Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two Zanzibar Wedding Celebrations: first traditional, then western style

On August 8 and 9 were the capstone events that brought us to Zanzibar – the wedding celebrations for Sam and Nafisa. 
The Wedding Lunch

First, on Saturday, was a traditional lunch at the Bwawani Hotel, the first five-star hotel in all of East Africa although currently, under government ownership, my impression is that the hotel part of the facility has rather gone down hill – indeed, the review sites suggest that the hotel is a real dump.

But the party facility behind the  hotel has long been used for official receptions and receptions held by officials, and it continues in that function because the staff are used to the necessary security precautions.  At many Zanzibari parties among the well-off and well-connected, the tradition is to include entrance cards with invitations, and it is necessary to show the card to gain entrance through a gate at which a security guard is stationed.

The wedding reception actually consisted of two separate lunches, one for the men, held under tents outside, and one for the women, held inside.  Generally speaking, the men were not allowed to come into the women’s luncheon, but they had music throughout, which was piped outside on loudspeakers.  ALL the men wore traditional attire – canzu’s, a sheath covering the shoulders and arms and dropping to the shoes, over which the men wore a western-style suit jacket, with a kofia on the head — a hat with straight sides, no brim, and creased at the top so as to form a shallow bowl on top — and sandals rather than western dress shoes.  I had brought two suits for the two wedding events, but it turned out that I only had need of one.  But I had never owned a canzu or kofia, so I was taken on an emergency shopping trip the day before (discussed here); here is how Sam and I were attired for the day:

At first, I sat down at a table with some of our other family.  Sitting next to me was a man about my age who told me that he was the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Zanzibar, a post that he had held for some 20-odd years, serving during the terms of three separate presidents, but has recently retired.  He said that he and Mohamed Jiddawi, Nafisa’s father, had been school classmates; Mohamed told me later that, indeed, the Chief Justice had been his deskmate.  After a while, someone came over to tell me that I was sitting at the wrong table – there was a head table with five seats, and I was to sit there, on directly to Sam’s left; on Sam’s right would be Nafisa’s father; on my left would be Amani Abeid Karume, the former president of Zanzibar, while on Mohamed’s right would be the former vice-president of Zanzibar.  Karume had, in fact, been another of Mohamed’s classmates.   Because the seats were not yet filled, I kept chatting with the former Chief Justice; a number of other men came over to introduce themselves, mentioning the current and former government ministry positions they had held, and some talking about having gone to school with Mohamed Jiddawi.  Mr. Jiddawi himself has served for many years as the first secretary of the Zanzibar Ministry of Health (the top appointed official below the position of Minister, which in the parliamentary system has to be filled by a member of parliament).  It was clear to me that Mohamed Jiddawi and his classmates had been the intellectual elite of Zanzibar who came of age in the years following independence, and that they had done exceptionally well in their careers.  I heard from others later in the week that the Jiddawi family is especially well-known and connected in a variety of ways, that “everyone who is anyone” would have been there.

The former president and vice-president arrived in cars that drove directly up to the dining area, and we took our seats at the head table.  Looking out, there were about a dozen tables, with ten or eleven seats apiece; about 120 men in all.  Each of the wedding events had about 300 guests – I thought it was pretty darn big, but other Zanzibaris later told me that in Zanzibar, 300 is an intimate wedding.  Another Jiddawi cousin is getting married the following weekend; that will be attended by 800 guests, which is, apparently, much more par for the course.  Seated behind us were two plain-clothed security guards, dressed identically — I did not ask whether these were governments, just as Secret Service agents attend former presidents, or assigned privately, but when we were called up as the first table to line up at the buffet dished available, the security guys were ready to go pick up food for the formers.  A cleric – Sam told me that it was the same man who had performed his conversion that made him eligible to marry a Muslim woman— recited the opening prayers, Sam rose to thank the attendees for coming, and then we were called up, table by table, to the array of buffet offerings.  I had a nice chat with Mr. Karume about the various international improvement and educational projects to which he was devoting his time since leaving office. 

A line of several men playing percussion instruments performed for us for a while, but mostly the musical entertainment continued to be provide by loudspeaker from inside the women’s luncheon hall   

After dinner, we stood around while photographs were taken of various combinations of attendees.   But we couldn’t leave, because I was told that a select group of men, the close family of the bride and groom, would be allowed to enter the women’s hall once they had finished eating.  But the women had just barely begun eating when we rose for photographs, so apparently we would have an hour to wait.  While we were waiting, we had a special treat, because an SUV rolled up and out came Mohamed’s mother, who has been bed-ridden for year, sitting in  a wheelchair, so that she could see Sam on the day his official wedding celebrations began.  She had apparently insisted on coming to participate in her granddaughter's (and during Ramadan Sam had told her, too, that he had hoped she could make it), even though she did not have the stamina to be there for the whole lunch. 

