My friend Sharon, who was involved with helping to establish the first Women’s Cancer Support Network in Riyadh (and editor of the network’s Cultural Cuisines Cookbook), was invited to the wedding of one of King Fahd’s daughters. She was told to bring a female friend and I was the lucky one. Now, going to a royal wedding is no small affair, not that any weddings in the Arab world are small. They are lavish events that often carry on over several days.
I was apprehensive as to what to wear. Saudi weddings are not mixed-sex affairs; women celebrate with women and men celebrate with men. Contrary to what happens on the men’s side (which I hear is fairly boring) women’s weddings are extravagant affairs and a lot of fun. Women dress for each other to show off their finery and latest accoutrements. A long dress was necessary, so I chose a maroon colored dress from my wardrobe and I decided to wear my best gold, the bigger and chunkier the better.
I arranged for my driver to take Sharon and me to the wedding and return to pick us up at an appointed time. This was in the early 1990s, long before mobile phones. In my opinion, the drivers were saints as they often sat for hours on end waiting for women to emerge from whatever event they attended into the small hours of the morning.
The wedding venue was in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, in an enormous hall known as the Wedding Palace. The room itself was about half the length of a football field and half the width again, with a stage at one end and a red carpet for the bride to make her entrance.
Upon arrival, we joined a frenzy of hundreds of women taking off abayas and headscarves and handing them to the attendants who gave us tickets so we could (hopefully) get our own back at the end of the evening. We were ushered into the hall where 20 rows of heavy gilded, very royal-looking chairs were arranged left and right. We were escorted to seats about four or five rows back from the center of the hall where the red carpet lay. Across the hall on the far side from us was an array of even more regal-looking chairs where the royal family members sat, facing us. Behind them were about 20 small children all running around being minded by nannies who were all of the same nationality and dressed in identical long dresses of the same color.
What struck me most unusual was the hairstyle worn by the members of the royal family. Looking back, it reminds me of the recent TV series ‘Victoria’ where Jenna Coleman played Queen Victoria with her hair parted severely down the center. Obviously, a tradition within the family.
Sharon and I created somewhat of a stir because we were the only western women at the wedding and the Saudi ladies wanted to know who we were and where we came from. The conversation flowed freely and, as we talked, servers walked along each row. The servers were of a different nationality to the nannies, but also dressed identically in another style of long dress - this time navy velvet gowns. They made their way through the rows offering gahwa, the traditional Arabic coffee served in Finjan (miniature, egg-shaped coffee cups). After, several cups of coffee were served to the guests, another group of servers of a different nationality appeared on the scene in long rose-colored satin gowns serving tea. There were different nationalities for each hospitality position which helped identify who were serving coffee, tea, the petit fours and so on. The servers also wore gold, a lot of gold. To my chagrin, I could not help noticing that the amount of gold they wore far surpassed what I was wearing. I later discovered that the Royal households they worked in would gift them the gold or would ask them to wear pieces of jewellery on the night representing the family.
The Saudi ladies who were the guests at the wedding would give any model on the runway of Paris, Rome, New York or London a run for their money. They were educated English-speaking women who were stunningly beautiful, elegantly dressed in the latest designer gowns and their jewels reminded me of Princess Diana.
A female Egyptian singer, who was flown in specially for the occasion, kept us entertained throughout the evening with Arabic songs. When the bride finally arrived, the shrill of women ululating could be heard approaching from behind. Excitement reached fever pitch as she entered the room in her western-style wedding dress. She slowly walked to the beat of the music as she passed us on our left, then she turned and walked regally the full length of the hall along the red carpet towards the stage where she then sat for all to admire as lots of her friends went to chat with her on her betrothal.
Sharon and I both drank the usual three cups of gahwa, followed by way too much heavily sweetened tea accompanied with lots of sugar-coated chocolate bonbons and cookies stuffed with pistachios or filled with almond paste or dates. We were wired from all the sugar and neither of us had eaten dinner as we knew a meal would be served, but we had no idea that it would be almost 2:30 am before food appeared on the buffet in a room off the hall! When the food finally arrived, the selection was mouthwatering, literally fit for a King, or Queen in this case.
After dropping off Sharon, I finally made it home at 4:30 am, stuffed to the gills and well over my sugar limit, with the royal wedding etched in my memory for life.