Brides of Tripoli, Libya

The old Western maxim “Isn’t it every little girl’s dream to get married and have a big white wedding?” will not cause many heads to nod today. Rather, it would bring an accusation of being politically incorrect. At least in the case of the Western girl, she doesn’t need to get married to have a relationship with a man or to live with one outside of holy wedlock.

Western culture allows for love affairs, non-married sexual fulfilment and a freedom to design whichever living or family arrangement that suits you. So the mainly social purpose for a wedding doesn’t exist. Though many choose to go down the aisle, it is more for the aesthetic and symbolic religious or legal reasons. 

It is not far off the mark though to vouch for the truth of this little proverb for every little Libyan girl’s dream, thai is still to get married and have a traditional wedding. In a culture where romantic relationships outside wedlock are heavily frowned upon and where it is taboo to live with someone other than your husband, marriage is the only acceptable route to a relationship and to leave your father’s house to create one of your own.

Libyan girls tend to spend lots of time fantasising about this big day when their handsome beau comes forward to whisk them off their feet - away from the innocence and simplicity they possess in their parents’ home. For the wedding, each girl is aware how it reflects on her style, taste and character and is a statement of her family’s wealth, position and status in the society.

In Libya, most of the socialising is around weddings. In a country where you can’t find a theatre, a museum or a gallery to show local art and sensibilities, weddings provide the best form of entertainment and give an extraordinary insight into the people and what they hold precious and dear.

My Sister

Honestly, I never expected that my sister, after all the years we’ve been living outside of Libya, would end up performing the exact rituals of the girls back home. Although she will disagree with me, part of her deep down did wish to experience the classic Libyan courtship and to wed to a countryman.

My sister, who is feisty, independent and career minded, at first did attempt many ways of meeting single eligible Arab men in London. She had her fair share of blind dates, went to social functions over the years and even tried an Arab- dating websites to meet the one. 

Unfortunately, in her quest, she met a number of men who, as an Arab woman living in the West, you have to learn to spot and avoid as they only waste your time. The usual suspects are: the Arab male who is only after your British passport, the Arab player who is afraid of commitment but still pretends to want a real relationship, the Arab married man who just wants to flirt on the web, the Arab homosexual who is being forced by family to seek a wife and the many others falsely parading as genuine potentials. In the end, she gave up hope and believed she might as well die a spinster.

Until last Summer. My older brother, knowing she was disheartened, was extra gentle in suggesting she takes just the one last chance and meet one of his friends. This man was of a suitable age for her, comes from a respected family background, is friendly, honest and with a warm personality. He was truly willing to meet and marry the right girl.

The only but was that he lives in Tripoli, Libya and has no desire to leave for the foreseeable future. Although Western educated, his job is in Libya and he loves there. So if anything was to happen, my sister would have to relocate to be with him. 

At this point, I thought she would decline to meet him. Her career is based in Europe, her friends all live outside Libya and, in many ways, it would be difficult for her to adapt, after all these years, to the very conservative ways of our native country and people. But instead, she promised my brother to have a think about it or sleep over it and decide next morning. 

She woke up on the telling side of the bed and agreed to exchange her mobile number. To cut a long story short, when they spoke, she realized they had very much in common and agreed to see him. When they met, respect, affection and love were planted and within days, they announced their engagement. 

For me, it all felt surreal. I never thought my sister would return to Libya to set up her own home or that we would all have to go back to meet a future brother-in-law. The greatest surprise of all was that my sister, with my mother’s encouragement and incredible excitement - that at last one of her two very stubborn daughters was finally getting hitched in the way she had hoped for and prayed for years - agreed to have the whole shebang of a big traditional Tripolitanian wedding - beginning with the model proposal.

The Model Proposal

In Libya, the young male is incumbent and “ready for marriage” after he’s finished with university education or vocational training and has a stable job or source of income. It is time and unless he’s already got his eyes and heart set on a girl from work or college, he will turn to his female relatives to ask for advice and their choice of girls who are suited for a marriage proposal.

It is normal if he has specific wishes or desirable qualities in the girl he would like to meet. For instance, he may want her to be wearing the hijab or that she of of a certain age or look. Thus armed with this information, the mother, sisters and the aunties will begin the search in earnest. Not ironically, it will be at other weddings where they will find the girls. 

Every Libyan girl is also aware that if she wants to be considered, that she’ll have to attend these parties to be seen and discovered. If word is out that a particular eligible young man from a respectable family is looking, the competition, to say the least, can be fierce as the girls and their mothers will do their utmost to be in the running.

Unfortunately, when it is just the ladies involved, there is a tremendous pressure on the girls to appear just right for the picking and that they be young, pretty, healthy, shy, modest and innocent. This means they should not dress too provocatively in an all-female setting and that they don’t do something stupid, like dancing too wildly, lest they be branded unruly, untamed and so unsuitable.

When a girl is recognised for her distinct beauty or attractive demeanour, next is to ask about her family to ensure they are of good reputable stock. After this check, the next stage is to ask her family if she is open and willing to communicate with the boy. If there is interest, a meeting is arranged for the two hopefuls. 

On average, it takes no more than three chaperoned dates to decide whether or not the two like each other. In more recent years, with the advent of technology, the two can also get to know each other by speaking privately through mobile phones, texts, chatting, emails and even Skype!

