No matter what traditions, religious beliefs, ceremony is involved there is, at its heart, a conjugation as ancient as civilisation.
I was in Italy last year, visiting a beautiful abbey church, when a bride arrived for her wedding. In England, the protocol is that all guests should be in the church before the bride arrives, but even while the bride lifted her dress as she hurried up the steps of the church -- lovely to see such impatience! -- the guests were milling around inside and outside the church, mingling with visitors while everyone applauded her arrival, applauding her as she walked up the aisle to where her husband to be was waiting for her. She was the star of the day and was treated as such. It was informal, slightly chaotic, utterly delightful.
When writing CHOSEN AS THE SHEIKH’S WIFE, I read a wonderful book, Mother Without a Mask: A Westerner's Story of Her Arab Family written by, Patricia Holton, an Englishwoman who gave a home to a young sheikh while he was studying in England. She spent much time with him and his family in Abu Dhabi and when the young man married, he sent for her to help him prepare the house he’d designed and had built for his bride, anxious that it should be quite perfect in every way. (He also had her bake the kind of rich fruit cake that is the traditional British “wedding cake”!)
Her description of wedding preparations was like something out of 1001 Arabian Nights. The dowry for the bride needed a fleet of lorries to transport it and the sets of jewels for the bride were worth a king’s ransom. Tribes gathered from all across the desert to set up camp outside the bride’s family home for the weeks of celebration.
Inside the bride’s home her family, friends, honoured guests – all women -- gathered in their finest clothes, talked, feasted, while the bride herself remained in an inner sanctum, wrapped in black veils, in utter seclusion.
But it was the excitement of the young man who was marrying a girl he hadn’t seen since childhood that was supremely touching, as was his care and concern for her after he had fought his way into the house to claim his desperately young bride. Once the marriage had been consummated, the bride was, for seven days, displayed wearing a fabulous bridal cap (pure gold and weighing many pounds), each day donning a different gown – seven wedding dresses! -- so that all the women of her tribe could see her and marvel at how much her new husband treasured her. Seeing how tired she was, her -- equally young -- husband summarily dismissed them all so that she could rest.
Alien as the concept of an arranged marriage is to modern western eyes, it was impossible to doubt that these two young people were truly a “match”.
Here, in CHOSEN AS THE SHEIKH’S WIFE, Sheikh Fayad explains these rituals to Violet Hamilton.
‘First the engagement jewels are sent. Not just a ring, but a matching set of bracelets, necklace, earrings in stones chosen by the groom’s mother to perfectly complement his bride. At the same time the groom prepares a house for her, furnishing it with the best he can afford. And the dowry is gathered – gold, jewellery, bolts of every kind of cloth, carpets, money, all designed to demonstrate his ability to provide for her – ready to be delivered to the bride’s home to be displayed at the maksar. The formal gathering of women to celebrate the marriage, although the bride herself will not take part in that.’
Violet, who had been thinking it all sounded rather cold, began to see it from a different point of view. Began to imagine the trembling excitement of a secluded virgin bride as the day grew nearer. As her groom’s dowry gifts arrived proving to the world, her family, to her, just how much he valued her, wanted her above all other women.
‘There is more than one way to rouse the passions,’ she said.
‘Her weight in gold?’
Her eyes widened at the idea of just how much that would be worth, but then she shook her head. ‘No. It’s not the gold. It’s what it represents,’ she said. And Sheikh Fayad responded with a look of admiration for her understanding. A look that sent her own heart spinning up into her mouth, that suggested passion would not be in short supply for the woman who won his heart.
Drawn in, totally fascinated, she said, ‘Tell me about the wedding.’
‘When everything is ready, there will be a vast celebration. In the old days tribes would come in from desert and set up camp and the feasting would go on for weeks until finally the time comes for the groom to demand entrance to the bride’s home, fight his way through her family to claim his bride who will be waiting, wrapped in layer upon layer of veils, sitting on a white sheet.’
Even as he described the scene her heart rate was spiralling out of control and she only managed to hold back the exclamation that sprung to her lips by holding her hand over her mouth. Cold? No way…
‘Is something wrong?’ Sheikh Fayad asked.
‘No,’ she managed, resisting the urge to fan her cheeks at the thought of him removing layer after layer of veils, unwrapping her… ‘I’m fine. Really,’ she said, when he reached forward, poured her a glass of iced water that seemed to evaporate on her tongue. ‘You did this? When you married?’
He didn’t immediately answer and she back-peddled, madly. ‘Oh, lord, please forget I asked that. I can’t believe I was so rude. I didn’t mean --’
‘The bride is expected to fight, too. To bite and kick, protect her virtue with all her strength so that her husband will respect her.’
‘And do they?’
Did Hasna fight? she wondered. Could she have looked at this beautiful man and not have fallen instantly and whole-heartedly in love with him? Could any woman?
And if, because his respect would be something unbelievably precious, she fought him with ever fibre of her being, how did he overwhelm her?
Even as the question welled up in her mind, she knew the answer. She’d lashed out him this morning, angry, hurting and he’d sat with her on her grandmother’s bed, just holding her, taking the blows, whispering soft words of comfort, his lips against her hair, her temple, gentling her, calming her. In her head she saw how that scene might eventually unfold with his bride. There would be no force, but patience, a soft voice, quiet kisses, caresses that would open her to him as a flower opens to the light and warmth of the sun.
And she understood exactly what he’d meant when he’d said that he’d done “much more”. It wasn’t the fact that he’d kissed her. His kiss had been the least of it…
She swallowed, took another sip of water. And in a desperate attempt to blot out what was happening in her head she said, ‘Having showered her with jewels, fought her entire family the groom then has to overcome his bride, too? He doesn’t exactly get it easy, does he?’
Making light of it.
He smiled. ‘Interesting. I had assumed your sympathies would be with the bride.’
‘Oh, please,’ she said, quickly. ‘It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that this is a well-thought out strategy to overcome those initial awkward moments.’ Then, ‘I imagine any bride worth her weight in gold knows exactly the right moment to go all weak and swoony.’
To surrender to his strength, his power and in doing so, claim it for her own.
* * *
100 Arabian Nights containing not just Chosen As the Sheikh’s Wife, but stories by Meredith Webber and Kim Lawrence is now on sale in the UK in June (no news on a US release as yet) as part of the Centenary Celebrations of Mills & Boon.
I have a copy to give away. For a chance to win, share your own special wedding traditions or memories.