To the Wedding
By Lisa Morrow
Throughout the summer months in rural and provincial towns, the steady beat of drums and the honking of horns on cars lavishly decorated with ribbons and flowers punctuate the heavy humid air. This noise provides an endless audio backdrop to the wedding season in Turkey. The season usually falls in the warmer months and in the past wedding celebrations used to begin on a Tuesday or a Sunday, because these were considered the luckiest days on which to start a new life together. There was a strict order to the wedding, from choosing the bride to moving into a new home.
When I lived in Kayseri, in central Turkey, it was the beginning of the 21st century. As befitted the regional capital of Cappadocia, Kayseri was equipped with all the modern conveniences you would expect to find in any town of its size. There were cinemas, restaurants, shops and even one or two bars. At the time, my best friend and colleague was a woman named Sezen. She was a local girl who’d married a man her family had suggested. When I met her they’d been married ten years, had two children and seemed pretty happy. I knew she loved her husband but I didn’t know if she did when they were first wed. I never really thought about it until one day we were in town shopping for clothes.
Cutting through the old market area on our way back from the cardigan shops we came to a gold shop owned by Sezen’s uncle Ahmet. Inside the tiny store she introduced me to him and his son, her cousin, Hamdi. She mentioned Hamdi was getting married soon and then turned to chat with Ahmet. We stayed there long enough for her to catch up on family gossip while we drank several glasses of tea. Afterwards we strolled out of the gold bazaar to continue with our errands. As we skirted the black volcanic-stone walls of the 13th century citadel that dominated the town centre, I asked who he was marrying.
“A local girl. His mother found her,” Sezen replied.
“What do you mean, found her?” I asked, a little puzzled.
“In Kayseri, if you come from a good family, it is important who you marry. Hamdi wants to get married and he trusts his mother to choose.”
“What’s his bride like?”
“She also comes from a good family, an old Kayseri family. Her family is happy that she will marry Hamdi.”
Sezen was always so matter-of-fact about telling me things, and never seemed to mind that some of them shocked me. When she told me things foreign to my way of thinking she never made me feel I shouldn’t ask questions, even if my questions could be seen as inappropriate.
“Did Hamdi go to university?”
“So, is his bride university educated?”
“No, she’s not. She went to high school. Kayseri families don’t want brides who go to university.” I was perplexed. Education is highly valued in Turkey, and surely two partners of similar backgrounds would be more likely to have a successful marriage. I said as much to Sezen and she replied, “It’s more important what family the girl comes from. A good family means she has been brought up properly. She knows what’s important.”
“Do you mean,” I persisted, “that a good family wants a cultured girl. I mean, one who shares the same values?” The closest concept I could substitute to help me understand what Sezen meant was the idea that a ‘good’ family implied good breeding. Amongst the Kayseri trader classes this means the girl grows up with a certain level of interest in the arts and solid religious beliefs. Finishing high school will equip her to help their children with homework, but not fill her with so many new ideas that she’ll grow dissatisfied with being a housewife.
Part of me has always recoiled at the thought of arranged marriages, but after talking with Sezen about it many times, I realised my perspective was too narrow. She said her marriage was strong because she and her husband believed it was a commitment they both made, and once made it was their duty to uphold it. A marriage works because both parties are equal partners in a lifetime venture. That means working to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing your goal is to be together until you die. Along the way you work, have children, experience all the dramas of life, and you do it as a team.
A few weeks later I met Hamdi’s bride, out shopping with her soon to be mother-in-law. They were completely relaxed in each other’s company and behaved as if they had known each other forever, so I didn’t feel dishonest in offering my congratulations. The gelin, that is, the bride, was going into the same family that had produced Sezen, which to my mind was no bad thing. I was excited to be invited to the wedding but unfortunately I couldn’t attend. Luckily Sezen was more than happy to tell me all about it. On the Monday, the women from both sides of the family went to the couple’s new home. When the families can afford it, they set up the newlyweds with absolutely everything they need. Most couples go directly from their family home to their nuptial one, so neither of them has any second-hand furniture, like we do from living in shared houses. It’s all brand new. In some areas it isn’t unusual to see tractors pulling carts loaded with all their new belongings, the fridge, the washing machine and all the female relatives sitting on the couch, still wrapped in plastic. The ride to the new house is a diversion from their regular chores and counts as part of the celebrations.
