West Bank to Chicago: Palestinian weddings in the diaspora help maintain culture
Rehab Ihmoud sat on a beige sofa in her house, hands intertwined loosely in her lap on a fall Sunday afternoon. Her face appeared smooth with a slight cheekbone flush and her hair was pulled back from her neck in a simple bridal bun creating an ideal position to rest her mesh veil. During her seven month engagement, she experienced the normal stressors of any bride-to-be. With only a few hours away from becoming a wife, she was confident in her choice.
The pinnacle of a Palestinian wedding is the “Bringing out the bride.” This is the time right before the bride and groom head to the banquet hall. American themes have interweaved with dominant Palestinian traditions as new generations are being raised in the United States, but the century old Palestinian-American culture lives on in Chicago and is demonstrated significantly during wedding celebrations.
When Nabil Ihmoud told his father, Mahmoud, he was ready to get married his mother, Asma, began casually searching for families with single daughters who might be a good match and when she met with Rehab she was immediately convinced that Rehab and Nabil would mesh. Mahmoud was then responsible for contacting Rehab’s father to arrange a time for the two families to get together for tea.
“I found out I knew these people before for a long time but we didn’t see them for a while,” Mahmoud said.
At 73 years old, Mahmoud’s eyes are worn though still matching well with his round face and smile. His family’s traditions did not start in Chicago, but instead began 20 miles outside of Jerusalem in a small Palestinian village in the West Bank. He sat in his simple yet elegant living room in a brown leather snug chair. His wife brought in a golden tray holding three tall glass cups containing evergreen mint leaves freshly picked from a backyard plant and a tea kettle seeping visible grey clouds of steam.
Palestinians have a strong presence in Chicago. The history goes back over 100 years and is continuing to grow each day with the celebrations of marriage unions. The Arab population from Palestine was mainly male immigrants in Chicago until World War II, according to Louise Cainkar, a professor at Marquette University. Before developing a community of their own in the Southern suburbs of Chicago, they settled in male boarding houses near 18th and Michigan. Cainkar explains in her book “Homeland Insecurity” that early on Arabs came to the United States because of trade opportunities. Most planned to come to America to work and send money back to Palestine to support their families. They eventually wanted to move back home. By 1970, Muslim Arabs owned 20 percent of all liquor and grocery stores in the Chicago area. Within twenty years they expanded business to include fast-food stores, auto shops, used car dealerships as well as other succeeding businesses.
Most of the Palestinians had moved out of boarding houses and to what is considered Chicago’s Black Belt by 1990, which includes communities such as Gage Park and Chicago Lawn. Other communities they moved to are Burbank, Oak Lawn, Hickory Hills, Bridgeview, Alsip and Palos Hills, suburbs just outside of Chicago. The population of Palestinians in Chicago only made up .35 percent, according to a United States Census on Arab Households for 2006-2010. According to Cainkar, 60 percent of the Arab population in Chicago is Palestinian.
To Palestinians, it is important to keep their culture alive, and a popular way of doing so is through marriage. Even though the younger generations have been raised in the United States where a different route is taken toward marriage, for the most part Palestinian-Americans are inheriting the traditions of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
The beginning stages of an Islamic-Palestinian wedding are unfamiliar to many Americans.
The first interaction between Rehab and Nabil lasted 30 minutes. During that time, they sought out answers that would help decide their fate. They spent that half hour discussing their personalities, likes and dislikes. Rehab was intrigued by Nabil’s determination to win her over. She wanted to know if she could rely on him and if he was ready for the responsibility of marriage, vice versa. Her father and brother served as the final line of defense. They did their own research by asking people familiar with Nabil to get a grasp of whom Rehab might be marrying. A week later she made her decision.
“It was something that I wasn’t scared of to be honest. I knew I was ready,” Rehab said.
Once a week on Sunday, for the next seven months they went out together, and when he was able to he would stop by after work during the week.
The official marriage proposal consisted of immediate family and friends. Both families were present while the couple was married by Islamic law.
