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Henna Party: Excerpt from "Diary of a Turkish Wedding"

Enjoy this excerpt (Chapter 17: "The Henna Party") from my book, Diary of a Turkish Wedding.

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In former times, Turkish wedding festivities were drawn-out affairs lasting several days. They began on a Monday with the dispatch of the bridal trousseau to the bridegroom’s house. The procession carrying the trousseau was preceded by large wooden or iron “trees” decorated with cloths, fruits, and flowers. The bridal bath was held the following day (Tuesday), while Wednesday evening, a henna party was held in the “harem” section of the house where the bride-to-be lived. At the same time, the menfolk would be enjoying themselves in the men’s quarters (selamlık) of the same house or in the groom’s house.

The henna party was an occasion when the bride, young girls, and the womenfolk of her future husband dressed up in the sumptuous, heavily embroidered dresses called bindalli. The bride’s face is concealed by a sequined red veil. A few of the groom’s relatives bring the henna for the party on a silver tray with two burning candles to the bride’s house. After all the guests are assembled, the bride’s future mother-in-law rolls out before her—like a carpet would be rolled out—a bolt of silk cloth she brings with her as a gift. The bride and her friends, carrying lit candles, approach the guests, while coins are scattered over the bride’s head as symbols of fertility. The bride walks along the unrolled bolt of silk cloth towards her future mother-in-law. Very often, this is the first occasion the two women meet. The bride then takes the older woman’s hand and kisses it respectfully.

Trays of fruits and nuts, pastries, and marzipan appear. Songs and ditties reserved only for henna parties are sung in an attempt to make the prospective bride cry (her crying was believed to bring good luck).

Next, the bride is made to sit on a cushion, and her mother-in-law places a gold coin in the palm of her hand. This gold coin was believed to be a symbol of good luck and abundance. Then, a woman who is known to have a happy marriage has the job of using henna to dye, or tinge, the palms, fingertips, and big toes of the bride. The bride’s unmarried friends also tinged their hands with henna, in the belief that this would enable them to get married soon.

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On the day of the women's henna party in our bride's village, we got up early to pack the gifts for the bride's mother, and the candies and foods we were bringing for the parties. We also packed the wedding trousseau and our wedding clothes. The sisters-in-law and six other women selected from the groom's village traveled with me to the bride's village to experience the night of the bride's wedding ritual known as Henna Night.

That would be followed by another day of celebration, when the bride and groom were to be joined in marriage. I was about to face forty hours or more without anyone who could speak a word of English, and without my husband to translate for me—and I was expected to give the bride all the clothes I bought for her…without knowing anything about her size, because I had never met her or seen her before, nor had I seen or met any members of her family. It felt like a nightmare in the making.

With my Turkish/English dictionary in hand, I was really off on another adventure. Most of the women couldn’t read, so when I looked up a word, I had to say it out loud. Most letters in the Turkish alphabet are the same as the ones we use in the States, but the letters are pronounced differently. For instance, the letter “d” is pronounced “de,” which rhymes with a word like “deft.”

Oh Lord, bless my tongue and help me to pronounce these words correctly!

I wouldn't have missed this party for anything in the world. I trusted that these women loved me, and I could feel it. May the laughter and love prevail!

We loaded 17 women and children, luggage, boxes of food, and wedding gifts into our nine-passenger van. Then we stopped to pick up the wedding dress and continued down the dusty, dry, hot roads to the bride’s home. I was stressing out all the way, hoping she would love the wedding dress, that it would fit her, that I could find some food to eat comfortably, and that I wouldn’t somehow embarrass myself—so many unknowns to drive one’s mind silly with worry.

The wedding dress was the most beautiful dress of any I had seen in all the seven shops where we looked. It was entirely made of lace and satin with a beautiful veil and a tiara of pearls—it was truly a dress I would love to have worn. So, I bought it for her.

This was an arranged marriage. Curious as I am, I wondered how the heck this marriage had been arranged at such a great distance. No one in either family has a car, and what I was told would be a one-hour trip felt like it was five hours because of the dust and heat. I decided to assert myself, and requested a window seat because it was the only possible way to get a little bit of ventilation. No matter how many people occupy a van or bus, the windows are NOT opened…and there was no air conditioning, and not even the vents are opened.

For the first half of the trip, I was reasonably comfortable because I was able to have the window open. Then, someone in the back was afraid she would have to go to the hospital if she had the wind blowing on her, so we stopped the van and the one open window next to me was cranked shut. It is amazing how superstitions are passed down from one generation to the next, but I realize that this also happens in many rural areas of the United States, and no doubt in many cultures all around the world.

There was a small flange or vent window in the front seat of the van and I was given the front passenger seat. It sounds appealing because of the view, the vent, and my own seat, but in fact it was a very scary position because there are no road rules in the rugged back country of Turkey. However, the front seat was a great blessing because I could sneak some air through the flange window, and I survived.

Our escort was named Sadek Bey. In Turkey, Bey signifies a person of honor, usually an elder of the village. Bey is also a term of endearment. Sadek Bey got out of the van, and, to announce our arrival, he shot off several rounds of ammo from a shotgun. At that time, there were no cell phones in Turkey, so the “noisy gunpowder announcement” was a practical way to give a little advance notice that we were here.

Our van bumped over a roadway of hand-laid stones into a village where there was no evidence of a single car or truck. The only means of conveyance were donkey carts or carts drawn by horses or oxen.

