‘Collective weddings are a new phenomena,’ says Dr. Najwa Adra, a visiting researcher at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. Marriages en masse, like Saleh’s in Ta’izz, she explains, are becoming a new tradition in Yemen, introduced by the country’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as a way to lighten the increasingly prohibitive bridewealth burdens for those unable to meet their expectations.
‘It’s not actually very different from what we wear on a normal day, though all grooms are keen to wear it on the day of the wedding,’ Saleh says of his get-up, a mirror image of his fellow husbands-to-be. ‘It is the traditional costume of Yemen – we want guests to discover it and introduce it to others.’
One such guest that day was Huda Abdulmughni, a Kuwaiti photographer whose introduction to traditional Yemeni marital attire inspired her to shoot a series of sepia-toned portraits of the grooms on her Leica M9. ‘They were all very happy and excited, asking me how I wanted them to stand,’ she says.
Before dressing, Saleh, like all of the grooms present, starts his wedding day with a scrub at the local hammam, before visiting the barbershop for a tidy up and trim. Over freshly cut hair, he drapes a square piece of cotton cloth, richly embroidered in coloured thread, which is folded in half in the shape of a triangle, so that its apex can hang down his back and the two ends wrapped firmly around his head as a ghutrah.
A sprig of sweet basil or common rue, admired in Yemen for its fragrance, vivid green colouring and delicate yellow flowers, is tucked into the folds on the right side of his ghutrah and set at a jaunty angle. ‘At a minimum, grooms – and brides – wear these sprigs in their headdress to ward off ‘ayn, or harm deriving from jealousy,’ says Adra. ‘Flowers are added for decoration, when available.’
Currently considered trendier than the traditional magtab – the gathered skirts worn in northern Yemen, which are styled more like sarongs in the south and east – the Ta’izz grooms, including Saleh, wear a crisp, white kandoura. ‘Those who want to appear particularly urbane wear the kandoura, following fashion in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries,’ says Adra. ‘This has increasingly come to represent the new cosmopolitan Yemeni.’
Over his kandoura, Saleh wears a new jacket, Western-style with wide lapels to mark the formality of the occasion, and slings a folded shawl, imported from Pakistan, over his left shoulder. The most desirable shawls, Adra explains, are woven from thick wool and are dyed bright pink, dark green, turquoise blue or another vivid colour, with richly patterned floral and geometric motifs stitched in coloured thread along their borders.
‘What you are seeing is an event made for television, hence the uniformity of clothing,’ says Adra of Abdulmughni’s photography series, explaining why Saleh’s dress rituals were no different to the other 38 grooms tying the knot that day. ‘In a normal setting you would see a great variety in clothing.’
The conformity displayed in Ta’izz, however, is broken by the grooms’ jambiyyah, the curved daggers with distinctive gazelle-horn handles inlaid with old coins, which are attached to the grooms’ leather belts. ‘The green-covered daggers are index of tribal men,’ Adra explains, ‘though they are currently worn by many men from families who may not have self-identified as tribal 20 to 30 years ago.’
‘There is no particular significance to the green cord wrapped around the sheath of the jambiyyah,’ she continues. ‘It’s popular these days. Though, historically, the sheath and its decoration varied with tribe and region.’
‘The jambiyyah at the waist is worn for decoration and is symbolic of ancient heritage, passed on from father to son,’ explains Shams al-Din Omar, who supervises the organisation of the ceremony with Attakaful Care and Social Foundation. ‘The sword,’ he says of the grooms carrying additional decorative blades at their shoulders, ‘is used for special occasions and makes a groom stand out among the attendees. In addition to its aesthetic beauty, it’s also a sign of Yemeni pride.’ Saleh agrees: ‘It’s a nice accessory,’ he says.
Aside from their aesthetic appeal, a jambiyyah is also used for the zaffeh, the customary, celebratory wedding dance of Arab countries. In Yemen, the grooms’ zaffeh is an exuberant affair: the rough line of celebrants follow two muzayyin who pound drums at their waist into a gradually accelerating rhythm, drowned out at its crescendo with rounds of firecrackers and gunfire (though the latter occurs less so now, after one guest accidentally shot three others while dancing to ‘Gangnam Style’ at a Yemeni wedding last year).
In the midst of the zaffeh, several men start dancing the traditional zamil or bara dance – their jambiyyah raised, blades flashing in the sun as their bodies lunge, sway and turn to the drum beats, their daggers moving dangerously close to each other’s noses.
Though variations are known to exist within Yemeni matrimonial ceremonies themselves – between urban and non-urban, sayyid and tribal, modern, traditional, male, female, northern and southern – Omar asserts that, ‘Yemeni rituals do not differ much from other Arab countries – only the clothes and the zaffeh are different.’
Saleh has now been married for 18 months. ‘It’s a nice life,’ he says. ‘It’s nice to feel responsibility towards another person and that she can count on you in hardships. It gives you the energy to keep aspiring and working for a better life.’