Big fat Kumzari wedding.

18 Feb

Wedding day, so get ready for a long post. Well, actually, it was the fifth day of the wedding, the last and most important. I decided to go to the “Coffee Shop” for 9:30 and take my new friend up on his offer. But I had to figure out what I was going to wear. I hadn’t come expecting to go to a wedding! I was faced with the poor choice of wearing local clothes and being ridiculous or wearing my clothes and being ridiculous. I don’t yet have a dishdasha so it was going to be my version of ridiculous. I tried to make myself as presentable as possible.

Good. But now I also had to get a gift. Luckily, the meeting place was across the road from the town “Hypermarket,” so I headed there. I decided not to try to get all fancy and mess up, so I just got some chocolates. The Indian fellow at the cashier did not approve of the wrapping paper I got so he personally took me in hand and selected paper and did the wrapping, very very carefully.

I showed up at the appointed spot and there were certainly guys there who were going to the wedding, but the one I had spoken to was nowhere to be seen. I was feeling a bit awkward trying to mingle, especially as I soon realized I hadn’t gotten his name! I couldn’t even explain what I was doing there. “Uh, some guy, one of you, said I could come”–that just wasn’t going to cut it. But luckily he showed up and first thing I did was ask him his name.

Here is Ali, in profile, wearing the very traditional keffiyeh with black akal, more typical of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia than Oman. I guess here it is a sort of tux.

To the left is the Sheikh of Kumzar. He is only 23 and currently studying at the University of Sharjah. He is in the ruling line and his father died recently, so he has assumed his position. He is holding a kind of mini shepherd’s staff. Many of the men were holding those. The fellow on the right is holding swords–there were a lot of swords on display. His holster or whatever it’s called also had rounds of bullets. That’s right. During the preparations, Ali was very busy grabbing and packing guns. “You afraid, so many guns, yes?” Some looked close to picturesque muskets. Some were automatic weapons.

The old gentleman brought his drum. He was a real cut-up. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Time to push off. Now one thing about Kumzaris is that when it comes to water or fishing or boats, they ALL have an opinion. And that was great, because I got a really good video clip of lots of Kumzari being spoken by different people as we set off–that is, until they got self-conscious about my shooting the video.

Much of the time on the boat was spent looking around for fish activity. These waters are teeming with fish–and dolphins. More than once I have heard people say that there are more fish in these waters than they know what to do with.

There was also a lot of horsing around of the sort that people like to do on boats. Racing the other boat, blasting music, etc. You see the fellow in the middle? That’s Adi, and he had a much better camera than mine. Also, cell phones were going off and being checked pretty continually. There is no reason to get all National Geographic on this. They used to use daggers, then they got guns, and now they have AK-47s. They used to fish in dhows, now they have motorboats. That’s Ali at the wheel.

Now you might well ask why is everyone going there in a boat if they are from there? Well, there is no work in Kumzar. These men all live in Khasab. Ali is a teacher and social worker.

Finally, we rounded the point and Kumzar became visible at a far distance. Here is a shot of it as we got nice and close. The first sighting of Kumzar! You can see that it is wedged into a craggy ravine in the mountains. The main street is not a street but a dried river bed.

Now what better way to announce the arrival of the new party than to fire off a lot of guns. I have a longer video than this with serious automatic weapon fire, but this short one should do to give you the flavor.

Much of the day was spent sitting in the middle of the town watching dancing and singing happen in the middle. The young Sheikh took a good position on a couch that was brought down from someone’s house for him and some elders. I was told almost immediately that the town was divided into factions–the riverbed separates them!–but that the young ruler was doing a good job of keeping relations steady.

There was also a lot of standing around. Standing around in the sun. It’s winter inshallah otherwise I don’t know if I could have withstood it.

There was almost continual cooking going on nearby. A young man named Hasan explained that they were cooking goat. “But not these bad goats here. Strong goats from the mountains!”

The men in western trousers are Indians. You encounter them everywhere along the Arabian coast, immigrant workers–it’s been going on for centuries. They are always polite and incredibly hard-working. All these places are kept running by these men. When I ask Indians in these parts where they are from, 80% of the time the response is Kerala. You know how in New York the restaurant may be Italian, or French, or just American, but you peek in the kitchen and it is Mexicans actually making the stuff? Here it is often Indians.