It was immediately clear to me that the main export from this town was animal manure, which was spread out in plots about 12 inches thick and 12 feet square to dry in the sun. Then, it is cut into two-foot square slabs and put into plastic bags, loaded and stacked up onto the carts, and trotted out of the village into town by horses, donkeys, or oxen. Additional slabs of dried manure are stacked ten feet high next to the houses.

We were in the “way back” or “outback” of Turkey, where the villages are comprised of clusters of five to twenty homes. We saw shepherds with sheep and goats in the fields and donkey-drawn wagons carrying stacks of animal dung and hay.

We had a difficult time finding the right house and wandered through animal yards and bushes spread with washed clothes to dry. The ground is so hard and dusty that there are no clothes lines. They just lay the clothes on top of the fences or bushes to dry. Remember, these people only have two or three pieces of clothing each, so they wash one while they wear another one.

Finally, we were met by a stream of the villagers who led us to the home of the negotiator—not the bride’s home, which took me a while to find out. I was swarmed with every village woman’s and girl’s hosh gelden, and attempted to answer gracefully hosh buldock, followed by the embrace and exchange of cheek kisses. Most of the women and girls just stared. The younger girls, ten and under, crowded around me—I was sure not one of them had ever seen a blonde, nor blue eyes, nor hot-pink-painted fingernails. I saw no TV antennas or cars, but, by the young girls’ clothes, it seemed that shopping trips to larger towns occurred at least once a year.

We stayed at the negotiator’s house for about an hour while hot tea was served in two-inch-tall glasses and we all sat on the floor in a big circle in the living room. There was no furniture, only some pillows to sit on and not enough pillows for all of us. But, my delightful sisters-in-law made sure I had the nicest, fluffiest pillow, and they flanked me on either side to make sure that I was well taken care of.

One sister-in-law, Thelma, had three young children. She was very frail, slim, and sickly, and she was always very busy attending to her young and rambunctious children. I worried about her because her husband had no work, and he was very loud and full of rage. I knew he was abusive to her, and he was openly rough and loud with the children. After his outbursts, because I couldn’t console her with words, I simply held her in my generous, soft arms, rocked her, and sent my love to her heart so that she would know that I felt her pain, and that I would protect her. On this day, she sat beside me, I loved her, and was comforted by her as she attempted to let me know what was expected of me through our strange and evolving sign language of understanding.

Emme, my other quasi-sister-in-law, sat to my left. She was so beautiful, like Brooke Shields when she was 14 or 15, and starred in the movie Blue Lagoon. Emme had gorgeous, long, thick, chestnut-colored hair that no one would ever see because it had to be covered with a scarf at all times. I enjoyed her sweetness and appreciated how very bright-minded she was. I was very fond of her, and she somehow understood my every need.

Emme seemed to willingly take on the position of “hand maiden.” She always knew where my purse was; she would go into the toilet first to make sure it was clean enough for me; she would bring me tea and take away my used plates and glasses; and she always made sure I had the best pillow or place on the couch. We somehow easily communicated and giggled with glee like girls as we recognized a oneness of mind. I felt so sorry for her because I could see that she was very bright and beautiful, and her chances of meeting a nice young man in their village who could give her a much better life were slim to none. She was so young and so innocent, with a very loving and caring heart.

I knew she observed the abuse that my husband’s brother inflicted on her sister. His violence and rage was horrifying to me, and it had to be terrifying to her. She had been sent by her parents to stay with her sister, Thelma, because they hoped that he would be less violent if Emme was in the home. Emme could help her frail and victimized sister, who had some severe female health issues, with the children. I didn’t know if her being there really helped much.

My heart went out to both these young women, and I hoped that I would be able to help them both have a better life. They sat on either side of me this day as the wedding events unfolded. Every moment was a new adventure, and I just had to keep reminding myself that it was a grand experience, and not to get frustrated by all the inconveniences, differences, and the frustration of not being able to communicate…grrrrrrrr.

In my communicative frustration, I wrote a daily diary in hopes that someday I could share it with people who would never have the opportunity to take a journey into the heart of Turkey to understand this special and unusual kind of life.

Chemce, a neighbor who accompanied us, always saved the day for me. She could always make me and everyone else laugh. Chemce was a vibrant, passionate woman who clearly knew hard work. I had seen her toil in her gardens and harvest dozens of sunflowers, set them in the sun to dry, and pick all the seeds out to be roasted and used for her family’s nourishment. It takes hours to pick all those seeds out; I know because I learned how to do it the hard way. Chemce also knew deep love for her husband and her family. She was constantly teasing me by suggesting that my guy and I go to a hotel some night to romp in luxury. Somehow, we understood each other without a single word in common. Together, we had a sign language that leapt all barriers of words and a laughter that healed every situation.

I truly felt love for these women. Their loving energy surrounded me, and sometimes the emotional energy was so strong that all of us felt our eyes well up with tears. We all agreed that this was a very difficult situation, but we all stuck together and laughed our way through it.

Mebahut, another neighbor woman who came with us, became very sick to her stomach after eating the food at the noon meal, and, within the next 24 hours, most of us were suffering varying degrees of discomfort.

By 3 o’clock that afternoon, we were all exhausted from the ride, the heat, and the stress, so we collapsed for a nap in any space we could find. No windows were open, and the fan could not be turned on because of the high cost of electricity. I fell into a deep sleep anyway, just to escape from the “systems overload” I was experiencing.

Ah, Dreamland—an escape from reality!

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