That is when things got more interesting.  One of our number handed out some slender rods formed into a hook on one end, like a cane; we were lined up two by two, and walked slowly toward the women’s hall,   practicing a step that involved two steps to the right, followed by raising the cane up high.  We had it down by the time we reached the entry door, and then music broke out – the wedding song written in Swahili’s especially for Sam and Nafisa’s wedding, a Comoro Islands tradition.  So as we entered with Sam, we were doing the Comoro Islands sword dance, much as we had done at the first evening party a couple of days before.  But the women in the hall were cheering and singing along with the song

Sam and Nafisa were grinning ear to ear, and I found it this completely novel tradition to be a particularly emotional moment.

Then one of Nafisa’s uncles began to dance with her, and general dancing broke out. 

There were two bands playing taarab music, one after the other; the lead singer of the first band, whose musicians were mixed gender, was one of Nafisa’s aunts; the second band was all-male

Nafisa’s father twirled her about

Some of the US visitors wowed the crowd with their dance moves

The dancing was so frenetic that guests took time out from dancing to chat at the tables

then they too rejoined the dancing.

Meanwhile, Sam and Nafisa were posed for official photographs with various combinations of relatives; after the official wedding photographer left, I was pressed into service and got a few posed photos

Despite the cancellation of the henna aspect of the first wedding party a couple of days before, the bride, and the bridesmaids as well, had been carefully painted with henna on their arms and for some of them lower legs as well (some were painted only in pico,  a black dye that is sometimes referred to as henna as well).

The room for the women’s lunch was beautifully decorated, although it was also pretty darn warm; one nice thing about the men’s lunch was the breeze (as well as the awnings over the tables) that kept us cool.

A few hours after it began, the guests began to drift away, and we headed back to our apartment.

The Wedding Ceremony and Final Wedding Party

On Saturday, August 9, we headed out to Sea Cliff Resort, the venue for the final wedding party, where Sam and Nafisa would exchange their vows.  Because the ceremony was scheduled for 5 PM sharp, we had the whole day to ourselves; Sea Cliff is some 10 miles north of Stone Town, some of us scheduled a spice tour that would end at Sea Cliff; which I’ll discuss that tour, and some of what I learned along the way about economic conditions in Zanzibar, in a separate blog post.  We reached Sea Cliff at about 2:30 PM; Sea Cliff is surrounded by a high fence with security guards at the gate, as well as patrolling the grounds; we had to show that we were staying the night before we could come in, so there was no need for entry cards as there had been at the luncheon the day before.

Our room was lovely, with a balcony with a nice view of the Indian Ocean,

and as we have seen every place we have stayed in Zanzibar so far, the bed was equipped with a mosquito net. 

The doorway of Sam and Nafisa's room was decorated especially nicely:

The buffet breakfast was excellent, although considering the high price, I thought it was pretty chintzy of the place that customers have a choice between full board and half board, and even if you are coming in for a wedding (a significant part of their business, apparently), there is no flexibility about half board being breakfast and dinner, even though the wedding guests will of course be fed at the expense of the wedding hosts.  Sea Cliff advertises wi-fi as being available, but we found that wi-fi was practically non-existent in the rooms or, indeed, any place apart from the dining and pool areas and the “boma” the covered area where the wedding reception would be held (more about how we used that later). 

There was a VERY long infinity pool, so Chingchai was in seventh heaven about how long  the laps were).  In the end, I see this place as four-star instead of the five-star they could easily achieve at with little sacrifice of expense.

We had some time to walk around before getting dressed for the ceremony. The grounds were as lovely in the daytime as they had been a few nights before when we came for the rehearsal.  And we had a nice surprise – the bride had been fretting about the fact that, during the rehearsal which was held at the time of day of the expected wedding, the low tide meant that the sand was exposed well past the pier where the ceremony was to be held.  I thought the low tide was lovely in its own way, but it was plainly not what SHE had expected (or thought she was paying for).  But lo and behold, there was plenty of water all the way up to the small bluff overlooking the ocean that presumably gives the resort its name

Here is the view of low tide the following morning

As 5 PM approached, we hurried to dress — this was to be a western style wedding, suits of me and gowns for Nancy, and headed down to the pier with only ten minutes to spare.  But there was almost nobody there – no guests, a couple of family from the US, and a handful of other tourists unconnected to the wedding.  As the guests began to arrive,

we wondered how the local folks know how late they can come and still catch the ceremony (in the event, a number of guests arrived even after the ceremony and in time for the post-ceremony dinner, or in one case not even in time for that – more about that later).   The delayed beginning did have one significant advantage – I had plenty of time to hand off my camera to a relative to hold during the ceremony, because it would not have been appropriate to carry my camera bag over my shoulder during the procession of the official wedding party.  As it happened, a cousin was able to take several photos with my camera during the ceremony (thank you, Joel!), and because I was sitting at the head table I had many few occasions to use the camera than I had expected.

