Postcard From Rhas Al Khaima

A fellow Postalier, whose name escapes me (apologies), mentioned a couple of days ago that he was going to be attending a Muslim (Islamic) wedding. During a bit of banter he (or she) mentioned that there may be alcohol at the function. I questioned this, stating that for there to be alcohol present it wouldn’t really be an Islamic wedding. The exchange did trigger a memory though, during my period working in the United Arab Emirates I attended two Islamic weddings. One was an extremely swish affair, although not westernised at all, which took place in Dubai. The food was excellent, which is basically all an Islamic wedding consists of, so far as I can tell. The man getting married was the brother of a colleague, a young man who was “going places” within the Majid Al Futtaim Group. As I was considered an honoured guest I was given a seat at the top table. All very acceptable apart from two things. There was no alcohol and there were no women.

Marriage ceremonies (if that is the right word) differ throughout Islam. From the two I attended I got the impression that some form of contract had been entered into, presumably within a Sharia framework, that was far easier for the man to extract himself from than the woman. It is also true that Muslims in the UAE can take up to four wives but they must (by the letter of their Q’ranic law) be able to treat them all justly. Having said that, the first wife does have some kind of preferred status until such time as she is divorced (I think).

Not long after arriving in Dubai I was introduced by a mutual friend to an Egyptian Arab man who in turn became a friend and erstwhile guide to me while I was out there. Without him being around I could easily have been one of those people you read about, getting unceremoniously shipped out for some indiscretion or other. I won’t name either of these men, they both live some of the time in the UK and are prominent businessmen in the leisure industry so it wouldn’t be fair. I’ll call my Egyptian friend Khaled for the purposes of this otherwise true story.

Khaled ran a business in Dubai supplying coin operated machines and other things including ten pin bowling balls & shoes and other leisure industry related ephemera throughout the UAE and further afield. He had a very nice apartment in Deira, a suburb of Dubai and he employed an emancipated Syrian woman as his personal assistant and chauffeur. He was a very wealthy individual and was always very generous to me. He took me out to eat on numerous occasions, one of his favourite restaurants, which I also came to like a great deal, was a Lebanese fish restaurant where the battered hamour was a joy to eat. That though is another story, which I may get around to telling one day. I did some consultancy work for him, for which he paid me and we got along famously. He always had a cold beer and some wine in his fridge and wasn’t scared of sharing it. Khaled was the man who once said to me, during one of our lively political discussions; “The only people that don’t know that the Israeli’s and the Palestinians are brothers are the Israeli’s and the Palestinians”. I’ve never forgotten that quote.

Unless you are born in the UAE or a naturalised Emerati you cannot strictly own a business out there (this may have changed since I left, the laws are always changing out there). Consequently, to run the kind of business that Khaled ran you needed to have what is known as a “sponsor”. In effect you purchase the name of an Emerati, some people make a very good living out of this, and you name the company after this person, he takes an initial fee and an ongoing dividend. So long as you work ethically within the law and continue to make a profit there should never be a problem. Khaled was very good at making profit.

Khaleds sponsor was a big cheese with close connections to what was, at one time, the ruling family in the most northern of the Emirates, Rhas Al Khaima. This roughly translates to “peak of the tent”, if you look at the map you’ll see why. Rhas Al Khaima is governed, in part, from Oman, something to do with a harbour, the British Navy and some underhand dealings although I don’t know the full story. During a visit to Khaled’s apartment one evening he asked if I’d ever witnessed an Islamic wedding, at that time I hadn’t and said as much. The nephew of his sponsor was to be married and Khaled asked me if I would like to attend with him. Being of an inquisitive bent I said I would, although, in my naivety, I was surprised that his PA wouldn’t be accompanying him, they spent a great deal of time together.

