Weddings are a major part of Arab culture. With marriage being one of the key events in a person’s life, the wedding industry is huge in the Middle East.
Arab wedding traditions are a very interesting and versatile part of Arab culture. While there are differences from one country to another, there are certain customs that have passed down from generation to generation across the Arab world. Many Arab wedding traditions are rooted in Islam, but some are practiced by Arab Christians too.
In this article, I’m going to walk you through the most important traditions to get you ready for an Arab wedding, whether as a guest, bride or groom.
1. Dating vs. Matchmaking (Khatba)
Depending on which part of the world you’re from, you might know the concept of matchmaking. Although matchmaking is dying out in many parts of the Middle East, it still exists in some Arab countries.
Matchmakers in the Middle East are known as khatba. A matchmaker is usually an elderly woman who dedicates her time and connections to find a bride for a man looking to marry. It can be considered as some form of a “human dating app”. A family looking for a bride for their son often has a long list of requirements. In most cases, it’s not so much the groom-to-be, but his parents who are keen on finding a decent girl that matches their expectations.
While in the old days, matchmaking was almost the only way to find a prospect, it’s much less common these days. Very traditional and conservative families will still use a khatba, while many modern families believe in love marriage (the groom marrying a girl he fell in love with).
Despite all progress, dating in Arab culture is still very different when compared to Europe or the US. Arab dating will always almost involve the entire family (or at least the parents of both sides). Even when a couple meets at work or through friends, dating usually involves talking about marriage and meeting the family at an early stage. In Arab culture, it’s common for the couple to meet in public places (cafés, restaurants or with other people at one’s home). It’s very uncommon for young couples to spend intimate time together before marriage. Maintaining one’s virginity is still very much practiced today in the Middle East.
2. Asking Parents’ Permission (Tulba)
The tulba is the event in which the groom officially asks the bride’s parents for their permission to marry their daughter. Once the parents give their consent to the marriage, all attendees then proceed to recite surat al fatiha which is the opening surah in the Holy Quran. Following that, the two families enjoy tea and coffee with pastries. In many Levantine countries, that’s usually knafeh.
3. Visiting the Bride’s Home (Jaha)
Following the tulba (where the groom asks for the bride’s parents permission to marry), there comes a second round of visiting the bride’s home to seek permission. This time with the extended family (and sometimes close friends). This Arab wedding custom is called jaha.
In countries like Jordan, jaha is one of the most common wedding traditions that most people do. For jaha, the groom visits the bride’s home accompanied by men of his family to once again ask for her hand. The details (how many men are expected to be at the jaha) are usually agreed on during tulba. The more men attend the jaha, the higher the prestige. Interestingly, the word jaha translates to noble / prestige, which is certainly a reflection of this custom.
Once the proposal has been accepted, the bride’s family will offer coffee to all members of the groom’s family.
In Arab culture, it’s still very customary to have a formal engagement. The engagement follows the jaha and usually takes place in the form of a small party.
Traditionally, the bride receives a gift (usually gold) during the engagement. Nowadays, many families don’t give expensive gifts during the engagement anymore. Some grooms offer an engagement ring to their future bride, but no expensive jewelry. The main gift (dowry) is offered at a later stage during the wedding, which I’ll explain below.
During the period that follows the engagement, the couple gets to know each other better. In this modern era, the two partners spend as much time together as possible. With divorce being a no-no in Arab culture, the engagement period is an important time to make sure of one’s feelings and compatibility.
In the meantime, the parents will discuss the details of the marriage such as the wedding celebrations and the bride’s dowry.
By the way, it has become customary for an Arab bride and groom to exchange rings, same as in Western culture. Not every married man or woman chooses to wear a ring, but it has become widespread in Levantine countries (Jordan, Lebanon…).
5. Marriage Contract (Katb al Kitaab)
During the katb al kitaab, the marriage contract is officially signed by the bride and groom. A sheikh explains the stipulations of the marriage before the couple signs the contract. Signing the marriage contract is one of the most emotional moments of an Arab marriage.
Once the sheikh announces them legally husband and wife, zaghrouta (a high-pitched ululation) will fill the air as an expression of joy and celebration.