Once the wedding party was finally, we were able to parade down the pier and into our appointed positions without a hitch.  Again, an emotional moment, and let’s not pretend otherwise:  I am a guy who cries at weddings and at the end of operas.  But by the time Sam and I were ready to hug as Nancy and I left him in position to wait under the chuppah for Nafisa’s arrival with her parents, my river had stopped flowing (but thank goodness I was carrying tissues for a pocketless Nancy so that I could wipe off the wetness after we took our seats in the front row)

The ceremony itself was simple:  the leader of the ceremony, one of Nafisa’s uncles on her mother’s side, led bride and groom through the usual exchange of commitments; they exchanged a set of sweet additional vows; Sam stomped on a wine glass; they were pronounced man and wife and enjoyed an ensuing kiss.   Then we paraded out to a grassy area where the official photographer took a series of posed pictures with various combinations of the wedding party, while the guests were kept on the pier with an open bar and snacks. 

As the photographer was finishing up, the guests were released to go to the boma, where a buffet dinner awaited; once the pier was cleared and the last of those guests had reached the boma, we lined up one last time for a procession into the boma, where the audience cheered.  We headed up, once again, to the head table, but we could not eat yet because former president Karume was expected to join us at the head table, and had not yet arrived. This wait became embarrassingly long, so long indeed that I think we would have started had word not come that he was only so many minutes away, that yes indeed, he was very close, that yes he was on the Sea Cliff grounds, and finally here he was, and the head table was released to go to the buffet — a nice combination of dishes but perhaps not quite so good as the buffet lunch, except that this time I knew better than to leave the ndisi, plaintains cooked in coconut milk, for later consumption as a dessert.  Sam was served by his best man, his brother Joe, while Nafisa was served by her maid of honor, Martina, her long-time friend since she first moved to the US to start seventh grade. Then the rest of the tables were released to enjoy the dinner.

Various members of the wedding party delivered short tributes or remarks; Nancy spoke for the two of us, while I tried to speak on behalf of her parents and my father, who were too infirm to make the trip to Zanzibar; I conveyed my father’s anticipation of meeting his new extended family at the DC part of the wedding.  One aspect of the speeches that took me rather aback was the insistence of Nafisa’s family of telling her how much they expected children – and that was definitely in the plural, many children, they said, not just one child as her parents had done.  There was also a very humorous talk by Sam’s friend Dario, with whom he has been close since kindergarten.

Sam and Nafisa cut the wedding cake,

 but we never saw it as part of the desserts – apparently, the icing was so thick and hard that it was difficult to cut into many pieces quickly.  It will be waiting for us in Stone Town when we get back from the beach resort where the wedding party went for a couple of days of relaxation.

Eventually, the music began, and Sam and Nafisa had their first dance – an elegantly choreographed number that they had developed with the help of the ballroom dancing instructors with whom they had been working back in DC.

 Then the parents joined the dancing, and finally the whole crowd.  The music came from both a live band and by a DJ, who exchanged performances, quite a bit of African and American rock and other music (including the Sam and Nafisa song written in the Comoran Islands tradition specifically for their wedding)

I was surprised to when Nafisa’s maternal grandmother, whom I have heard called only Bibi (the paternal grandmother is identified similarly; how interestingly close to the Yiddish Bubbe), wanted to dance with me; she was soon mixing it up on the dance floor as well (I could not photograph that, of course; here she was sitting):

Late into the dancing came Hava Nagila – perhaps a first for Zanzibar, and certainly it was a first when Sam and Nafisa were sat down on chairs and hoisted into the air while they danced.  Throughout the wedding parties, the bride and groom were doing their best to combine their respective traditions – as Sam has told his students, he is a Christian Jewish Muslim.  The parents on both sides had indicated in advance their willingness (although, in some cases not necessarily enthusiasm), but this did not get through to the chair hoisters; maybe in DC....

A few guests were leaving by 11 PM, when we had arranged to set up a Skype call to my father, whose 90th birthday was today and who was gathered with other family members who had not made the trip to Zanzibar.  It took Sam and Nafisa quite some time to make it over as they said goodby to departing guests, but they too were able to participate, but speaking individually to wish Hal a happy birthday, then joining in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.

Most of the guests had departed by the time the skypers returned to the dance floor, but the wedding party continued to dance enthusiastically, pulling even the laggards out into the dancing, until the DJ shut down shortly after the midnight deadline.