Princess weds amid traditional all-women celebrations

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Twenty thousand flowers, hundreds of princesses and a rose-coloured tent holding 3,000 women marked the weekend wedding celebrations for Sheikha Hessa bint Saqr.

As the 25-year-old bride, youngest daughter of Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, made her entrance, the female throng in black abayas, offering only the occasional glimpse of vibrant sequined dress beneath, began to wail, a sound that grew in a crescendo.

In keeping with Emirati tradition, no men attended.

It was not until just before midnight that the groom, Sheikh Abdulla bin Humaid, 28, a finance graduate from California State University, made his appearance.Until then it had been an entirely female affair. Even the palace’s security guards were female.

Royalty from all over the Emirates had gathered to honour the families, including Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, affectionately known as “Mother of the Emirates”, the widow of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, founder of the nation.

Respected women from Ras al Khaimah’s mountains and desert tribes also came to bestow congratulations.

Julien Septanil, the renowned Parisian wedding planner, presided over seven weeks of elaborate preparations.

The result was a breathtaking fusion of elegant French design and traditional Emirati ceremony. It took 10 days to decorate the inside of the tent, which was lit by 1,000 lights.

Popular Lebanese love melodies played in the background as the women sipped strawberry juice and perfumed their abayas with incense. At one point, the buzz of the hall quickly hushed when the lights dimmed and two large mirrored doors opened revealing the bride. Sheikha Hessa wore a traditional European white dress with a full skirt and long veil and delicate henna patterns adorned her arms.

Then Sheikha Hana bint Juma’a Al Majid, wife of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, took the bride’s arm and escorted her to a pink sofa at the front of the tent.

There, Sheikha Hessa, a graduate in English literature from the American University of Sharjah, sat surrounded by her young relatives – who were dressed in the same pink hue as the tent – and received blessings from the guests.

After his appearance, the groom, clad in a gold bisht over his dishdash, spent about half an hour at her side before the couple departed.

During the evening, the singers Yara, from Lebanon, and Arwa, from Yemen, performed.

As women admired the singers, servers in white robes and sheer veils trimmed with gold circulated with platters of western, Middle Eastern, and traditional Emirati food. Among the dishes was harees, a gooey blend of wheat and meat; khabis, a meat dish; goat biriyani; and helluwa. The gelatinous mixture of starch, eggs, saffron, cardamom, nuts and rose water is brewed for two hours, and considered essential for happy occasions.

Throughout the evening, women drank Arabic coffee and teas brewed with fresh mint and zatar, a popular Middle Eastern blend of herbs.

One guest, Sheikha al Khateri, lives in the desert region. She wore an embroidered purple dress under her abaya, orange henna decorating her fingers, and looked back to her own wedding day 30 years before.

“Our celebrations lasted three days and during this time, nobody could see the bride,” she said. “For three days I stayed in hiding and my friends kept me entertained. My husband brought me my dowry in a big wooden box filled with gold, make-up, incense, dresses and perfume. They put a paste on my hands to whiten my skin and then my aunt decorated my hands with henna. We didn’t wear all of this make-up, only kohl and a lot of gold jewellery: bangles, earrings, necklaces. I even had gold on my burqa.”

At that wedding, women from the bride’s side of the family provided the entertainment instead of professional singers. Men performed the yola, a dance involving spinning and throwing rifles in the air; young girls tossed their black hair over their heads in a dance called the yin ashoon. Back then, women did not meet their husbands until the wedding night.

In the past decade it has become acceptable for women to meet their intended groom after the engagement ceremony so that he is not a stranger before the wedding.

Sheikha Hessa’s father, who celebrated 60 years of reign this year, is thought to be in his nineties. Her mother is Sheikh Saqr’s third wife.