A Sudanese Wedding

It was gone midnight and I had just left the Sudan Boombox party. In a pick-up truck speeding down Mohammed Najib street, tok-toks weaving past, my phone rang. I couldn’t hear the caller very well, but I made out the words “will you be my husband for the day?” from a friend working at Khartoum University. Without really thinking — the evening was treating me well — I agreed. Now was not the time to be asking questions. We carried on to a party.

Several days later, I was at the University of Khartoum, several students dressing me in a djellaba, pinning a traditional hat to my head and a scarf around my chest. What had I let myself in for? I was expecting this piece of theatre—part of the French department’s programme during Khartoum University’s Cultural Week—to be a small event. I was grossly mistaken. Girls dressed in their finest toobs were milling around, their hands covered in the intricate patterns of Sudanese henna. The male students had made an effort, donning djellaba for the day. Outside the sanctuary of this classroom-cum-dressing room, the building was filling up.

I was joined by their teacher, my friend who had asked me to participate, and we stepped out. The corridor was lined, nay, packed, with people. I led out my “bride”, her face completely covered by a golden veil, guiding her down the gauntlet of well-wishers thrusting out mobile phone cameras. As we reached the staircase spiralling down to the area reserved for the ceremony, the size of this event suddenly became evident. There were hundreds of people.

A cortège of girls dressed in white topped with pink veils, formed a corridor as we were seated, incense burning before us. A drum was being beaten with girls singing and ululating. The veil was lifted and draped over our shoulders, bands being tied around our wrists. A giant video-camera, a relic from the eighties, was filming everything. From out of nowhere, a photographer came, snapping away. I’m the one who likes to be behind a lens; I shy from being in front of them.

Unbeknownst to me, part of the Sudanese wedding ceremony involves the bride spitting milk in the face of the groom, its whiteness being a symbol of her purity. As I wiped the liquid from my face, we were urged to rise. An entourage of guys dressed in black shirts acted as security, shepherding us out of the building to parade around the campus. A wooden staff in my hand, I snapped my fingers to shouts of imshi arees!, raising it in celebration. My dressers had briefed me well.

Outside there were hundreds more people. To say I was intimidated was an understatement. As we toured the campus, a procession that seemed to take hours, the yuyuyuyuyu of the girls’ ululating and beating of the drum echoed across the courtyard. Further shouts from the men encouraged my fatigued arm to wave the staff, emulating the father of the bride I had seen some weeks previously at a real wedding.

With the event over, later walking around the campus, this khawaaja was immediately recognisable. Arees, “groom” in Arabic, was called out. I questioned whether people understood that this celebration was staged.

The following day, our photograph was on the front page of one of the Arabic, Khartoum dailies. The accompanying article made no mention of the fact that this was simply a performance. In Islam, I would still have the right to three more wives…