09/19/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Big Fat Tunisian Wedding

When I arrived in Tunisia, the wedding was already underway. I had missed two major celebrations. Of course, a Tunisian wedding is no simple feast. Rather it is a seven days affair -- a seven nights affair to be more accurate -- that will showcase the wealth, charm and beauty of the bride and groom. It is an opportunity for large families to gather, to share joy and happiness and a monumental opportunity for every one to fight with everybody else, over the most silly things. And yet, year after year, regardless of the economic climate or political color of the country, people unite in matrimony.

That evening, I joined the family of the groom at an unfinished store space, recently built and large enough to welcome the large gatherings. A small portion of the family was present and yet we reached the sixty count easily. Great aunts, younger cousins. Four generations under one roof, with different aspirations, different understanding of the world, yet profoundly united. Khalty Rebha dressed in a Fouta and Blouza, her Bedouin traditional outfit, wearing tattoos on her forehead, little Farah who now lives in Kuwait with her parents and who is a fan of One Direction. The gorgeous and sensuous Faten who seems to have discovered the fountain of youth and whom the birds are jealous of because her voice his nicer than theirs. Haifa who wears the headscarf, since her mother went on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

We all sat and started catching up on life and the latest gossips about the wedding. The big question floating was the absence of the father of the groom from the previous day's gathering. "He's a bit under the weather" his son Mehdi said. Everyone showed a very concerned face. "Oh. No. What does he have?" "Stomach ache. Diarrhea." Mehdi said. "He's taking Ercefuryl. He should feel better soon." "Ercefuryl?! Are you crazy. It's an antibiotic. It's going to make him sicker," said Faten. "No it's not an antibiotic. It's an anti-infectious medicine." "Antibiotic, anti-infectious, it's the same," said Ramzi. This statement was followed by a full fledge fight. Sides formed. The pro antibiotics launched Internet searches and browsed random forums on the web. The anti-antibiotics rebuked the sources are uneducated and unreliable sources. The pro antibiotics proceeded to calling a pharmacist of their knowing, who, at 1 am, had nothing better to do than to answer such random question. He assured us that Ercefuryl was indeed an antibiotic. The anti-antibiotic team deemed the pharmacist incompetent and suggested everyone using this pharmacist charge pharmacy altogether. I ventured to say that if Ercefuryl was sold without a prescription, it was probably a clue that it was not an antibiotic. The whole room erupted in laughter "Here you can buy every medicine without a prescription. Augmentin probably sits next to the milk at the supermarket," they all responded. Mehdi wisely commented: "How do you want our politicians to rule our country, if even a family is able to have a full-fledged fight about such a random and unimportant topic! My father will feel better in a few days, God willing, regardless of whether Ercefuryl is an antibiotic or not." He had reached a consensus! The people of Tunisia is resilient and not really willing to take any nonsense, whether about diarrhea treatment or politics, which some would gladly argue is the same!

After this nice warm-up of a debate, we all decided that it was time to sing and dance. We sat on plastic chairs, while some of the women made mint tea and others served Arabic pastries made with sugar syrup, almonds, chickpea flour or dates. Sweet, delicious, heavenly sweet. Ramzy grabbed the darbuka, the traditional North African drum and Habiba started to sing a song. Everyone followed. Poetic songs, folk songs, saucy songs, songs celebrating the pains and anguish of love and longing, like the famed Al Layloo Ya Layla, to the tempo of the darbuka. No need for a stereo, no downloaded tracks. Just the living memory of generations of singers, a pastoral way to entertain others and ourselves.

The celebrations had started a few days before. The wedding officially kicked off with the signing of the contract, the official document that seals the marriage of the bride and groom, under the careful eyes of their parents. A few days later, followed an intimate traditional ceremony, gathering merely three hundred women, where the bride wore an extraordinary selection of traditional Phoenician inspired gold and silver-embroidered dresses. Finally, after a full week of family gatherings of various sizes and intensity, the bride and groom were joined by their one thousand guests for a lavish party.