I think the wedding took place on a Saturday, we drove there in Khaleds Lexus saloon car, I don’t know the model but it was a large car, not new but well looked after and what is known as fully loaded. We arrived after three hours of driving at a function hall in a northern desert town. Two men in sparkling white “dish-dash” with the ubiquitous checkered headdresses welcomed us into an ante room, lined with chairs, on which about 40 men were sitting, Khaled and I were the only two in western clothes, I was the only non Arab. After a short period of time this room filled up, maybe to about 60 men. Khaled told me we were among the friends of the groom, the close family was being entertained in the main room. A guy carrying one of those large teapots with the long curved spouts was circulating, carrying a stack of glasses in his other arm. He offered me a glass which I accepted, although Khaled perfunctorily waved him away. I drank my mint tea, my glass was collected and the ritual was then re-commenced. I asked Khaled why he hadn’t taken a glass and he whispered “those glasses are never washed, you don’t know who has been drinking out of them before you”. To be fair they were quite opaque. I refused a second helping.

After the tea ritual we were all summoned into the main hall. A long table was along one side with large round tables,with men already seated at them, filling the room. We sat with six other guys, a couple of whom could speak English, they were part of the family party; I still hadn’t seen a woman. Khaled, I could tell, was highly amused at my peering about, it turned out he knew just what I was thinking. Great salvers of rice and chicken were delivered to the tables, all to be washed down with cheap fruit juice and bottled water, very nice it was too, this was before I’d come to my epiphany regarding halal. I must admit to being a little disappointed not to be eating roast kid, as the top table was, but there was little I could do about that. Once the main meal was finished dessert arrived, it looked like the cheap freezer at Iceland had been raided for the sweetest, gooiest, creamiest gateaux imaginable. Apparently Arabs love that sort of thing.

I gave up in the end and asked Khaled where all the females were. They were in another building, having a similar celebration. The bride and groom would meet after the two parties ended and it would be, at least officially, the first time they had ever been alone together. They had signed some papers, in the presence of their male parents and an Imam I assume, earlier in the day.

Once the eating was over that was the end of the “wedding” and we all got up to leave. As we passed the main table, at which was sat a very smartly dressed old man of indeterminate age, a much younger man, sat at his right hand side, stopped me and asked, in perfect English, who I was and how I came to be there. He relayed my answers to the old man, who I saw was the only person present, apart from the groom, to have any decoration on his clothing. The edges of his traditional dress were bordered in black and gold and I assumed, rightly as it turned out, that he was a man of importance.

Khaled was waiting patiently for me with that same smile on his face and I wondered for a second if I was the butt of some Arab joke. The old man spoke to the younger man at length who then turned to me and said “My great grandfather is very honoured that you have come all the way from England to celebrate his grandsons wedding. he would like to share something special with you”. On the table in front of them was the remains of one of the roasted kids, The young man broke off the jaw bone, separated it and, using it first as a tool and then as a spatula, he dug out some of the cooked brains and offered them to me, cautioning me not to eat it all. I didn’t need asking twice. Once I’d eaten my portion the old man finished it off with a satisfied sigh and offered me his hand, which I shook.

The young man thanked me again for attending and we left but not before we joined the queue to shake the hand of the groom and to wish him well. Once back at the car I asked Khaled who the old man was and why I had been singled out. He told me that the man was a Sheik, he had been deposed when the Oman business was happening but he still had great wealth and stature among Emeratis in general and those that lived in the north in particular. The younger man had been educated in England and America but had chosen to return to Rhas Al Khaima as an advisor and intermediary between the old world and the new and was very close to the old man. English people are apparently very well thought of in that part of Arabia and once the old man had realised I was English he truly saw me as an honoured guest. The sharing of the cooked brains is considered to be a great honour in their society and not something everyone gets a chance to “enjoy”. To finish the night off in grand style Khaled said that he was feeling tired and did I want to drive his 3 litre Lexus back to Dubai. I didn’t need asking twice, we did the return journey a lot quicker than the outward one.

© Colin Cross 2018

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