“Basically we were married but we still didn’t know each other very well,” Rehab said. “So we had to do that because we weren’t allowed to go out alone if we weren’t committed to each other in some way.”
Kifah Mustapha, an Imam at the Mosque Foundation located in Bridgeview Ill., says he oversees 175-225 marriage licenses per year. In Islam people are not allowed to date as in going out and having an intimate relationship prior to marriage. The first dating relationship that is allowed is “responsible dating” and it happens during the engagement, according to Mustapha. The main matching times for men are between the ages of 24-27 and women between 19-21.
“You need to understand that there is a religious track and a cultural track,” Mustapha said.
At the proposal, the father of the groom will call on an Imam to come with him to the bride’s house. After the Turkish coffee is brought in, the families listen to the person leading the ceremony, usually the eldest of the people representing the groom, by speaking to the honor of the girl and her family using a religious reference. The groom’s family will not drink the coffee until the proposal is accepted. The father of the bride will then say, “please go ahead and drink your coffee” and that is the Palestinian way a family says yes to a proposal. Before the proposal, they could only visit each other with a family member present, but once they were married by Islamic Law they could freely go out on their own.
The Thursday before the wedding was the traditional Henna Party. This party is only for immediate family and close friends, consisting of approximately 400 people.
After months of dating her special day finally arrived.
THE WEDDING DAY
Rehab’s mother passed petite coffee cups filled with Turkish coffee around the small group of women. The elder women of the family chanted and ululated, a common Palestinian high-pitched sound of celebration. It is a tradition for immediate family members to meet at the bride’s house or a member of her immediate family’s home for the “taking out of the bride.” Men from the bride’s immediate family stood in line across the front of the house welcoming the groom’s family members who drove onto her block in a single file line. Each man moved in a fluent motion taking turns one by one saying hello to their new family members.
Moments later Rehab’s father and his brother walked up the steps to the side door and into the house. Rehab scrunched the right side of her dress into a moderate fist within one hand and then stood readjusting her veil with both hands. After photos were taken, she was escorted to the car and her father gave her an emotionally tense parting embrace and a moment later the bride and groom entered the SUV together. The remaining family returned to their vehicles to follow the bride and groom to Hanging Garden Banquet Hall for the wedding ceremony.
Guests arrived at the hall around 7 p.m. that night. Men and women entered through their own entrances into separate rooms.
Following the dinner, an adopted ceremony occurred in the middle of the dance floor. The groom gleamed with joy as he waited eagerly. Guests flocked to the front of the dance floor just out of the way of the candle tradition to watch the ritual. The bride entered through the walkway consisting of four extravagant sections of draping gold and accented white fabric holding two lit candles, one in each hand. The petite flames flickered as she slowly walked around the outside, her heels echoed on the tanned hardwood floor. Rehab began circling Nabil like she was carving an invisible line counterclockwise around him. Her women escorts, a combination of close family and friends entered the room and formed a single file line on the far side of the dance floor.
As she moved in front of her groom, she moved toward the line of women stopping in front of each and blowing a strong breath at each of their lit candle sticks. After she completes her circles, the bride stopped in front of the groom and he smiled before inhaling and blowing her two candles out. Small streams of smoke revealed the completion of the practice as they floated upward toward the ceiling.
By 10 p.m. the banquet hall thinned out, leaving only immediate family and close friends. The men and women joined together in one of the banquet hall rooms and continued to dance energetically through the night.
Following the wedding, Rehab and Nabil moved into the newly renovated basement of the two-flat apartment, which includes two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room and a kitchen, previously shared with Nabil’s parents and brother. Nabil and Rehab celebrated their one-year anniversary on Oct. 27.
“I know a lot of people think it’s a bad idea [to have an arranged meeting] but sometimes it turns out very good,” Rehab said. “You might meet the love of your life, honestly and I think I did.”
Megan Purazrang is a Reporter for the Franklin Favorite and is a freelance writer for Big Frontier Communications. Previously she has freelanced for NBC Chicago, Pioneer Press/Sun-Times Media and SociaLife Chicago.