As Sezen’s family live in towns now and not on farms any more, they arrived more conventionally by car. Once at the home of the newlyweds, in line with traditions that are the same throughout the country, tea and sweet pastries are served. Immediately afterwards the women inspect the white goods, the furniture, the linen, the napery and the house. They sit in a large ornate salon reserved for formal occasions, furnished with the couch and matching chairs, a china cabinet filled with wine glasses that are only ever filled with water and numerous nests of highly varnished side tables. In addition there is another smaller room filled with more robust, plainer furniture, which will one day serve as a playroom for their children.
In the past, the brides brought a hope chest to their marriage filled with towels, sheets, blankets and tablecloths, lovingly prepared by their mothers and the girls themselves over the years. Kayseri protocol stipulated the exact contents, which amongst other things included twenty blankets and three tablecloths. At least one tablecloth had to be embroidered and one edged in lace, and how the various pieces were produced was subject to a carefully followed formula. My aunt back in Australia, then in her eighties, had almost the same experience when she married. All her handiwork was carefully examined by her in-laws, in particular by her husband’s mother. Luckily for her my uncle loved her a lot, as embroidery wasn’t her strong point.
These days, women still prepare their daughters’ glory boxes, but the items are store bought. In part this reflects the wealth of the family, but as many more women work these days the feeling is why make things by hand if it isn't necessary. Sezen and I agreed that while the old way must have been enormously time consuming, the giving of handmade items to your daughter and making them as a bride was far more romantic and enduring. I still have dowry pieces hand stitched by my aunt, and even though the fabric of some has worn thin, I keep them as a link to the past and as a memento of her love.
Traditionally, women celebrated the second night of the wedding in the hamam, better known to Westerners as a Turkish bath. The practice has largely been abandoned now, as hamam are considered places only fit for the poor and uneducated. Most are a far cry from the neatly finished and opulently appointed baths offering spa treatments to European tourists. Besides, these days nearly every modern home boasts a bathroom and running water and most Kayserians I knew were keen to distance themselves from this particular village tradition. On the third day the religious ceremony was carried out by the imam, the Islamic religious leader of the local mosque, and on the fourth night a dinner was held where the secular papers necessary for a marriage to be legally binding were signed.
At one wedding I did get to attend I didn’t know the bride, but the groom Hilal was an old friend. He came from a wealthy carpet selling family in Göreme, which is about a hundred kilometres from Kayseri. According to village custom, at twenty eight he was quite old to be getting married. However the long hours he’d been required to work in his father’s business and a desire for further education had stalled any idea of him entering into an earlier union. Despite having a higher degree from America and a modern outlook on life, his wedding took place where he was born, and was as traditional as most other weddings in the area. In preparation for the first day of celebrations he and his family stayed up until four in the morning getting ready. Being an influential family they were required to serve food to all the inhabitants of the village. Extended family members and friends from both sides spent the night cutting up numerous lamb carcasses in order to meet the expected demand. After only a few hours sleep the women began to cook enormous vats of stews, rice and vegetables.
By the time we arrived at lunch time everything was ready, which was just as well because after the midday prayer had finished the villagers began to arrive. Each person was greeted personally by name, by Hilal and his father, and then given a plate of food and a non-alcoholic drink. We all sat together around white plastic tables on matching plastic chairs and listened to the music of a local band Hilal had engaged only the day before. He told us it took him a week to negotiate a price for their services that made both parties happy. People trickled in when they had time to spare over the course of the day, and the meal dragged on until well into the early evening. By the end of the night there were few if any of the 2000 villagers who hadn’t partaken of at least a spoonful of soup prepared by the happy couple.
Late on the afternoon of the actual wedding ceremony we dressed with care for the reception that evening. Between 800 and 900 people had been invited, and most likely all of them would come. We walked slowly through the village and by the time we turned off down the museum road that winds between the surreal looking fairy chimneys to the tourist hotel, we were part of a large crowd heading in the same direction. We’d only ever seen the low lying white concrete box-shaped hotel by day, when its peeling paint and unkempt lawn made it appear shabby and neglected. It was one of only a few really big hotels in the area aimed at tourist groups, but was never full. This particular night, with the aid of colourful lighting and sprays of flowers placed around the entrance, it looked enchanted. The party was being held on the terrace by the swimming pool, which was reached by descending a narrow set of stairs. At the bottom, Süleyman, Hilal’s father, stood with his wife on one side and the bride’s parents on the other. I’d known Süleyman for thirteen years, but this was the first time I’d ever spoken to his wife, although she said she’d heard a lot about me.
