East Meets West: Hertford’s Palestinian Wedding

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palestinian women's cultural dress
Palestinian women: (left-right) Nour & Arwad Khalifeh, Sarah Jackman, Sarah Khalifeh and Suhad Jarrar.

After months of planning, the much-anticipated Carnival day in the historical town of Hertford in the beautiful English countryside  finally arrived. We even had our close friend Sandra fly out from Italy just for that day. I won’t lie, I was nervous. Not because I wasn’t positive that we’re capable of pulling off a successful event, but because I was worried about the reaction of carnival attendees towards Palestine & the Arab world. Let’s face it, we’re not exactly represented as the Marilyn Monroes of Hollywood, but more like the Charlie Sheens, and that is not a positive look.

But we were determined to prove to people that there’s more to Arabic culture than to what they see on the BBC or Al Jazeera: we have kind hearts, delicious food, beautiful history, and much more.

palestinian stall hertford
The Khalifeh Sisters’ stall.

And so we arrived at our appointed pitch at the Hertford Castle grounds around 8:30am, and were faced with our first obstacle. Except for the unpredictable (or maybe it is actually predictable) very gloomy weather, we realised that we in fact were not supplied with a gazebo (unlike what we were told)! So we were located right in the middle and the only stall without a gazebo. Lovely.

But you see I believe things happen for a reason, and they did. Yes it was windy, yes it drizzled a tiny little bit of rain, but, we had the advantage of being the most visible stall of all, as everyone around us looked pretty much the same with their gazebos. We were delighted. A perfect day I felt was on its way.

palestinian culture stall
A Samaver (far left), a Rababa: an old Bedouin musical instrument (middle).

Just for a visual image, our stall consisted of three long tables and a space for objects in the middle. All tables were covered with different Arabic tablecloths. The first table displayed several different artefacts such as an Argeeleh (shisha), a Mihbaj, which is an object that is used by Bedouins to grind coffee beans, and other pieces.

eid sweets
Three plates of Eid sweets in pistachio, date and walnut flavour each (left). An early twentieth century Dalleh (Bedouin coffee pot).

The second table was the “yummy table,” which displayed complimentary sage tea, mint tea, Arabic sweets such as baklawa and special different-flavoured Eid sweets, Saudi Arabian dates, and candy from Jordan.

quran palestinian
Two Qurans on a wooden stand in the middle and a selection of books.

The last table displayed a selection of books on art, jewellery, culture, poetry, history and travel in the Arab world. In addition, a wooden stand in the middle carrying two Qurans: an Arabic one and an English-translated one.

hertford palestinian wedding saddle
A brown leather and wooden camel saddle (far left), red and white Bedouin tent cushions, and a hand-woven Bedouin red rug.

The middle space between the tables was decorated with an old red rug, a selection of Arabic paintings, different types of chairs, an Oud (an Arabic guitar), Bedouin tent cushions and small colourful Palestinian-embroidered cushions.

On the sides of each table we hung up Palestinian and British flags, rosaries, various expressive art pictures of the Arab region and a huge sign which read: “The Palestinian Wedding represented by The Khalifeh Sisters.”

Also on display was a clothes rail with traditional costumes from different parts of the Arab world, and free postcards and CDs on Palestine to give away.

palestinian dresses wedding
Mum (Suhad) and I (Arwad).

We also had made two huge helium balloons. One was clear in the middle, with a number of small balloons inside it all in the colours of the Palestinian flag. The sentence “The Palestinian Wedding” was written on it in Arabic. The second balloon was in the shape of a star and one side of it read: “The Palestinian Wedding,” whilst the other read: “The Khalifeh Sisters.”

They both were blown away by the wind halfway through the event, looking like a bird set free, like what one day Palestinians may be. Still, they were lovely to look at for a while.

The clock was ticking. It was 10:30 and guests were to begin arriving around 11. So I quickly ran home (luckily I live a five-minute walk away from the Castle) to get ready for my wedding. It’s kind of a shame that my first wedding had to be fake.

