Saturday, October 24, 2009
How to be a Turkmen bridesmaid
Everything happened so fast. The entire day was hectic and I barely had time to breath. I ushered the bride here and there, lifting up her dress so that she did not fall, trying to be one step ahead of everything, but not understanding half of what was being said. The day started off with a much-needed cup of coffee to get me up and out of the house. I put on my Turkmen housedress and my headscarf and I walked to Jennet’s house where all of the wedding preparations were well underway. Several women from her family and from her fiancé’s family were seated on the floor with huge bowls of vegetables and meat in front of them. They talked to me while chopping and slicing, never glancing down at their hands. The only thing more numerous than vegetables in that room were the flies that swarmed around as the children lightly waved scarves over the bowls to keep them from landing in the food. Jennet and I went to the ‘toy salon,’ an all in one locally run business that organizes everything from wedding dresses to wedding cake and makeup. Through the hairspray haze I could see maybe ten other brides and bridesmaids already in the hair salon. Every bride is told to bring three cans of hairspray, and from the smell of the room it seemed to me like every ounce of hairspray was being used. Jennet had her hair done first in an up-do with a fake ponytail attached to supplement her own hair. She had fake nails put on which left her unable to do anything with her hands, and therefore put me in charge of answering her phone, lifting up her dress, and doing any other action that would involve using her hands. I took a chance and also had my hair done. What started out looking like a beehive ended up as a French twist, kept in place with a bottle of hairspray. Despite feeling like I was wearing a helmet, the hairdo looked good from afar and went well with my dress. I escaped to the dressing room after dodging the makeup artist who insisted that I needed my eyebrows penciled in. A group of women ever so gently slipped on Jennet’s wedding dress and the hairstylist attached her veil. Her fiancé arrived with flowers and so began the daylong photo shoot. They filmed me gingerly laughing while pretending to fix her veil. Then she had to look longingly into the mirror and smile coyly, because Turkmen brides are supposed to be shy, but really nothing about Jennet says timid. The cameraman announced me to be a “super model” and so beautiful that he forever wanted to film me, and he continued to be that creepy though out the day. The cameraman wanted more photos, but Jennet demanded that we go because we were already so late after spending almost four hours in the salon. The bride, groom, bridesmaid and best man traveled in a decorated new model Toyota to the café where the wedding ceremony would take place. The woman from the wedding registration office recited a little speech about “independent and eternally neutral Turkmenistan and the respected president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov declaring” the bride and groom married on October 19, 2009 and they exchanged wedding bands. I got to sign the wedding certificate as Jennet’s witness, and they opened a bottle of champagne and cut the cake to celebrate. It is tradition to drive in a long line of decorated cars to various monuments and parks to take photographs. We drove to the neighboring district to take photographs on the “catamaran” as it was beforehand described to me. The “lake” turned out to be more like a puddle and the “catamaran” broke down while we were on it. The boat captain pushed us back to shore with a piece of wood. It would have all been very funny except for that at the same time the wedding singer canceled without any notice. This left us sitting on the inoperative boat as Jennet furiously dictating to me how to use her cell phone to call another singer to see if they were free to come immediately. I held the phone to her ear as she arranged for the new singer to go straight to her house where the wedding would start in less than an hour. Except for a few of us in the wedding party, nobody noticed that anything went wrong and the singer was setting up the stage as we arrived back at Jennet’s house. The best man and I held a fringed piece of fabric over the bride and groom’s heads as we walked out of the house and onto the street. The bride and groom walked out from under the protective fabric hand in hand to go dance. It was still early and there were only a few people standing on the street. In village and town weddings on the street people come and stand on the side of the road to watch, and go to the center when they want to dance. In less than an hour it felt like the entire town had shown up and was staring at us. The four of us were seated on a little stage decorated with frilly ribbons and gauze. Being the bridesmaid, I had to say my toast first and I struggled to remember my trilingual toast as I started to tear up and get emotional. Jennet had dared me to say a toast in three languages and half way through the Russian portion I started to cry and had to abandon the rest of it. I made Jennet cry too, but we were both wearing waterproof mascara so it was not too serious. When I got to the part about Jennet being my Turkmen sister, I couldn’t hold back the tears and I think the Turkmen are still confused as to why I was crying. Everyone except the bride is supposed to be really happy at the wedding and I broke tradition by crying. Maybe they will blame it on an unknown American wedding tradition. Throughout the evening the music was interrupted by guests making toasts to the couple and presenting gifts. A total of eleven Peace Corps volunteers attended the wedding. As a group we made a big toast to the couple and this time I didn’t cry. We danced with Jennet’s family and found out that her mom can shake it better than Shakira. It was quite the spectacle for my town to have eleven Americans there. Hundreds of students and teachers came and it was by far the most people I have ever seen at a Turkmen wedding. Jennet’s sister handed out the little sachets of two sugars wrapped in lace, which symbolize a sweet life together. Whenever Jennet and her husband, Tolkun, got up to dance people would give them money and wish them prosperity. One of Tolkun’s sisters followed them around with a bag to collect the money. The wedding at Jennet’s house ended with a Turkmen tradition that consists of covering the bride in a large shawl so that her face and arms are covered. The groom is dressed in a Turkmen robe and traditional Muslim hat. The groom’s friends throw him up into the air three times and then he leads the bride into her house to say her goodbyes to her family. Like most Turkmen young women, Jennet has lived with her parents for her entire life and will be leaving her parents’ house forever. The Turkmen verb ‘to get married’ for women literally translates to ‘go out for life.’ It refers to the tradition that the new bride will move into her husband’s parents’ house, and take on the demanding role of a new bride that includes housework, cooking and cleaning. This final moment of the wedding is really emotional for the bride and her family. The couple stands in a room as a group of older women sing and pray for them and a final prayer is said before the daughter leaves the house forever. The veiled bride kisses her parents goodbye and is ushered to the waiting wedding car that will take her to her new home, and to another wedding party that will last long into the night. Two of her sister in laws and I accompanied Jennet to the neighboring district where her husband lives. A smaller, more intimate wedding party was already set up and the singer and dancer were already entertaining when we arrived. At this point we were exhausted and it was beginning to get cold. We had kept ourselves warm dancing, but were now too tired to get up much. We listened to toasts and accepted presents much like the first wedding party. Around eleven thirty I ushered Jennet into the house to prepare her for the wedding night. All of her possessions and new bedding and linens her mother prepared were already set up in their room. We were not allowed to be alone in the room and somebody from each side of the family had to be present at all times, but we finally got a little time to relax and eat something. I opened up the back of Jennet’s dress and took down her hair. We were both so tired, but still giddy because it had all gone so well in the end. I waited with Jennet until it was time for her and her husband to be alone. I had been so preoccupied with the wedding for the past few weeks and all of a sudden I had nothing else I had to do. It was all over. Up until this point I had done everything with Jennet, but now she was living in a different town with a different family—it is going to take some getting used to. This entire wedding experience was a once in a lifetime chance and I was involved in every aspect of the wedding. This was my first time as a bridesmaid and it was possibly the most unique first experience I could have. I was honored to be her bridesmaid and I have already invited her to be one of my bridesmaids in my wedding. Luckily for me, I can have more than one bridesmaid because I couldn’t pick just one of my friends to do the job. I am sure of two things after this wedding—1.) I will definitely have all of my best friends at my wedding and 2.) I will definitely not be wearing fake nails.