An Impromptu Wedding Guest

The Banquet Hall

While on my way to find the Thai Restaurant that I’d eventually burn out on after 10 visits, I popped my head into the function hall in the photo. For some reason, I had the idea that someone might be selling Miswak.  As fresh Miswak isn’t sold in stores, I hadn’t yet figured out that I could find it at a mosque close to my apartment.

As I peeked my head in to see what was going on, a hand grabbed my arm lightly as a head gestured that I come along inside.  I was walked through a large area and to the opposite side of a sizable function room.  There were males of all ages scattered about, looking jovial and at ease.

I was offered a seat in a cushy, comfy chair.  Almost instantly, dates and Arabic coffee were served.  The combination of cardamom and other spices in the delicious caffeinated concoction picked up my spirits.

The man who ushered me in spoke decent English and translated for others who seemed genuinely happy to have me as a spontaneous guest.  I was a lone foreigner in designer khaki pants, a long sleeved, black, half turtle-neck shirt and a blue, hooded, jogging sweat shirt. That was all I’d need to get through the mild Arabian winter.

No one seemed to mind that I was under-dressed for the affair, the only one in western attire and the only person not wearing a thobe: the loose, one-piece, ankle-length, typical Saudi male garment.

I was brought out to the dance floor.  African Saudis played enchanting music powered mostly by drums.  I tried to emulate what everyone was doing, walking in a line with one foot in front of the other while raising the back foot in the air with one arm aloft, swaying the hand of that arm up and down.  After 20 minutes or so I retreated back to my chair.  Kids thanked me for dancing with them.

I had no idea what the special occasion was.  I inquired and was told:

“This is a wedding reception.”

Where are the women?”

They celebrate in another building.”

Where is the man who got married?”

There are two, they already left.”

Feeling out of place, I stopped asking questions.

Dates, coffee, and tea kept coming.  People of all ages provided greetings of Salam or Hello, warmly welcoming me.

Inside the Banquet HallBecause it didn’t feel right, I didn’t pull my camera from my pocket during the experience.  I went back to the venue yesterday evening, popped in, and quickly took this just after snapping the above photo outside.

After some time passed, my host mentioned that it was time for them to eat.  As we got up and started walking towards the food room, I said:

Thank you so much for your hospitality, enjoy your dinner.”

I motioned to leave, thinking that I’d meander out on my quest to find the Thai restaurant that I’d been told about.

But the host said:

No. You eat with us.”

I realized that Middle Eastern hosts are not going to send a guest out when there is food to be eaten, and it was in abundance.

I was lead to a row of sinks where my host and I washed our hands.  We then walked into a huge room that had many tables. Each had a mammoth mound of baby camel meat on a heaping bed of rice.

We sat down and dug our hands into the camel, rice and side salad.  My host pulled off a big chunk of meat and handed it to me.  I wasn’t used to my food being handled by others so I made sure to grab hunks for myself while not leaving much leeway between mouthfuls.  The meat was tender and slightly gamy tasting, a bit darker than non-white turkey meat.

Another man and a youngster of about 11 sat down and ate with us.  Without inhibition, the boy started asking personal questions that I could mostly make sense of.  For some reason, the men politely cut him off and kept the conversation frivolous.

When I gestured that I was satiated from the hashi or baby camel meat and rice, the second man went up to a long dessert table and piled pieces of everything onto a large plate that we all shared.

Stuffed, we returned to where we’d been sitting earlier.  At least 150, maybe 200 people seemed to be enjoying themselves.  My host and his friend puffed cigarettes.

I thought:

This is my first wedding reception where I don’t know anyone, where there are no members of the opposite gender, and where there is no booze.

It was my first Middle Eastern, and more specifically, Saudi, wedding reception.

I sipped more coffee, made more small talk, and thought:

People in these parts seem to like Americans and Europeans.

I got back on the dance floor a couple of times.  The music grew more intense as midnight approached.  Drums were thumping loudly.

