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We want it all
The ever-changing Persian wedding

April 29, 2004

Regardless of how many weddings I attend, each time the thrill is there. Weddings are an emotional event that bring out the best in me. While among Persian Moslems weddings are constantly altered, in other cultures they appear to have remained the same.

For instance, when I watch old movies, although the dress styles and car models date it back, the ceremony is still the same, someone walks the bride down the aisle, the couple say their vows, rings are exchanged, and they are pronounced man and wife. They kiss and that's it.

Next scene is usually a getaway car for the honeymooners and cans that jingle and the "Just Married" sign fades away in a distance. My American friends tell me that is how their grandparents were married, too.

I look at the Persian-Moslem weddings and wonder how much more a ceremony could change before it settles down and becomes a fixated tradition.

I look back at my grandmother's. She was engaged to be married when she was two. My great grandfather announced at a family gathering that Touron should grow up to marry Mohammad -- a cousin five years her senior -- and that was that. Grandma told me later that before her wedding ceremony, my great grandmother managed to sneak the bride's dolls into her hope chest. At age twelve, that mattered more to the child bride than the outcome of her marriage.

The day of her wedding, women relatives took her to the bathhouse for a prolonged bathing ceremony. As she came out of the bathhouse, tambourine players surrounded her and a lamb was slaughtered before her. She had the red tone of henna in her hair and nails, dark sormeh brought out the best in her hazel eyes, and her skin shone after all the scrubbing.

She was married in a lovely velvet gown and among women while the groom stayed among men in another building at the opposite end of the garden. A clergy went back and forth to perform the ceremony and to have the documents signed by their parents. No rings were exchanged, but the bride received a beautiful emerald ring from her mother-in-law and the young couple joined hands.

After dinner they were sent to their bedroom while women relatives waited around to snoop and eavesdrop. Grandma hated her wedding, but in time she grew to love her husband. They stayed married till he died sixty years later. There are no photographs, but the smell of burning wild rue -- esfand -- always brought her the memory of her wedding night.

My parents had it a little easier, even though they, too, were matched by older relatives, they had the advantage of an engagement in their teens. Thanks to that gold band, they were allowed a hand holding here and a chat there without causing any scandal. At her wedding, my mother wore white and a beautician applied layers of makeup on her face and curled her hair with a hot iron. She held a silk bouquet that someone had brought from "Farang" and a white flower adorned her hair.

Men and women joined for dinner after the ceremony, although they were seated at opposite ends of the room. I heard the bride danced once, it was a Persian dance and among women. A band played and a dancer performed before the acrobat show began. Late at night, servants held lanterns to show the way as the bride and groom, followed by guests, walked to their new home, located at the opposite end of grandfather's garden. Someone carried a brazier of burning esfand to ward off evil eyes. A few days later, the young couple went to a photography studio for a black and white picture.

When my oldest sister -- who grew up in England -- got married, I was ten. She met her husband at work and they fell in love. When he made an appointment to come with his parents and ask for my sister's hand, my father wasn't so thrilled. But, in time he managed to impress my father enough to receive his approval.

At her wedding, my sister wore a beautiful long white gown and a veil to cover her bare shoulders. She insisted on having bridesmaids. Upon her instructions, another sister and I wore the white dresses she had picked for us. I liked the red chiffon sash with a bow on the side. We held the train of her dress while she walked around. The aghd ceremony was at our house, but young girls were forbidden to attend -- believed to jinx their own chances of marriage.

After the ceremony, the bride and groom did their waltz as everyone watched and then a cha-cha while a few others joined in. The smell of burning esfand filled the air and a photographer took many color pictures. Twenty four cars blew their horns at midnight to follow the young couple to their apartment.

The first ceremony I attended was in fact my own. Even after all the modern changes, the room was filled with women only. While I tried to read verses from the holy book, Koran, my aunt grinded the sugar cones on a white cloth over my head, .and my sisters jokingly used seven colors of silk to sew the mouths of anyone whose words could harm me. I did as instructed, saving my yes for the third time the clergy asked. 

I don't remember the band, the dinner, or any other details. In fact my most vivid memory comes from the many jewels our relatives put on me which made me glitter like a Christmas tree, and the strong smell of burning wild rue -- esfand.

I moved to the United States way back then. Over the years I began to notice that as lifestyles changed so did the Persian weddings.

Now each time there's a wedding, I look forward to it as if it is a first. No two Persian weddings are the same. The sofreh aghd -- now more like a table -- no longer resembles what it used to be. The mirror is sometimes as big as the table itself. The bride and groom sit together from the beginning and no one tells the bride to keep her veil over her face until after the aghd.

The ceremony often takes place at a hotel. Mothers work, so the sofreh is prepared by professionals who, in an attempt to justify the cost, overdo the flowers. They also do away with some traditional items. For instance, no one seems to care about putting a sac of henna on the sofreh which in the old days used to be a must. The bread, done by a fancy baker, looks anything but edible, and the tray of esfand  is often decorated in a modern fashion.

Most of the responsibilities fall on the young couple's shoulders. They begin with selection of cards and place and to the last minute worry that it may all turn out to be a disaster. There are brides or grooms who need to learn how to say baleh -- yes -- for the first time. The ceremony is open to all guests, men and women. There are bouquets to be thrown and I can't help but wonder how my grandmother would feel if anyone tossed her garter to a crowd. We want it all! We want the baklava and the cake, we want the aghd and the cocktail party, we want not only noghl and coins in the air, but rice, rose petals, and confetti, too.

A lot of work and tons of money goes into one night. Videos are taken and disregarding an army of photographers, guests turn into paparazzi themselves. The dance floor is too crowded and Persian and American music is mixed to form a jumping rhythm. In the end, there is the smell of burning esfand and soon there will be nothing left of the night but a sweet memory captured in a silver frame.

Last night's wedding was great and as a close friend, I did my share to help. I close my eyes and think of the one item that time has failed to change. I hope they keep this one. What brings the weddings of the past and future together, what closes the time lapse between our weddings, and what will always trigger the memory is the distinct aroma of burning esfand!

Someone has to stop the wedding race. The way this is going there's no limit. The hotels are so booked that if you want to be accommodated in your ideal place, you need to make a reservation while you're in kindergarten. We strive to make every wedding better than the last, and everyone feels they have to do something new and improved. We become more and more American while struggling to preserve our Persian-ness, and meanwhile the cost continues to escalate.

I soak my aching feet in warm water and wonder if there is a kind way to talk to my three children about the wedding chapels in Vegas.

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a freelance writer, poet and artist. She lives in San Diego, California.

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