Next, as the Libyans say: “If there is naseeb”, the male’s family will approach the girl’s parents to make an official proposal. If the girl accepts, a date is quickly set for an engagement and a later date for the wedding proper. Between the time of acceptance of the proposal and the nuptials, the couple will discuss and negotiate for the future.

Generally, they will have to agree on the big issues, like where they are going to live once married, if they want children straight away, what will be their source of income and finances and deciding other important questions. Should they seriously disagree or if there is a sense that they are not well suited after all, it is still possible for either party to pull out.

There are other standard expectations that must also be met even if they are not necessarily out in the open. The girl, if not a divorcee, has to be a virgin, healthy and fertile. Equally, that the male is presumed healthy and able. It is now also legally required for both to have a sexual health check before exchanging vows lest they carry a disease. Once everybody is satisfied the basics have been met, the rituals proceed to make the two husband and wife.

The Beautification Ritual 

A Tripolitanian wedding, in its original form, lasts up to a fortnight of festivities. Both families have tasks to perform that culminate in the sending off. But today, because of time and money pressures, only the more popular aspects are practised and a wedding can be as short as three days. 

It all begins with the beautification ritual for the bride, to ready her for her first sexual encounter. Never been touched, it is the job of the experienced female relatives or already married girl friends to prepare her physically, mentally and emotionally for the consummation of her vows and advise her on how to be desirable and seductive for her man.

In the old days, the bride will have been ignorant of sexual education and her information limited to accidental eavesdropping or left to her private imagination. Her body will never have bee waxed, her eyebrows never shaped and hair and makeup never done until her wedding, unlike today. 

But still, the Libyan bride is escorted to a hammam where she is cleansed, scrubbed, waxed, hair trimmed and made-up. On this traditional outing, she will be subject to “women talk” with lots of banter, joking and laughing about what to do and expect in the bedroom. 

The Marriage Contract

It the girl’s male guardian who agrees the terms of her marriage contract; and, although there is no direct exchange of vows, the two sides have to agree on two certain things before the presiding sheik begins the reading the Opening chapter of the Koran to clench the union and for the other male guests to read with him.

There is the amount of money due to the bride before marriage - the mukadem) - and, in the second instance, a sum is of money or gold agreed in case of divorce, the muajer. Contrary to misconception, these sums don’t’ reflection a girl’s monetary worth and they are not a payment to her guardian. They are token consideration to fulfil the religious requirement and validate the contract. 

Once the men shake hands and the couple are legally and religiously married, gifts are sent to the bride at her family home. This part, called the “bian” and literally means “the showing and declaring to people” – should really be called the “showing off”.

Hundreds of presents are received and put on show to the family, relatives and friends to drool over. Expensive jewellery mainly is given to the bride with evening party dresses and sandals, henna, perfumes, candles, home made sweets and other things which are traditionally presented in silver trays and woven baskets. A sheep or lamb is slaughtered to herald the start of the official wedding.

The Henna, Hafla and Mahder

The night of the henna” sees the bride, without any make-up, dressed in a pink and silver wrap (holie) to symbolise her youth and innocence. A henna ritual takes place when the dye leaves are grinded by the bride with the assistance of an older woman and then applied to the hands and feet. 

As henna represents happiness, joy and good naseeb, all the single girls are encouraged to have some on their hands; to bring them good luck in finding a groom. Dinner is then served and there is plenty of traditional song and dance. The signature Libyan beat is provided by the zimzamaat, who are infamous for their crude lyrics and impossible performance requests. 

Women, in their hundreds, arrive all decked out in the finest Tripoilitanian holies, made of silver and gold based threads in striped pattern. They are exotically shaped in the form of peacocks. And there is the extraordinary display of gold coins, bracelets, anklets and gems to accessorise the outfits. The makeup worn is bizarre too, with white or pinkish foundation and the application of whole palettes of eye-shadow to create a striking effect with the eyes. 

This is followed by the night of the hafla, when the bride transforms into a fully made-up beauty wearing a Western style white wedding dress and the guests wearing cocktail gowns. This event denotes the official departure from the parents’ home to joining the groom and his clan, as the bride leaves with them at the end of the night. The highlights are seeing the couple walk the down the aisle, the cutting of the cake and plenty of music and dance to popular Arab songs.

Celebrations not yet over, the groom’s family have to host a party to welcome the bride, known as the “mahder” event, where she is introduced to their guests. Usually the day after “the night before,” it can be a little uncomfortable as all eyes are on her and she is gazed at and admired. A number of rituals are then performed and the wedding comes to its end. 

Married Life

The Libyan girl finally bridges the gap between her former singleton self to becoming a woman. But before she has the space and time to breathe, she is under a new pressure to act in a certain way towards her husband and in-laws. Even educated and holding down a job, she is generally expected to become a mother and be dutiful towards her man. In turn, he shoulders the bulk of the financial load to take care of her and the children when they come. 

The role of the extended family continues throughout the couple’s married life and the elders are there to provide support and to mediate if serious problems arise. The families are forever mentors and guardians. 

To an outsider, the intricate rituals and the clearly defined roles and obligations might seem primitive or restrictive for all involved. Such arrangements might seem out of touch or out of date with modern times. But, after years of observation, these semi-arranged marriages have a higher rate of success than those based on grand romantic love. The structure seems to work and people, on the whole, seem very happy with it.