Weddings in Aden: A Festival of Rituals and Celebrations

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Simple traditions and joyful celebrations are a staple of weddings in Aden; ululations and dancing, henna body drawing, the smell of oud mixed with jasmine and aromatic basil, and  relentless  activities that makes Adeni weddings a celebration par excellence.

A wedding is not only a celebration of two families coming together, a culmination of a love story, or the beginning of a new life, but also a ceremony that carries a rich heritage passed on from generation after generation. In Aden, traditional weddings are a spectacle that represent the city and its culture. As Nada Awbeli, a tradition enthusiast adds, “Weddings are at the forefront of social customs and traditions that people in Aden are keen to observe and practice over the course of a full week”.

Many wedding rituals practiced today go back to ancient times. For decades, rituals have remained a symbolic expression of beliefs and social relations. In Aden, people strive to preserve these traditions, although many practices have shifted over the years for various reasons, including the economic situation of the family. For many, the effect of the deteriorating economy meant a scaling down of the wedding celebrations from one week to one night. Apart from the economic impact, other changes within the wedding rituals were the result of influences from other cultures. Today it is common to see the traditional embroidered green dress, worn by the bride on the first night of the week-long celebration, replaced with an Indian sari or an embroidered dress in a color other than green, excluding white, which is reserved for the main wedding dress.

In order to take the reader on a journey across the rituals of wedding celebrations in Aden, we must start from the first stage: the proposal. Female relatives of the groom make a symbolic visit to the bride’s family carrying gifts and sweets. The bride’s mother and her female relatives receive them at the bride’s home. The bride’s mother takes utmost care in presenting her house, filling it with the sweet smell of the famous Adeni incense. The bride dresses elegantly, while keeping a natural look, leaving the more ornate clothing for the wedding celebrations. After agreeing on the details, this stage ends with a round of ululations and the distribution of sweets to celebrate the day and allow the families to spread the news of the engagement between neighbors, friends and family.

Now that the news is out, neighbors’ homes are transformed into mini-operation rooms set up to plan and prepare for the wedding. Families offer their help and divide tasks between them. At times an entire family is set to take care of cleaning and organizing tasks; another is responsible for installing loudspeakers for the party; while for the task of running errands with the bride, her family is directed to neighbors who own a car. The list goes on as the whole neighborhood transforms into a big wedding operation.

Artwork by Jumana al-Shami

Zaqra: Night one

Once the families of the bride and groom decide on the wedding date, the first day of celebrations begins with the zaqra night.

The day is initiated with a ritual where a female relative bundles the bride into a piece of fabric. The ritual requires that the woman who performs this gesture is married herself and has a happy marriage. The practice comes from the belief that this woman will be a good omen for the new bride, and that being bundled into a piece of fabric that belongs to her would prompt a happy start and stable married life for the newlyweds.

Following this gesture, the family and neighbors begin to play music and rhythmic drums, with singing and dancing that continues until the early hours. Neighbors open their homes and the wedding celebrations are spread across multiple houses, as the entire  neighborhood turns into an extravagant gala. The zaqra night is an affordable yet glamorous night of celebration and joy. Women, men and children gather around the music blasting from loudspeakers distributed across the wedding houses. Women dance and sing on their rooftops, while men dance in the neighborhood square, and children dance back and forth between both parties. Between each ululation, the sound of women of all ages singing traditional wedding songs echoes from every corner:

O’ beauty! She deserves it all, for her whole being is beautiful

O’ people praise him, praising the Prophet is blissful

Our bride is a shining moon, praise to Him, Allah, who created her

We begin the night in the name of Allah, and we bid the night farewell by praising Him

The bride appears at the center of the ceremony wearing an ornate dera’a.[1]The dress falls from the top of her body to the soles of her feet. Traditionally, it is made from a green embroidered silk fabric. Slowly and ceremoniously, the bride walks through the crowds surrounded by a circle of women who sing and dance both for and around her. The crowd of guests appear like an exquisite blanket of colors. Fabrics of all types flow on their dancing bodies with the lightness of silk and the vitality of their organic and geometric designs. Necks and hairstyles are covered with glamorous jewelry and jasmine flower bands – jasmine being an inseparable companion throughout the days of the wedding. There is no wedding in Aden without a mixture of jasmine and incense smells! In old times, a dinner was held for the guests during the zaqra, however today it is more common to offer juice, tea and cake to the guests.

HennaNight two

During the past few years, many traditional wedding customs and rituals in Aden have been slowly disappearing; for example, holding the men’s celebration in house courtyards, or in what is known as al-Makhadir, which are large tents placed in the center of the neighborhood squares. Despite the slow decline, the day of henna, the second day of the wedding held at the groom’s house, is a wedding ritual that remains and has not yet disappeared.