Conservative families will insist to have the marriage contract signed at the engagement already. This is because the marriage contract makes a couple legally and religiously husband and wife. Therefore, the groom can come to visit the bride’s home whenever he pleases.
6. Dowry (Mahr)
In Islam, the mahr is the dowry that the groom offers to his bride. It’s meant to provide the bride financial security in case of a divorce. Dowry isn’t just a cultural tradition, it’s considered a legal right for women in Islam and therefore mandatory at Islamic weddings.
The concept is similar to dowry in western culture. The difference is that instead of the gift being passed on from parents to their daughter, Middle Eastern dowry suggests that the bride receives it from her groom.
7. Henna Night
Henna night is a gathering that usually takes place at the bride’s home the night before the wedding. During this event, women from both the bride’s and groom’s families gather to celebrate. The elder women prepare a reddish dye known as henna to decorate the bride’s hands with. The women then celebrate by dancing and singing. Henna night is the equivalent to the bridal shower in Western culture.
8. Bride Pick Up (Fardeh)
The wedding celebrations start when the groom picks up his bride. He usually drives to her home in a fancy car beautifully decorated with flowers. He is accompanied by some family members and close friends, each in their own cars. This drive is called the fardeh and it’s a true celebration on its own. With loud music and a lot of honking along the drive, even strangers on the streets will wave to share the joy.
9. Arrival at the Wedding Venue (Zaffa)
Once the bride and groom arrive at the wedding venue, the so-called zaffa begins. Zaffa is a wedding parade with drums and bagpipes carried out by professional musicians. In many Levantine countries there will be dabke dancers or belly dancers to welcome the newly weds into the venue. The parade can last up to half an hour as the newlyweds’ families usually join in by singing and dancing around the couple. The bride entering the wedding venue is considered a very festive and emotional part of the celebration.
10. Food (Waleema)
The waleema or feast is considered one of the most important wedding traditions. It’s a meal that is served by the groom’s family to all wedding guests. The waleema can sometimes be held as a blessed religious ritual. Most people will serve a meal that has a special significance in that specific country. Remember, Middle Eastern food is very versatile and every region has their own dishes that have a deep cultural meaning. In Jordan, most families will serve Mansaf (Jordan’s national dish).
In addition to several main courses and plenty of mezze (small dishes), there will also be cake at a Middle Eastern wedding. In fact, cake cutting is a custom that Western and Arab cultures have in common. At a Middle Eastern wedding, the cake cutting is traditionally done using a large sword. In some cases, this sword is passed down generations in the groom’s family.
11. Wedding Celebrations
In Arab culture, weddings are considered one of the most special occasions in a person’s life. Weddings are usually celebrated with several hundreds of guests. Both the bride and groom invite their entire family, friends, colleagues, neighbors…
The actual wedding festivities have changed a lot during the years. These days, weddings take place in special venues such as ballrooms or large hotels. Weddings usually happen on a Friday. They can last one or several days.
What’s good to know is that some Arab weddings may be completely gender segregated with the women in one room and the men in a different room. Some choose to separate the genders by tables, others have them in different rooms but are allowed to come for certain parts of the wedding. At some weddings, all guests (both genders) attend the wedding at the same location with no segregation at all. It all depends on the family, their religious views and cultural background.
The wedding celebration can continue very late into the night with lots of dancing and loud music. The couple will usually spend their first night together either at their new home or at the hotel where the wedding is held.
12. Breakfast after the Wedding (Sabahia)
The morning right after the wedding, the groom’s mother will usually visit her son and his new bride. She will bring the sabahia which is a lavish breakfast prepared by her for the newlyweds. In the evening, it’s the bride’s mother’s turn to visit the newlyweds and bring along desserts. In some Arab countries it’s customary for the bride to receive gifts (usually gold jewelry) from her family as well as her in-laws during sabahia.
Questions or Feedback?
Have you ever been to an Arab wedding? What are some important wedding traditions in your country? Share your opinion or questions with me and other readers by leaving a comment in the comment section down the page. I’d love to hear from you!