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Marriage Customs Of Arabs

( Originally Published 1897 )

Arabs entertain no very high opinion of women. They have a saying as follows : Marriage is joy for a month, and sorrow for a life, and the paying of settlements, and the breaking of one's back (i.e. under the load of misery), and the listening to a woman's tongue ! " It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Arab marriages are "arranged " as in so many other countries where women's rights" have never yet been heard of.

The Arab marriage customs of present times are especially interesting inasmuch as they explain passages in Holy Scripture where weddings are referred to. For instance, in the plain on the coast of Palestine below Jaffa where the Philistines used to dwell, a marriage feast still continues for seven days, as that of Samson did, amidst songs, dances, and rough jollity, in which putting and answering riddles forms a prominent part. The wedding of this great strong man appears to have resembled one of the present day among the peasants of the Hauran. The scene was the open-air threshing floor, the company made up chiefly of friends " of the bridegroom ! We may picture bride and bride-groom crowned as king and queen of the sports, sitting on the threshing sledge on a mock throne. Quarrels often arise, as on that occasion, and sometimes lead to bloodshed.

A Bedouin always marries one of his own class. The sending of Eliezer to Mesopotamia to get a wife for Isaac was exactly what the Sheikh of an Arab tribe would do at this day. The reader will remember, also, how Rebekah got off the camel and veiled herself because she could not allow Isaac to see her face till she became his wife. And not until the wedding is over may the husband enter the tent where his bride awaits him and raise her veil. Women anxiously await outside, and when the bridegroom has announced to them that he is pleased with his bride set up a shrill cry of delight. To the Arabs this shout of the triumphant and satisfied bridegroom is one of the most delightful sounds that can be uttered. It is to this our Saviour alludes when He says, He that hath the bride is the bridegroom ; but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice."

Again at Nablus, the bride is brought home at night, as in the parable of the Virgins. Drums, fifes, shouts and rejoicings break the stillness as late as ten o'clock. Young and old run out to see the procession, the maidens in their best attire, the bridegroom and his friends, the bride, deeply veiled, the musicians, the crowd, and above all, the flaming lights, which give animation to the whole scene.

Mr. Burckhardt, the traveller, says that among the Aenezes the bridegroom comes with a lamb in his arms to the tent of the bride's father, and there cuts its throat before witnesses. As soon as the blood falls upon the ground the marriage ceremony is regarded as complete. Afterwards the men and girls amuse themselves with feasting and singing. Soon after sunset the bridegroom awaits the bride in his tent. The bashful girl meanwhile runs from the tent of one friend to another's, till at last she is caught and conducted by a few women to her lord and master. In Egypt the Kopts kill a sheep as soon as the bride enters the house of her husband, and she is obliged to step over the flowing blood on (to) the threshold (see p. 66).

Among the Bedouins of Mount Sinai, if a man wishes to marry a certain girl, he must call, accompanied by a few friends, on her father. On their arrival at the tent they are offered some refreshment. The suitor then ex-plains that he would be glad if the man will have him for a son-in-law, to which the father replies, I shall require (say) one hundred piastres of you as a dowry. This, the young man explains, with considerable animation, is a sum quite beyond his modest resources. When at last the father has consented to lower his terms to about half the sum mentioned, they agree and the bargain is concluded. When the young men of the party find that matters have been settled, they express great delight, and engage in trials of skill and various games. The public notary is then called in, who takes a piece of a certain herb and wraps it in the turban of the bridegroom. He ratifies the covenant between father and bridegroom in the following manner : Taking both their hands in his, he places between them the folded turban, and, pressing them closely together, thus addresses the father of the bride-elect, " Are you willing to give your daughter to "—mentioning the name. To which he replies, " I am." The bridegroom to be is also asked, " Do you take the girl to wife for better or worse ? " On his replying, I do take her," the notary says, " If you ill-treat her, or stint her in food or raiment, the sin be on your own neck." These questions and answers are repeated three times, after which the betrothal (if such it can be called !) is considered complete.

The girl until then is entirely ignorant of the fact that she is going to be given in marriage. If by chance she should find out what has happened, custom demands that she should at least make a pretence of escaping to the mountains. But she does not exactly do so, as we shall see, unless she entertains a strong dislike for her suitor. Therefore, if such is not the case, the girl continues to perform her daily labours as before. Sup-posing that everything has been carefully concealed from her, she is informed of the change that is in store for her in the following not very gentle manner : The notary, with the would-be bridegroom's mantle in his hands, come stealthily behind her, as she sits in the family tent in the evening on her return from tending the flocks, and suddenly throws it over her. Previously to this her relations have been surreptitiously burning incense or some lighted embers behind her to avert the dread influence of the " evil eye." On throwing the mantle over her, the notary says, " The name of God be with thee ; none but such an one (naming the man) shall have thee ! " Thereupon the girl starts up and tries to escape, calling upon her father and mother for help with loud cries and shrieks. Women collect round her and seize hold of her, repeating noisily the notary's words.

The next proceeding is to erect a tent for her in front of that of her father, to which she is conducted, and then sprinkled with the blood of a sheep sacrificed for the occasion. Here she abides for three days, and on the fourth day is led in procession by the women to some neighbouring spring where she washes herself. They then lead her to the tent of the bridegroom, who gives a great feast in her honour. The neighbours also kill a sheep as a contribution to the entertainment, and receive a small sum of money from the bride's father ; who also gives the bridegroom a branch of a shrub, or something green, which he puts in his turban and wears for three days to show that he has married a maid and not a widow.

According to the late Professor E. H. Palmer, the distinguished Arabic scholar, whose death a few years ago was greatly lamented, the only tribe who depart in any degree from the customs here described are the Emzeineh Arabs ; with them, the girl, instead of remaining three days in a tent near her father, does actually run away and hide in the mountains.

We have said that Arab marriages are always " arranged " and that is true ; but, nevertheless, their women are not entirely unromantic. Occasionally it does happen that a young girl falls in love with a man she has met—it may be at some festival or at the tomb of a saint. In that case, if her parents should betroth her to another, she takes advantage of the three days' grace allowed and escapes to some neighbour, who will pity her and take her in and she stays, obstinately refusing to leave until the man she so dislikes relinquishes his claim. Her relatives, not wishing to force her into the marriage against her will, make terms with the disappointed lover as best they can. The story of Jebel el Bent or " the Girls' Mount " affords an interesting example of these occasional romances. Two girls, who were betrothed to men they heartily disliked, found their way to the mountains and there perished of hunger rather than prove faithless to their lovers. Burckhardt says they twisted their hair together and threw themselves from the cliffs, but this part of the story is now forgotten in Sinai.

Mr. Layard, in his Nineveh and Babylon," describing a marriage celebrated near Nimroud, says that the bride and bridegroom entered into a legal contract in the presence of witnesses. On the following day the bride, covered from head to foot by a thick veil, was escorted by her friends, with music, to the bridegroom's house. Here she was actually kept behind a curtain, in the corner of a darkened room, for three days ! During all that time the guests were feasting. The courtyard of the house was filled with dancers and players. On the third day the bridegroom was led in triumph from house to house, and at each received some present. He was then placed within the circle of dancers, and the guests, wetting small coins, stuck them on his forehead. As the money fell it was collected in a handkerchief held open under the bridegroom's chin. Then followed a curious episode. A party of young men rushed into the crowd, and carrying off the most wealthy guests, proceeded to lock them up in a dark room until they paid ransom for their release, which they did without any ill-feeling. All the money collected was added to the dowry.

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