One of the most glaringly obvious contrasts between my friend’s Pakistani wedding and my own Australian wedding was that we have almost no culture at all. None.
My friend Rafeh’s Pakistani wedding showed me a whole new dimension to celebrating love and union.
It was a mix of tradition and fun that blends into something that makes me a little bit jealous in comparison.
To give a proper analysis of my Pakistani wedding experience let’s make one thing clear: Australian weddings are all about getting drunk. Really. We might dance, we might not, but we will definitely drink. Some people might state otherwise and I am confident to call them liars.
Pakistani weddings, on the other hand, are sober. I have mixed feelings about this.
Rafeh’s wedding was the first time I have ever danced sober. I think that most of my friends could easily say the same thing. And it was not easy. I felt like a round hole in a square peg, a piece of cardboard trying to bend in the wind. But, with a little bit of encouragement (and a glass of water or two) I managed to do it.
Henna: Diabetic dumplings
The henna ceremony was great. It started with us walking him down the stairs with a sheet over him! All of us awkwardly tried to keep it levelled and make sure it did not get tangled. He then sat down quite regally on the couch only to be smudged with ‘goop’ (henna?) and basically poisoned with a thousand dumplings (gulab jamuns?).
He begged for guests to give him as little of the dumpling as possible, as he was about to eat around 60 of them. Some obliged, some didn’t. I had one of these dumplings later on and I am worried that we may have turned him diabetic. He handled it stoically. Somewhat.
In between, we danced to a mix of western music from Rafeh’s days at The University of Sydney (where we met) and other, unfamiliar and interesting pop tunes from Pakistan. With Rafeh’s amazingly persuasive encouragement, I danced — surprisingly, enthusiastically.
Of drum circles and clapping injuries
Then, we sat in a drum circle while Rafeh’s mother and aunt (pretty good drummers and singers, mind you!) led a circle of clapping and singing. We would be prompted when to scream a word out that we literally did not understand. I asked for a translation and have since forgotten what it was.
This drum circle was to be formed again and be performed the next day, so we paid attention and tried to remember when to yell random words and stop/start clapping.
I was wearing a watch and got a clapping injury; my watch rubbed a hole in my wrist. I still can’t believe I can even say the words ‘clapping injury’.
This is certainly a cultural experience, right here. I don’t think I’ll ever have another clapping related injury again in my time, unless I attend another Pakistani wedding.
But I have learned my lesson: Kids, be careful when you clap. It is slightly dangerous.
For the love of food
All of this seemed quite exciting, but apparently the main attraction is the food. The first night, Rafeh’s parents cooked some of the best desi food I have had to this day.
It was almost impossible to stay modest for two reasons. Firstly, the food was incredible. Secondly, Rafeh’s aunt basically forced us to eat more! It was wonderful but the jet lag food coma made it even harder to dance later!
As the jet lag and food coma made us visiting goras all clearly weary, we were shuttled back to our hotel and we all passed out. We could all agree that this was an ‘experience.’
But then, there was the next night.
Mehndi: The flash dance
We entered to thunderous drums and basically danced our way into the hall. I am still sober at this point by the way.
We got in and Rafeh took his place on his throne. We took our positions for a surprise dance number lined up for the bride on entrance. She entered under a veil and took her place. Once she was there, we began our hastily practised flash dance and I literally couldn’t see her reaction.
Don’t touch the bride
The veil is something that we don’t do in Australia. At this point, I knew I needed to start asking questions.
In Australia, it’s pretty straightforward. There are very few boundaries set. I felt like I was walking on rice paper, not knowing which incredibly important cultural law I was about to break!
But, in saying that, it wasn’t too hard: Don’t touch the bride, don’t be a jerk. One poor British guest offered the bride a handshake and seemed very confused when she politely refused.
Weddings here and weddings there are so different. The inclusiveness is incredible in these ceremonies. People are contributing their pieces, performing songs and other spectacles for the crowd. It’s wonderful.
We had the drum circle again and we saw that we were clearly competing. Man, we nailed the bride’s side. They didn’t see us coming. Drum circle, won.
The bride’s side went first and had clearly practiced for months. They were amazing. Even the kids were getting involved.
We knew we were going to get smoked. And we did. But with almost zero practice we did well. To put it in cricket terms: we got beaten, but by less than an innings.
One of the girls on the bride’s side told my friend “Wow, you guys danced great, it was like you practiced for a year!” he thanked her graciously, clearly unaware that she didn’t mean it.
“He has no idea you just burned him,” I said to her. She laughed and agreed. It was funny, being the awkward westerners trying to make ends meet while being in the middle of this elaborate spectacle!
Food, more glorious food
After the drum circles and dance offs, food was served. The food is always good, and people eat truckloads. This is when everything gets a bit quieter. It seemed that the quality of a Pakistani wedding hinges on the quality of the food.
In Australia, we don’t do any of this. We have a one-day event where we get together, a celebrant says a bunch of legally binding words and we sign the certificate (somewhat like the nikkah, I hear) and then, we get drunk. We mill around and talk rubbish with each other. We will eat something, but not too much.
And it doesn’t match the spirit of the Pakistani wedding. I won’t lie, even while sober, I like the Pakistan version much better.
—Photos courtesy of the author