Ok, the dancing and singing! There are two basic kinds. The slow kind, all men, is Dan. At about second 40 you will notice an older man in a brown dishdash walking around the group, occasionally speaking instructions. He is giving the next verse, and also keeping the dance in order. You will also notice that I wasn’t the only one doing video recording.

Towards the end of that clip you may have heard the high-pitched trill of a group of women. They were actually responding to a dance going on in a different part of the road. That is the faster dance, which involves a row of women facing a row of men, and is called Rowah:

That’s Ali admonishing me. “Problem, women.” If it sounds like Robert Johnson saying that, that’s fair enough, since Ali is saying that any kind of contact between me (or any man) and a woman who is not one’s wife is going to cause conflict. (And you know that’s how Mr. Johnson met his end.) I never saw the bride. No one ever pointed her out. She was never near the groom. The women wore the real burqas, with the metal piece over the face. I wouldn’t say this is to protect the men from temptation. I would say most of this is to do with controlling and harnessing the libidos of women.

The main impression I took away from all this is that marriage here is not between two people. It is a social contract. It is between each of the marrying individuals and the community. We, by contrast, don’t have all these rules limiting contact between men and women. We have no boundaries. Instead, we leave it all to the couple itself, who are supposed to love each other deeply and protect their bond all by themselves. It is a ridiculous thing to ask of a couple.

There is a third kind of dancing, all men, and it is the most intense kind. The week of celebrations ends with it. It is called Ramsa, or Wuhayiba. Pseudo sword fighting goes on all around the central group–pretty much tailor made to suit Orientalist taste.

(I know it looks like I spent the entire day looking at things through my camera, so let me say right now that I took a couple dozen photos and about 6 mins. total of video recordings. The rest of the 8 hours I was just there.)

This was just the start of the Wuhayiba. It kept going and building up. I didn’t shoot any more video, but maybe this progression of photos gives a sense of the growing frenzy.

At a certain point in this mêlée a boy in front of me went into an epileptic seizure. He was immediately gathered up and carried away to be cared for. It takes a village! No one was surprised by this–of course something like this might happen when things start to go a little mad. In the second photo in the sequence you will see towards the center an older man with a light green turban, facing the camera, his face mostly visible. He brought the proceedings to an end by going into a frenzy right and proper, chasing people around with his stick, his eyes rolling around like a madman’s. He was controlled by some of the men and made to lie down.

All the children, of course, came closer to stare at him, giggling but also scared. When he finally sat up–well, you haven’t seen pigeons scatter as fast as these kids did. He turned to one side and people scattered in that direction. You see, the djinn had gotten into him. (The closest translation is daemon. It’s the word our genie comes from.)

The kids all understood that he had become the vehicle of some powerful and not entirely benevolent juju. (OK, that’s an unofficial term.) When he stood up he went straight up to one of the men sitting down, grabbed both armrests, and said some things straight into his face. The man in the chair sat stone-like, unable to move. I wanted to move in front of him to see his face, but it was clear to me that we had reached a somewhat…touchy juncture in the proceedings, and as the foreigner I felt I was liable to become the attractor for the crazy energies. But I stood behind him with some others and I tell you that man did not and could not move.

Just ten minutes before, the main road had been loud with festivity, but now it was almost empty. It was just the stunned guy in the chair and a few people tending to him (some serious, some finding humor in it–he elicited both responses with no contradiction). I had to catch my boat home so I left him there, sitting in his plastic chair in the dark.

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5 Responses to “Big fat Kumzari wedding.”

  1. goldenwestclothing February 18, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

    Amazing, Alex. Amid all the action, do you think people stopped noticing your foreign clothed presence? When Ali asked if you were afraid of the guns, did he want you to say yes?

    • Spirito Pellegrino March 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      He knew I had reason to be worried. It was the anthropological scenario. Everyone knew that I was watching them as national geographic objects. Everyone knew my photos were going on the Internet.

    • Spirito Pellegrino March 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      No one ever stopped noticing that i was foreign and a strange element.

  2. Anat Meruk February 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    Jona was enthusiastic about the sword dance and asked when he too could join the wedding…

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