I began with my hair and makeup, followed by attempting to put on a very old, 120+ year-old, Bethlehem wedding dress. It’s simple, colourful and delicately stitched up with beautiful designs. And it was on. I then put on a heavily colourfully-embroidered wedding jacket. It looked beautiful.

palestinian ornament
A silver amulet carrying a prayer for newlyweds inside; although some unmarried women use it to hide love letters inside. The blue beads are lapis lazuli gemstones.

I was now faced with the second obstacle of the day. I put on a silver and beaded necklace around my neck, that’s also 100+ years-old, and when I took it off, oh God it came apart and the beads and silver pieces dropped to the floor. I was in panic mode then. What would mum say? Was this a bad sign? It felt as if my groom had just seen me in my wedding dress before the wedding.

Onto the next necklace, which thank God was less fragile than the first one, although just as old. Then, the belt. As expected, a very old silver belt adorned with brown precious stones.

shatweh palestinian headdress
The Headdress, Shatweh: Married women from Bethlehem and some other villages wore a Densely embroidered fez-like padded hat with coins sewed on, displaying their family wealth for all to see. The more coins on the hat, the wealthier the family. The coins were part of the bride’s dowry.

Next came the wedding hat. I know you’re picturing a Royal Ascot moment here, but it was a very interesting red hat, which fits perfectly on the head, adorned with coins all around the rim. Then, a piece of embroidered cloth, also decorated with small coins, was placed on top of the hat. I know, I never expected a bride to wear a hat either, but I considered it as my alternative to a veil.

shoes palestinian wedding
My modern wedges displayed on a silver Eastern chair.

Finally, my Cinderella shoes. I must admit it looked peculiar teaming up a pair of modern wedges with my old traditional Palestinian wedding costume. But hey, I was ready to see my groom and educate people on the real Palestine and Arab world.

sunshine stalls palestinian wedding
Carnival guests enjoying the complimentary food & drinks.

Adults and children from different nationalities began to arrive to the Castle grounds pretty quickly, and so did the sun. Oh thank you sun. No gazebo, no rain, no worries.

Our stall was an instant hit. Everyone said that it was the most cultural and interesting one of the day. The sweets flew off the plates and everyone liked sage tea. I was impressed, and so very delighted. I wanted to jump up and down but it didn’t seem very graceful at the time. Plus, I was worried my delicate dress would rip, so I stuck to lightly dancing around to the Zumba music playing from someone else’s stall.

palestinian women henna
Carnival attendees showing off their henna tattoos drawn on by Nour.

Our second biggest hit was our henna tattoos. My sister Nour, who’s quite artistic, decided to offer everyone a free tattoo. Now, she’s never actually done this before, but it was a shock to everyone when those beautiful patterns began to appear on everyone’s hands. We were all so proud. What a talent.

The books were of special interest to everyone, and so were the costumes. Numerous questions were asked; which were perfectly answered by my Counsellor sister Sarah, and our volunteers. I love the people of Hertford. I was wrong to be nervous earlier. No one seemed judgemental, only curious to learn more.

hertford palestinian wedding hot drinks
Complimentary sweets and drinks being enjoyed by visitors.

I must admit that everyone attending was somewhat stunned upon learning that everything we were offering on the day was Complimentary; we wanted to convey the true meaning of Arab hospitality. They thought we were a business trying to sell our products (which many showed interest in purchasing), but were amazed to hear that we were there as three young sisters and their mother promoting Palestine and the Arab world for what it really is.

wedding buggy
The Dress, Al-Thob: The bridal gown tradition reaches back 2,000 years. The dress is A-shaped with long pointed triangular sleeves. Gowns are made of natural-brown or black linen inset or appliqued silk, embroidered with ancient geometric designs called Bird of Paradise or Tree of Life. The Short Jacket, Takseereh: The waist length and short sleeves of this jacket were the source of its name, takseereh, meaning short in Arabic. The jacket was made at first from broadcloth or felt, but later on the velvet replaced the. The short jacket was decorated with heavy embroidery matching that of the dress, which usually reflected the prosperity of the groom who could afford acquiring it for his bride.

The parade was to begin at 2pm, but just an hour before that my groom for the day sent us a text message to say that he won’t be able to make it. I know this wasn’t a real wedding but it felt horrible to be stood up by my groom on my fake wedding day. Although mum seemed upset she did what she does best: comfort me. She told me to go out there as a beautiful independent woman, and bride. So I did. I’m a confident person by nature so I moved past the situation pretty quickly.

palestinian bridesmaids carriage
We were ready to go meet the crowds.

There were plenty of lovely potentials to wave at from my Cinderella carriage. After all, she rode in her carriage alone too. Well, her accompanied by cute little creatures and me by three beautiful bridesmaids. The closest people to my heart: my two sisters and best friend Sarah Jackman, and a sweet little girl (a new friend of mine) named Jennah.

My bridesmaids were all dressed in traditional costumes from different parts of the Arab world. I must admit, they looked just as good as the bride.

palestinian wedding volunteers
Our volunteers Alaa and Dee.

Our horse-drawn carriage was decorated by my mum and two lovely volunteers, Alaa & Dee. The horses had saddles made of Arabic fabrics, and tied around their necks were the traditional black and white Palestinian scarves; that became a symbol of freedom, and a trend worn by many Westerners.

On each side of the front of the carriage were two small flags: Palestinian and British. Whereas at the back of the carriage a big-sized Palestinian flag waved away.

palestinian wedding horse carriage
And the parade was on the roll.

After a mini photoshoot outside and then inside the carriage, we were off. There were hundreds of people on either side of the long streets of Hertford, excited by the return of the carnival after 10 long years of absence. All parade participants looked amazing. Colourful. Energetic. Bursting with joy.

hertford crowds watching palestinian wedding
Enthusiastic crowds wave and cheer at parade participants

It was weird having everyone stare at us. The longest anyone had ever stared at me was for 5 minutes, this was for a whole hour. But then seeing everyone’s smiling faces was comforting. We began to wave away at the kids, adults and even at their pets. Our talented photographer and videographer Maged took photographs and videos of the parade, and the whole day’s event. It was like an on-the-go photoshoot.

palestinian wedding bridesmaids
Sarah Khalifeh and Sarah Jackman wave at the crowds.

An hour later, wrists aching from all the waving, yet pain numbed by our excitement, we returned to our stall. But there was no time to relax. Each carnival participant was given 15 minutes to perform in the main arena. Ours was at 3:30.

arabian fashion show
The Arabian costumes fashion show.

Our third obstacle of the day was that the Palestinian folklore group which was supposed to perform was a no-show. Although a huge disappointment, we needed a show. Our quick-thinking minds decided that our performance shall be a fashion show. So on we put the Arabic music, and the fashion show began, led by my sisters and I, my best friend and our volunteers. Mum took to the microphone and explained what each costume represented. Phew, that went well.

palestinian wedding dress
Everyone continues to enjoy the successful day.

The rest of the day went smoothly. Can’t think of what other obstacles might have come our way.

Although we didn’t win any of the three official awards presented by the Mayor, we still felt like winners. Winners for successfully achieving what we set out to do, and winners for making Palestine and the Arab world proud that day.

palestinian wedding girls
The Khalifeh Sisters and their mum pose with Sandra and Cristina who flew out from Italy and Brazil for the carnival.

We would like to sincerely thank all of our sponsors, volunteers and everyone who attended and took interest in us. We could not have done this without you.

The Khalifeh Sisters will continue to represent Palestine and the Arab world in upcoming events. Until then, we hope that you enjoy our carnival pictures and videos.

The carnival took place on Sunday 24th June 2012 in Hertford, Hertfordshire, UK.

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