After shaking hands and kissing us on both cheeks, Süleyman appointed a cousin to look after us. He led the way past rows of tables, trying to find us a place to sit. We’d arrived fifteen minutes after the start time and unexpectedly the place was packed. Usually no one is on time in Turkey and when we are on time we’re always too early, but not on this occasion. Eventually we were seated miles away from the bridal table, next to a hedge marking the property boundary. Having never been to a Turkish wedding reception, let alone one of this size, we didn’t know what to expect. None of the weddings we’d been to in Australia had been conventional, but there had been people to talk to and food to eat. All that was on our table was a small plate of dried nuts, and nothing else. We looked for a bar but there didn’t seem to be one, so we waited in case somebody came and served us. When a waiter did finally appear, he was only carrying a tray of small boxed soft drinks. In the meantime a family of five had arrived and quietly taken over the remaining chairs at our table, promptly turning them to face in the direction of the bridal table. We were used to Turkish people being shy with us at first, but this group sat with their backs to us the whole time and never once spoke.
An hour elapsed in which very little occurred and we were getting hungry and beginning to feel bored. Finally the bridal party arrived and began to dance, which excited the people sitting close to the action. However, from where we were sitting, Hilal and his bride registered as little more than flashes of moving colour so their appearance did nothing to alleviate the tedium of waiting. After another ten minutes of hoping something more would happen we agreed it was time to make a move. There were so many people at the wedding it seemed easier just to fade into the night, rather than saying goodbye at the entrance and cause our hosts to lose face with their other guests. We pushed our way through the hedge and skirted the property before heading back to the village. Once there we went and had a meal at our favourite restaurant. We felt vindicated when other foreigners who’d been at the reception turned up later, also looking for something to eat.
The next day we asked around and found out the bride and groom had decided to postpone their honeymoon. They were both so exhausted from the preparations they felt they’d be too tired to enjoy themselves. Honeymoons were a relatively new concept then and often too expensive for most people to consider. Wealthier newlyweds do now go on honeymoon straight after the event, overseas if they can afford to, or at least to one of the seaside resorts on the Mediterranean or the Aegean. For many couples however, a honeymoon is out of the question after the wedding because the groom has to return to work the next day.
In many villages the groom and his party still go to the bride’s house to physically remove her from the family home. Her relatives will try to stop them by parking tractors and carts across the path. Usually they are not serious about stopping the wedding, it is all an act, and the groom’s party simply have to pay over money for the path to be cleared. In big cities this tradition continues, although in a different form. On many a weekend in Istanbul I’ve been on a bus stuck in the heavy traffic surrounding the council run wedding registry near my home. Amongst the dirty minibuses, trucks, vans and buses, bridal cars are easy to recognise. The car boots are adorned with the initials of the wedding couple picked out in flowers, hand embroidered towels flutter from the side mirrors and acres of netting wrap the car bonnets in enormous bows. We move at snail’s pace, making it easier for daring young men to race through the traffic to the wedding vehicles and demand payment. Once they get their money the car is allowed to continue to the wedding salon. There the bride and her party alight from their cars and once again the slow moving traffic allows me plenty of time to observe them.
I know from my friends that many city girls believe themselves too modern and independent to bow to tradition. However they do follow tradition, and not only Turkish ones. Regardless of age, height or size, all the brides wear fully Western styled white wedding dresses for the civil registry ceremony. Some of the more modest wear a red ribbon around their waists. This is tied on by their fathers and signifies the fact that he is giving away a girl who is pure, that is, a virgin. The fact that wearing a white wedding dress originally had the same meaning isn’t commonly known here. The attraction lies in the kudos of wearing something foreign in style, and therefore somehow more sophisticated. Many of the brides wear elaborate tulle veils while the more religious wear turbans beautifully encrusted with crystals and seed pearls. Regardless of the type of headwear they choose, most will have the names of their best girlfriends written on the underside of their shoes. They believe the first name to be rubbed off will be that of the next girl to marry.