On henna day, the youth of the neighborhood and male friends gather at the groom’s wedding celebration, and a large amount of henna powder is mixed with water to paint his body. Once the ritual commences, according to tradition, the guests hurl chunks of henna clay at the groom and at each other while chanting “Cover him in Henna!” in the middle of the neighborhood or tent. If you happen to pass by a neighborhood in Aden, you will immediately notice that a henna party is taking place in the neighborhood when you hear the sound of celebrating guests and families singing:

Gather around henna, gather around henna

O’ happy one, O’ lucky one

Agarwood is in the air

Let it rain, let the teardrops fall off tree branches

Gather around henna, gather around henna

It takes away agony and heals the ill

Shower us with blessings, O’ Allah, the most generous of all

Gather around henna, the hour of henna heals the wounded[2]

During henna, men also perform a folk dance of African roots called Liwa – common in Aden and some southern regions. The dance starts as men gather in a circle and move to the beat of drums and mizmār. Once news of the henna ceremony spreads across the neighborhood, female relatives, friends and neighbors gather at the groom’s house. The women hold their party at the groom’s house, dancing and singing, while the men hold their party at the neighborhood square.

In the afternoon, a female henna artist who has mastered drawing both with red and black henna is invited to the women’s party. Her task is to adorn the hands and feet of the bride and her relatives. Although henna body art is an important ritual for the bride and her family, it is in decline today. Many modern-day brides perceive this ritual as old and outdated. If deemed necessary, the ritual is postponed to the celebrations that follow the wedding or the nearest special occasion after the wedding.

Artwork by Jumana al-Shami

Ghasl: Night three


O’ green bird, where will I be reuniting with you tonight?

I beg you not to promise me, if you were to forget tonight

O’ musk, O’ amber! My eyes have never seen sleep

If you, green bird, visit me, sorrow will depart my heart

With the wedding celebrations entering their third day, women continue to gather and dance. Some prepare the next day’s feast, which requires the peeling of large quantities of potatoes and onions to prepare zurbian, the most popular dish in Aden, especially during Eid and other special occasions. The dish requires the preparation and seasoning of the main ingredients, which include meat, rice and potatoes. This is done the day before to allow the ingredients to absorb the spices and seasoning overnight.

Relatives of the bride and her friends burn incense to perfume her new clothes, and then pack them carefully in special suitcases. These are placed alongside other items that the bride’s parents carefully prepare for their daughter: shoes, cosmetics and large quantities of incense and perfume are specially packed for the bride. There is also an incense burner and an abaya, two items that are a must for the bridal kit. All this is done in preparation for the procession of the bride’s belongings, which, according to local customs, are transported to her new home two days before the wedding.

On ghasl day, which also means to bathe or wash in Arabic, a bridal bath is held. After the bath ritual the bride wears an embroidered green dress and gold jewelry. The most important piece is a golden belt which she wears around her waist. As for her hair, she wears a jasmine flower band together with a small basil bouquet that is tucked behind her ears. Together the guests gather around the feast and conclude with a dessert known as halwa, which always follows a zurbian meal.

O’ little morning star, what keeps you up when we leave?

O’ little morning star, stay up with henna and flowers

O’ little morning star, stay up with art and songs

O’ little morning star, sing to us the sound of dan[3]

O’ little morning star, al-Hashimi[4]takes away sorrows of all kinds

O’ little morning star, the scents of the garden are rushing towards us

Among the rituals at risk of disappearing, according to Fatima Shafiq, a local educator, is one where “relatives among the guests tear the head cover of the groom’s mother. It is not clear where the tradition comes from, but some interpret it as marking the beginning of a new life for her son, the groom, and an end to his bachelor years. For the mother-in-law, it marks the entry of a new member to the family, her daughter-in-law, who will soon become her ‘right hand’.

The Wedding Night: Thursday, the Highlight of the Celebration

Thursday is often the day chosen for the main wedding celebration. It is considered a blessed night as the next day’s sun rises on a Friday, a holy day of prayer. The bride and groom are accompanied by the crowds to their marital nest amidst a loud flurry, followed by the wedding motorcade. Cars honk in celebration as they drive through the main streets, and the sound of singing and ululation can be heard through the dreamy night of Aden city:

Gather along to celebrate her and shower her with basil

We begin the night with praising Allah

She is guarded with Allah’s will

In the name of Allah

O’ beauty! She deserves it all, for her whole being is beautiful

O’ people praise him, the praise of the Prophet is blissful

Our bride is a shining moon, praise to Him, Allah, who created her

A moonlike man has come to take her

A moonlike man who adores the most beautiful

Artwork by Jumana al-Shami

Weddings in Aden are like carnivals, full of color, beautiful incense smells, adorned with jasmine flowers and jewelry. The sound of traditional music continues to ring and resists decline despite the economic hardship that has forced the people in Aden to minimize their celebrations.

[1]The dera’ais an embroidered and colorful female dress. Women often wear this type of dress in the southern and central regions of Yemen. Waylis the name of the finest silk fabric used to make a dera’a.

[2]This is the introductory part of a poem by Yemeni poet and prince Ahmed Bin Fadhl al-Abdali, known as al-Qummendan who died in 1943.

[3]Danis a genre of music in Hadhramout, Yemen.

[4]Al-Hashimi is a famous garden in Lahj, a governorate located between Aden and Taiz.

Ibtehal al-Salehi, Yemeni journalist, interested on public issues, and has several investigative reports that were published in Yemeni and Arab Media outlets. 

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