes up a merry tune (it is really an air---barbaric, but inspiriting); the tremendous din of the dohol is heard at intervals. Then in a loud scream rises the voice of the principal solo singer, who commences one of the sad love-songs of Persia in a high falsetto voice. His face reddens with his exertions, which last through a dozen verses. His eyes nearly start from his head, the muscles of his neck stand out like ropes; but he keeps correct time on the big tambourine, which he plays with consummate skill. The rest of the musicians watch his every movement, and all join in the chorus of "Ah! Leila, Leila, you have made roast meat of my heart!" The music is the signal to the invited guests; they now commence to arrive in crowds. The music and singing proceed, and go on unceasingly till the bride leaves for her husband's home some ten hours after the artists begin. As the guests pour in, the host receives them with transports of pleasure---all the extravagant compliments of Eastern politeness pass between them. "May your wedding be fortunate!" "You are, indeed, welcome; this is a never-to-be-forgotten honor to me, your slave!" In they pour, the men in their best; the women, closely veiled, pass on unnoticed by the men into the anderun, where they unveil and appear to their delighted hostesses in their finest clothes and all their jewelry; and, we are sorry to add, in most cases with their faces carefully painted. As the dresses worn among Persian ladies for indoor use only reach to the knee and are very much bouffé, their wearers look like opera dancers. The ladies' feet and legs are bare, as a rule; a gauze shirt of gay color and a tiny zouave jacket daintily embroidered with gold lace on velvet or on satin are worn, while the head is decorated with a large kerchief of silk or gauze, elaborately embroidered with gold thread. From beneath this kerchief the hair falls in innumerable plaits behind, sometimes reaching almost to the ground. The colors of their clothes are of the brightest---pinks, greens, yellows, starlets, crimsons, blues. The quantity of solid jewelry worn in honor of the bride is prodigious.

Every one takes tea, every one crunches the sweets of various kinds which are piled on china dishes in huge trays in the center of the rooms. Several hundredweight of confectionery---not food, but "sweets"----are thus consumed. Conversation goes on, pipes are smoked by both men and women. Messages pass between the two courtyards. But the men remain in their quarters, and the women in theirs. The musicians and buffoons are allowed, however, in the women's court on these occasions: they are supposed to be mere professional persons, and on this account are tolerated. At noon a heavy breakfast is served. If there be two hundred guests, there is meat for them and for, say, four hundred servants and.hangers-on, while what remains, a still larger portion, is given to the poor.

Lutis or buffoons now bring their performing monkeys or bears---often a miserable and half-starved lion cowed by much beating. They dance, they sing songs, indecent enough in themselves, but tolerated in the East on such occasions. More tea, more ices, more sherbet, more sweets. Pipes without number pass from hand to hand, but no strong drink; that is never seen or tasted, save by the musicians and buffoons, who as the day wanes are freely supplied. The bride meanwhile goes to the bath, whither she is accompanied by many of the ladies, the friends and near relatives of the family.

Dinner is served on the same lavish scale as the breakfast. Fowls by the hundred, boiled to rags, under piles of various-colored rice; lambs roasted whole, or boiled in fragments; mutton in savory stews; game and venison hot on the spit; kababs and pilaws of endless variety; soups, sweets, fruit in profusion: all this is served with the lavishness of true Oriental hospitality.

And now there is a hum of suspense. It is night; and the whole place is lighted up by lamps, candles in shades, and lanterns. A noise of a distant crowd is heard; alms in money are freely distributed among the crowd of beggars and poor at the door; horses are brought for the bride and her friends. The procession of the bride groom is approaching: and it must be understood that another grand party has been going on at his father's house. The musicians play and sing their loudest: the roofs (the flat roofs of the East) are thronged by all the women and children of the quarter. The bridegroom and his friends arrive, and are welcomed by the women with a peculiar echoing cry of "Kel lel lel," produced by tapping the cheeks. Then the bride appears, carefully veiled in a huge sheet of pink and spangled muslin. She goes to the door and mounts a gayly-caparisoned horse. All the male guests join the procession. Lighted cressets full of blazing embers are carried on high poles to lead and light the way. The lanterns of all the guests are lighted and borne in this procession, which joyfully wends its way through a cheering crowd. At the moment the bride leaves her father's house a shout of "Kel lel lel" announces the fact. Fireworks blaze, the music is deafening, above all is heard the monotonous banging of the wedding drum. And so, the buffoons and musicians leading the way, the procession slowly moves on. As it approaches the house of the bridegroom several sheep are sacrificed in honor of the bride; they are slain at her feet as she steps over her husband's threshold for the first time, accompanied by a female friend or two. Then, invoking blessings on the pair, all wend their way home, and the festival is over.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 411-420.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.

This text is part of the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November1998

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