At around 12:30 am I started to feel a little bit tired.  I politely thanked my hosts and told them I was leaving.  Some people made gestures showing that they wanted me to stay.  Children saw me to the door and thanked me for coming.  My first Thai food experience in Riyadh had been postponed for a later date.

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21 Responses to An Impromptu Wedding Guest

  1. Ayngelina says:

    What a great story, thanks for sharing :)

  2. Arianwen says:

    What an interesting experience! I find it so odd that some cultures celebrate weddings with men and women in separate rooms when the whole point of the day is to unite a man and woman! Each to their own though!

    • Mike says:

      ARIANWEN: Thanks! Interesting point about unity and separation. I guess that we somehow need to embrace the irony and remind ourselves that it’s not strange but just different. Perhaps different is an understatement in this case.

  3. Shing says:

    Often, weddings can be a little like the playground for cupid’s arrow – a great place for single people to meet new, single people. However, this would never happen at a wedding “where there are no members of the opposite gender, and where there is no booze”! Anyway, that’s just one thought. My other thought after reading this is how hospitable Middle Easterners can be.

    A man looks for a Thai restaurant, but ends up at a wedding for the night…. it’s a great story!

    • Mike says:

      SHING: Thanks! I agree. Weddings can often be a good place for two people to meet one another.

      I’ve read somewhere that Middle Easterners are known for being the most hospitable people on the planet. They definitely like to offer dates, coffee and copious amounts of food.

  4. Irene says:

    Stumbled across your blog while hunting for Mutabbaq recepies … I want one so bad the pics almost made me cry :-) I grew up in Saudi Arabia and love reading about other people’s experiences at the place I still think of as home.

  5. What a special experience, really letting you see another culture.

  6. A very cool experience, being curious can be a great thing :) and what travel can be all about, but yes agree these experiences can be difficult to come by. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mike says:

      BELL: Thanks! The propensity for random interactions and random dinner in this case tends to increase when in a different element than one’s own.

  7. TheTuscan says:

    You’re a lucky man. Going through such a pleasant cultural experience by chance!

    • Mike says:

      TUSCAN: That’s an optimistically interesting point. It makes me think: Playing the percentages; I’ve been here for over 10 months; so the chance of a unique occurrence increases, as PRU mentioned below: ‘that wouldn’t happen in the US’, probably not, and the chances would be much slimmer in Europe too. Also, Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality and here, open tourism doesn’t exist so you’re more of a novelty.

  8. Al says:

    Camel, spiced coffee, dates, and a wedding… Cool.
    I understand how the Kingdom may not be an entertainment paradise place on Earth, but it seems like there is no lack of life-enriching experiences. While the culture may be overly conservative, isn’t that in itself valuable for its uniqueness?

    • Mike says:

      AL: Definitely. It’s been a fascinating experience, and maybe when I go to an entertainment paradise, it might actually seem like paradise. :-)

      The hashi or baby camel I’ve had twice here for the cultural aspect as I’m not a huge meat eater. Dates are omnipresent here. I like a handful in the morning. The wedding was interesting for sure. Arabic coffee isn’t typically sold in coffee shops, only at traditional restaurants and gatherings. It’s absolutely delicious.

  9. Sean Wellington says:

    Keep dancing Earthdrifter!

  10. Maria says:

    “No. You eat with us.” Wow you have some of the best experiences!

    Moments like that are what make a trip and hands down your time there has been well spent… often without trying :-)

    • Mike says:

      MARIA: Thanks! The thing here is that there are no traditional tourist visas. I don’t think it’s often someone from a far away land pops their head into a place like that. I agree, sometimes not trying to do something can be for the best.

  11. Pru says:

    What a random, interesting experience. Very cool post! Can you imagine what would have happened if you accidentally wandered into someone’s wedding in the States? I doubt you’d be invited to stay for dinner. :)

    • Mike says:

      PRU: Great point. I can’t imagine someone in the states being happy about someone crashing their wedding party. Things are usually so organized there. The dinners are usually counted and there’s just enough.

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