Sunday, October 01, 2006

Begum (Wife) is like Chewing Gum

During my time in Gilgit, I attended a mass marriage ceremony sponsored by Aga Khan Development Projects. Weddings in Pakistan are expensive, including four days of festivities and guest lists in the hundreds and thousands. Traditionally the first day celebrated with the family is a mayyun (bride and groom separate). Then the day before the wedding is the mehendi (usually separate, some couples are now doing joint mehendis). On barat, the day when the bride leaves her family to live with the groom, nikkah (marriage agreement) is usually signed to make the marriage legal. Then after sitting and taking about a million photographs, the bride performs her rukhsati which is a the official leaving of her family to live with the boys’ family. Finally, the groom’s family hosts a party the day after the barat to celebrate the consummation of the marriage. This is called walima.

(skip down to the italicized part if you just want to read the joke)

You can see how that would be expensive, especially with four different outfits and five hundred guests. The government has now put a ban on serving food during barat so as to keep the poor from going into debt just to marry off their daughters. Everything except walima is paid for by the girl’s family. The girl’s family also must provide a dowry, usually in the form of furniture and appliances to furnish her husband’s portion of the house. Due to the ridiculous costs of wedding arrangements, every year the Aga Khan Foundation sponsors a mass marriage which allows different couples to share the costs of barat, which is usually the most expensive day. Also, since most people get around the government regulations (by bribing police officers etc.) and serve food anyway, a meal is served for the guests of all five couples.

I was invited to attend the event as it doubled as a fund raiser and people here have the misconception that all Americans can grow dollars on trees. They should talk to my mother as she was always adamant in insisting that this was not the case. Anyway, I thought it would be an interesting experience so I arranged to go with my friend’s uncle.

Interesting experience indeed! First of all it was set to start at 10am and started around 2pm. The women were sitting on the righthand side while the men sat on the lefthand side, meaning that I had to sit by myself amongst all the local women. I started off by sitting in the back, and then because somebody realized I was a foreigner (despite my attempt at blending in by wearing Pakistani clothes) I was invited to sit in the front row. This was great because from the back I wouldn’t have been able to take any photos! There were over a thousand people at the wedding.

And so from 10am til 2pm we waited. I was sitting next to one woman who spoke Urdu so we were able to chat some about weddings and her numerous sons and daughters and what they are currently doing. It was about a hundred degrees and there wasn’t anywhere to get drinking water except from the boy scouts pouring water into five community cups. With five cups for over a thousand people I thought it would be better to go thirsty than to risk contracting tuberculosis or something of that sort. Around 1pm a local band started playing and the men were invited to come up to the front and dance. Notice the MEN were invited. Women don’t dance or have any fun in public.

Finally around 2pm all the couples walked in and sat on the stage. Then all the grooms were invited to dance and several speeches were given. It was SO long and I was feeling like I was going to pass out due to dehydration or boredom or both. The event finished with some important man sharing this joke in Urdu (this is my translation so it might not be exact):

A student asked his teacher, “I heard that begum (wife) is like chewing gum. How is the wife like chewing gum?”

The teacher thought about it and told the student, “Well you see when you have a piece of chewing gum at first there is a burst of flavor and you enjoy it. In the same way the wife is very sweet at first and you enjoy her. Then after some time, the chewing gum loses its flavor and it is no longer sweet to your taste. Then you ask, ‘Aur kuch?’ (Is there something else?)”

I was happy that I couldn’t understand most of the other jokes, which had been in Burushaski. After the jab at women we went off to eat, men and women separately. The women are quite greedy and I almost feared for my life trying to get some food and water. When it comes to food for these women it’s every woman for herself. They are all trying to pile as much meat and rice on their plates as they possibly can, and they are not afraid to push. Most of them are quite large (I think it’s connected with the greediness regarding food) and so I just grabbed a spoonful of rice and tried to get as far away from the food as possible. I also finally gave in and drank out of one of those cups. I hope I haven’t contracted something…..

See photos here:

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