Weddings require as much preparation as a Beyoncé concert. For the wedded, as well as for the guests. I had to head to a make-up artist and hairdresser to finalize my looks. I had been instructed to wear over the top everything. My cousin Anissa could not hide her contempt when I showed her what I believed to be elegant faux-diamond earrings. "Too small!" she exclaimed with disdain. "Habibti(Darling), you need something bigger, shinier." I let Reem the hairdresser take charge. My metamorphosis was no small feat. The hair was curled, teased, curled again and then put into a half bun, pinned with jewel pins. As for the make-up, Reem suggested discreet, which is very relative. All I will say is that it took me 3 days to remove the make-up, despite multiple soap, oil and cream make-up removal sessions.

Reem's small hair salon in the Bouhsina neighborhood of Sousse, was filled with the frenzy of a hen house, customary to girls trying to get ready for a big event. Faten was debating between a purple and a mauve nail polish, while Nadia was letting Reem's assistant take charge of the palette of colors to apply to her face.

Three young veiled women entered the salon. I couldn't help but wonder why one would hit the hair salon, if your hair will remain hidden under a scarf? Fifteen years ago, veiled women were rare in Tunisia. Today, they make up one third of the population. People are no more or less Muslim than they were back then. 96% of the population is Sunni Muslim. Could it be a fashion statement to cover one's head with a scarf? Reem's customers changed into their Islamically correct, yet stunningly flattering dresses, embroiled with pearls, gems and gold. They each covered their heads with a small very fitted bonnet and took their brand new scarves, matching their dresses, out of small boxes and handed it to Reem's assistant. No comb, no brush, no iron, no blow dryer needed! The assistant proceeded to dressing the scarves, creating sophisticated folds and shapes with the fabric. A few side looks were exchanged between the veiled women and my crew of non-veiled relatives. Until one of them asked me what I thought of her make-up. She was concerned that her make-up foundation was too dark. "It complements your dress really well," I said. Regardless of ideology, or religious belief, the language of women's femininity is universal.


The party was hosted at a banquet hall that would not look out of place in New Jersey. Faux moldings, faux marble, gilt and glitter.

As a member of the groom's family, I had to greet the guests. I probably air kissed three hundred pairs of cheeks, shook close to five hundred hands. "Aslema," "Marhaban," "Hello and welcome," I repeated, as a broken -- yet smiling -- record.
The guests attires were so strikingly diverse, going from the uber-sexy to the ultra-conservative. The guests included a salafist with a long beard, a salafist with a short beard, a handful of men showing a well-defined zebibah, or prayer bump, the forehead callus that pious men develop from years of praying, a good number of veiled women, women wearing mini skirts, women with vertiginously high heels. The majority of men wore suits, including an improbable off-white suit paired up with matching patent leather shoes. The majority of women wore florid evening gowns, some of them extremely revealing.

The bride wore a mermaid inspired jaw-dropping dress, revealing her midriff. It was complemented by a tiara, the thickest layers of mascara ever applied and a face buried under a ton of powder.

The bride and groom sat on a couch on a small stage, where guests admired them. We all had our pictures taken with them. The band singer dressed in a white silk jebba entertained us to the sound of very loud traditional music, featuring the oud, the traditional round-bellied string instrument of Arabia.

On the menu, guests were offered grilled almonds, pistachios, small pastries, mint tea and a glass a fresh fruit juice. You don't go to a Tunisian wedding to eat! You go to a Tunisian wedding to dance, especially if you are a woman.

At 3:00 am, the bride and groom started to make a move signaling that they would head back to their home, where they would finally consummate their marriage.

While Tunisia is trying to figure out their political next step, life goes on. Summer has always been a time to celebrate weddings, with dance and music and a true love for partying. 2013 was no exception.

Photo Copyright: M. Zaabar