It is still expected that all girls do marry, the earlier the better. Career girls who stand fast against anxious mothers and gossiping aunties, holding out for the perfect and seemingly elusive love match may on turning thirty start to seriously consider görücü usulü evlilik. This is where they ask for family assistance in finding a suitable match, much like Sezen’s cousin Hamdi did all those years ago. Once the match is found, the usual arrangements have to be made, the dress, the rings, the cake and the reception. In addition, people getting married in Turkey, both locals and foreigners, must have blood tests before the wedding. In my neighbourhood, this requires first making an appointment at the Kadıköy wedding registry office to lodge all the necessary documents. When everything has been stamped and approved the pair is told which clinic to attend. After going and giving blood samples they wait anxiously with all the other couples to collect their results at three in the afternoon. Then follows a mad scramble to make it back to their appointed clerk at the registry before closing time. While the process may not be exactly the same everywhere in the country, there are certain givens. These include the need to come armed with every document you can think of and those you can’t, multiple passport photos that once handed over don’t get attached to anything and are never seen again, and never knowing what you need to do until a few minutes before you need to do it.
Finally the big day arrives. The weeks of stress and decision-making are over, of choosing dresses, venues and food, and spending hours in the hairdressers being plucked, waxed and remade. The official ceremony is finished and it’s time to celebrate. At a Turkish wedding, guests are unlikely to get drunk and take off with the bridesmaids but they are likely to dance for hours on end, only stopping when it’s time to give the gold. Whether the couple comes from a small village or the biggest city in the country, gold remains the present of choice. Those closest in relation to the couple often buy sets of jewellery, heavy gold necklaces, with matching earrings, rings and bracelets. These are placed on the bride and then the more distant relatives and friends present their gifts. They most usually buy flat discs of gold sold by weight, called çeyrek. They come with a ribbon sporting a tiny safety pin, which is used to attach the çeyrek to the sash the bride puts on for this purpose. The groom gets pinned too. All the gold is kept until needed for major events. Then it will be sold at the going rate and the money used to purchase a house or for the arrival of a new baby. Some guests will simply give cash, pinning the notes to the skirt of the bride’s dress for all to see.
The idea is that when you get married your friends and family will reciprocate with gifts of gold or paper money of the same value as you have given. Some of my more refined Turkish girlfriends say they are embarrassed by this tradition. They find it distasteful that everybody knows how much money was spent on the presents. However I don’t see much difference between this and the setting up of a formal gift registry. Everybody can see how much a particular present cost, and therefore know exactly how much everyone spent.
A less contentious tradition that has more recently been introduced into Turkish weddings is throwing the bouquet. I discovered this when an unmarried Turkish girlfriend posted pictures from a wedding she had attended. The first photo shows the bride with her back to a large group of young women. To one side three little girls look on admiringly at the beautiful grown up young women in elegant satin floor length dresses, with their swept up hair and professionally made-up faces framed by kiss curls. In her hand the bride holds her bouquet, ready to throw it to the waiting group. As any single woman will know, this is the Western version of writing names on the bride’s shoes. The girl who catches the bouquet will be the next to be married. The next photo shows my friend, who will remain nameless, elbowing aside the competition. In the final shot she holds the flowers above her head in a triumphal salute. These photos were taken in summer, and as it is still common to hold weddings in the warmer months this same friend was a guest at several other weddings. When she posted a second, third and then a fourth series of photos capturing her success in the bouquet scrum I teased her mercilessly and pointed out one bouquet should be enough to guarantee her a wedding of her own.
She blushed and told me that she isn’t ready to get married yet. At thirty she has a good job, a comfortable home and a great social life, dining out, learning tango and hanging out with friends. One day, she tells me, I’ll get married, but not now. I know when it comes, her wedding day or week will be a combination of all the traditions from both the East and the West. Whether they are urban or rural, present day weddings in Turkey showcase how tradition and modernity mix to create something new yet uniquely Turkish. Just what that looks like is constantly subject to change, because just as there is more than one type of Turk, what it means to be Turkish is not set in stone.
Lisa Morrow is a Sydney born sociologist, blogger, writer and author of three books about Turkey, who lived in Istanbul for eight years. Her website www.insideoutinistanbul.com came about from her determination to scratch away the seemingly mundane surface of ordinary Turkish life to reveal the complexities below.
This story and many more can be found in her book Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries