121

that establishes a special relationship between them forever. Through the Meyroun, they are parents together, brothers and sisters together, the child their bond and covenant.

What of the godfather? Indeed, he is not forgotten. It is he, who in lieu of the baptismal garb, makes the gift of money. And, it is he who also observes for the rest of his life the special relationship between himself and the parents, and himself and the child. If bad fortune does prevail and the father becomes ill or dies, it is the godfather who must assume the obligation to care for this child. He and his wife and family must see that the mother of this child, and the other children, is aided, and looked upon as a sister. When the time comes, he must help to educate this child, help him get started in his work. He must even see that he finds a suitable bride, or bridegroom, for a girl is even more to be cherished and protected, since she is more vulnerable.

Unfortunately, the changing patterns of society, the urbanized and industrialized culture under which all suffer a little in this modern age have dimmed the old traditions, but that is the Baptismal obligation among the Arab Christians.

Rite of Marriage

Marriage was forever. The marriage document was signed, sealed, and duly recorded by the priest and by the people. A marriage took months to prepare for and days to celebrate. It was a bond that united not only the couple, but the families, for usually it was the culmination of an arrangement between the families, iniated with meticulous negotiations, all proprieties observed.

 


 

122

The family of the groom would come to the father of the bride to speak for her hand long before the groom was permitted to meet publicly with the girl. Often the marriage itself was preceded by a betrothal ceremony some six months to a year before, in which the young couple would appear before the priest, in the church, in the presence of both families and selected special guests.

Certain formalities would be exchanged between the families, certain promises made by the young man and young woman, and the priest would pray over and bless the engagement ring. Sometimes the young man did not even have the pleasure of slipping the ring on his beloved's finger. This might be done by the priest or the father of the groom.

The betrothal ceremony gave the young couple the privilege of walking out together, and being seen in public with a chaperone. They could go to some social functions, shop together for their new household, and get to know each other a little better throughout the year of courtship which would prepare them for the marriage that would follow.

A broken engagement was not to be taken lightly. In such a case, this betrothal, blessed by the priest, had been betrayed, and protocol demanded that the priest himself be required to dissolve the arrangement. It was not viewed casually by the group and most often the onus fell upon the young woman and jeopardized her chances for another match.

Was she irresponsible? Was she too proud? Was she extravagant? Never mind that a woman of integrity, realizing that this young man was not her ideal for a lifetime, might insist upon breaking the contract. Never mind. This girl must be extremely difficult to please or to understand, too wilfull, too demanding. Better to look elsewhere.

 


 

123

It is interesting to observe that this betrothal ritual, much the same in all Eastern rites although not practiced by later generation Arab-Americans, closely resembled the Islamic ritual which is still universally observed. This is called "Khatibit il Khatabb," the Writing of the Book, the marriage contract, in which the young woman and young man are considered man and wife, except that their physical union takes place only after the bride leaves her father's house to enter the groom's home to live. However, the Muslim young people, too, are accorded in this ceremony the privilege of walking out, going to entertainments together and preparing, during this year of pre-marriage, their trousseau and home. This contract is even more binding upon them than is the Christian betrothal, for a broken contract is considered a divorce, and the young man must pay to the father of the bride the dowry sum agreed upon, so that she will not be forced to remain in her father's home without means and dignity. In past times, it would have been most unlikely that the girl would get a second offer.

When the wedding date drew near, a wave of excitement rippled through the whole community. Everyone knew nearly everyone else, the friendships carrying over from the days of village life before coming to America. Customs carried over too, and tradition was preserved and continued into the new life.

One of these Middle East customs was "Il Leilat el Ghosal," when the bride was given a special party by all the girls and women, much like the Spinsters' night in the American custom. This was a night when the men were excluded, and they might hold a party of their own for the bridegroom.

The feminine contingent would all bustle down the street to the bride's home, singing that spontaneous chant called the "Zaghloot" which praised

 


 

124

the bride's attributes, and wishing her health, wealth, a happy home, a loving husband, and at least a dozen children, most of them sons. The bride's mother would meet them at the door with a dignified welcome, and only after all were seated would the bride enter the room, attended by her sisters and radiant in new finery.

There would be much laughter. The older ladies, enjoying the feminine intimacy, would exchange stories about their own weddings and their total ignorance of all things connubial. Each would direct a sly remark toward the bride at which all the others would laugh heartily. The bride would blush and they would all laugh again.

"When my own wedding feast was over," said one, and "everyone was leaving my husband's fathers house, I put on my hat and prepared to go back home with my sister. 'No' she said to me, 'you stay here, this is now your home.' And there I was with a husband I hardly knew. I was tired, and I didn't know where I was to sleep that night." Then with a smile grown soft with years of acceptance she said, "I soon found out."

And from another: "In my day, there was not all this picking and choosing. They just told us who, and that's who it was. Not everyone was as lucky as you, my girl. Think of this one you're getting. Already he has a stand in the market, and look at those shoulders, and those eyes a woman could drown in. I tell you if I were younger I would run away from my husband, if your bridegroom had a brother."

"And what would you do, old grandmother," laughed another, "hold him in your lap and feed him grapes?"

 


 

125

Before the wedding feast all the women from the bridegroom's family (for the wedding was given by the man's side) would spend days preparing great trays of sweets--Bahlawa, Sambousek, Mahmoul, Ghraibeh, rich with butter and syrups, and filled with pistachios, walnuts or dates. There would be mounds of nutmeats, and candies imported from New York -- Raha, which was similar to the Greek loukoumi, and apricot squares, sugared and pistachioed. Food for the wedding feast was prepared by the women, and long tables would be set up to hold the chicken and pilaf, stuffed grape leaves, Kousa, (white squashes filled with rice and chopped meat,) and Kibbee--(lamb, pounded and pulverized in a large marble basin, and mixed with bulghur wheat and seasonings.) Vegetables were scrubbed and washed for salata, a salad mixed with lemon and olive oil. Huge round sheets of bread were tossed to paper thinness over the flying arms of the expert women bakers and baked for the feasting only hours before the great moment.

On the morning of the wedding, these same women, who had worked through the night over the stoves and ovens, would dress in their finest clothing. With their husbands and children they would form an entourage to the bride's house to bring her to the church. Singing with joy, they would come to the bride's family who would meet them with somewhat less than a show of enthusiasm. It was not proper to demonstrate any overt pleasure over giving up a daughter to another's household. There would be a cool politeness, which of course the groom's family understood, since they themselves had to observe the same proprieties when the groom's sister married.

The bride's mother would weep and the bride's father would bite his lip as the eldest of the groom's relatives -- his mother, grandmother, aunts, and godmother would troop into the bride's bedroom, where she waited

 


 

126

in her fresh, white beribboned underclothing for the ritual which would follow.

All the men would sit together in the parlor, jovial and brotherly now, while the women crowded close in the bride's room for the dressing of the bride.

The groom's mother, grandmother, aunts and godmother would toss flower petals upon her, and sprinkle perfume on her, chanting their happy Zaghloot. All the women would gasp and utter sighs of admiration as each garment was placed upon the bride by the bridegroom's mother. Over the underclothing, the camisole, then the petticoats, and now, the beautiful white dress. As the dress went over the bride's head and was smoothed down on her gently by the bridegroom's mother, the mother of the bride would utter a sigh and shed more tears. This is the little girl I dressed and now another mother takes her from me to her own house. Oh, will she treat her well, this daughter, whom I guarded from the breath of the wind?

The bridegroom's mother as if reading these thoughts would then glance reproachfully at the bride's mother, as if to say, "Have I not a daughter of my own, whom I have given to another woman's house? Have no fear, sister, I will bring no hurt to this girl of yours." As if to prove it, she would draw proudly from around her own neck a gold chain, to place it around the bride's throat, a symbol and a promise. The bride's mother would sigh more peacefully now that all the proprieties had been observed.

At last the moment comes, and the bride is seated, while both mothers fuss importantly with her veil. Finally when it had been adjusted to every­one's satisfaction, all the women would chant their happy song and bring the bride out before the entire company.

 


 

127

All the women of the families would receive flowers from the bride­groom's mother, and the men would also choose some for their lapels.

Then the bride, her parents, and attendant would take their places in the hired carriage and start off for the church.

In those days, there was no rehearsal and stylized wedding procession with their tableau of bridesmaids, ring bearers and flower girls. Her white gloved hand gripping a nosegay of white roses, the bride walked into the church with her parents and sponsor where she would meet the groom at the altar.

The wedding was long, for, after the lengthy Mass, the ceremony uniting the young couple might last another hour. The rings were blessed with much chanting, and crowns placed upon the heads of bride and groom, blessed and interchanged three times, as the cantor sang and the priest prayed over them.

The priest would then lead the couple around the altar, and along the aisles of the church, all the while chanting the nuptial liturgy and swinging the thurible vigorously as the sweet and heavy vapors of incense filled the air. They would even march out the door, outside around the church, priest and acolytes, the cantor, the bride and groom, the sponsors and old relatives who felt they had a special role in this wedding.

Expressions of joy were spontaneous and genuine among the early immigrants, their own village habits still strong in them. As the priest completed the ceremony and bent down to congratulate the bride and groom, an exultant Zaghloot would ring out in the little church, easing the

 


 

128

solemnity of the long and symbolic ceremony. "Now good," an old grand­father would be heard to say, "Praise God, we have them married, let's get on to the feast."

He would rise up in his pew, giving the signal for all to follow.

The bridal feast was served in the bridegroom's house by all the women of the family, the old and dignified matrons and every young girl who could carry a platter without spilling its contents.

Group after group of diners sat down and rose up from the table, each in the order of his social position, the bride and groom seated together at the head, the priest at their side, the fathers, grandfathers, elderly uncles and cousins, the mother and grandmother of the bride and a few old friends whom time had given a position of community respect. At the first table, too, would be the adult guests from other cities. A Cleveland wedding could draw company coming on the train and the interurban from every city in Ohio, and even from New York, Detroit and Chicago.

The tables were set and reset until all had been fed, and at last the children were called, their Sunday clothing dusty from play in the street. Fed and given their share of sweets, they then could join the other guests, seated and standing in a great semi-circle around a dais, on which the bride and groom accepted the good wishes of the company.

Men from the groom's family gathered before the bridal couple. The leader waved a handkerchief as the group danced the quick and emphatic dabke, the age old folk dance of every festive occasion. They stood before the young people, their hands upon each other's shoulders and sang extempore,

 


 

129

praising the bride's beauty and virtue, the groom's nobility and manly attributes, and the parents' respect among all their friends. Loud and long, in joyous expression, their voices rang out to the street. When all these uncles had been kissed in turn by the bride and groom, the bride's relatives, not to be outdone, composed even longer songs, more lavish in their praise, their voices rising to echo and mingle with all the memories of the house.

For so many of those people who could not read or write, extempore versing was a preservation of the poetry and music of generations, each adding, improvising and embellishing. As the first untutored generation died away, these verses were lost. The men rhymed their extempore not only at weddings, but on every festive occasion, for they were singers, these men, and poets, and all the human emotions found expression in those strong voices.

The women, too, vied with each other to compose beautiful chants. Rhyming and lilting, laughter and joy were captured on a golden chain of words ending in the pealing, exultant cry of the Zaghloot. "La La La La Lu lu lu l'aishe. To life" they sang, "to life." An Arab wedding was not just a family event, a community occasion, a weekend of festivities. It was, rather, a command performance. Everyone must sing, everyone must dance.

Before the immigrants learned to sing the American National Anthem, they sang the song of Syrian independence long years before independence became a reality. They sang this song at every wedding, and later generations, who learned not one word of Arabic, can still remember those phrases of patriotism sung out by their grandparents. "Enthee Souria ya biladi,"

 


TABLE OF CONTENTS | HOME | NEXT TOPIC