My roommate invited me to tag along to a wedding after I’d been in the country a few weeks. We caught a dibab (van bus) downtown and walked through the dress shops, sweating through our clothes and baltos. Baltos are black coverings, sometimes called abayas, worn by women in Yemen. I wore a balto early in my stay, eventually disregarding it in favor of pants and long sleeved, modest shirts.
Dressing for a wedding in Yemen is like readying for the prom. The dresses are flashy, beaded, sparkly and low cut. It doesn’t matter that no men will be in the room at a typical wedding celebration. These ladies dress to impress.
In a crowded, downtown shop, I found a purple dress a little gaudy for prom, but my roommate assured me it was perfect for a Yemeni wedding. I paid less than $20 for it, a steal if we’d been dress shopping in the U.S.
The night of the wedding, we threw on our party clothes, pinned up hair, buttoned baltos over our dresses and headed to the rented hall for the wedding. It was already dark when we arrived. Since Aden is closer to the equator, and Yemen doesn’t follow a Daylight Savings Time calendar, sunrise and sunset were roughly the same all year, with sunset occurring between 5:30 and 6:30 every night.
Music throbbed through the thin walls of the hall. We entered into semi-darkness and several women greeted us with kisses to both cheeks, the traditional greeting. They encouraged us to take off our baltos and oohed and ahhed over our dresses. When we walked into the open room, the strong scent of incense nearly overpowered me and the music thrummed so loudly I had to shout to my roommate to be heard. We found a few seats near a back wall and sat down to take everything in.
The bride sat at the front of the wedding hall on a throne like chair, her dress glowing from the spotlight over her head. Her dark hair was coiled into a perfect updo and her eyes were deeply accentuated by thick, black eyeliner. I’d already noticed Yemeni women had a tendency to slather on mascara and eyeshadow. When only your eyes are visible to society, you make the most of it. Tonight, though, the groom would see her for the first time in her wedding gown, without a headscarf and balto. Like any bride, she wanted to look perfect.
Many women danced in small groups. It was an odd feeling watching only women dance together, but in high school there were certainly times when groups of girls would dance together when the boys weren’t courageous enough to ask anyone to dance. We were asked to dance several times, but I declined. We were already attracting attention as foreigners. I didn’t want to overshadow the bride in any way. Some of the dancing was what you might see at any club, but most of it contained the more traditional, sinuous belly-dancing moves that even the little girls reproduced with ease. That definitely kept me in my chair. Next to these gals, I’d look like a clunky robot.
I noticed a small contingent of women slowly visiting those seated on the outer edges of the room. I wasn’t sure what was happening until they reached us. I didn’t speak more than a few words of Arabic at this point, so I only understood the greeting, not the words that followed.
“They want to know if you’d like perfume?” my roommate translated.
“Sure,” I agreed. The first lady held a small vial of oil. She dabbed it on my wrists and behind my ears. I could tell it was some sort of incense. I later learned Yemen is where frankincense is harvested and for years it was carried to market on the backs of camels on the Incense Trail.
The next woman held a small burner. Pungent smoke flowed out of it. More incense. She waved her hand through the smoke, wafting it towards me. I blinked, my eyes watering from the smoke and intense smell.
“Is this normal?” I asked my roommate, trying not to cough. She laughed. “They love incense here.”
I tried to embrace the moment, but I was glad when the woman moved away, taking the smoky perfume with her.
The last woman held an exquisite silver pitcher, the kind you imagine might be used to serve tea to a sheikh or a king. She spoke a word I didn’t understand, so I shrugged and smiled. She took my non-committal gesture as acquiescence and tipped the pitcher forward, spilling perfume down the inside of my dress, soaking the purple material with its overpowering scent. I gasped and stepped back.
“Helwa?” the woman asked. “Beautiful?”
“Helwa,” I choked out, still stunned. My roommate started laughing. She declined the pitcher of perfume and the women moved on.
“Was that normal?” I asked, dabbing at the damp perfume with a napkin.
She shook her head. “I’ve never seen that in my life.”
We fell into a fit of laughter. My eyes stung and I could barely breathe through my own cloud of oiled, smoked and drenched body and dress.
Suddenly there was a flurry of movement. Black baltos flew into the air like ravens scattering in a field. They eclipsed the bright colors, exposed skin, the perfect coiffures, until nothing could be seen but dark eyes, bright with anticipation. A woman brought my balto to me and gestured for me to put it on.
“What’s happening?” I whispered to my roommate.
“The groom is coming,” she whispered back. As she spoke, a young man appeared through the entryway dressed in a sharp suit, hair and mustache oiled. He peered through the sea of black, looking extremely nervous. His bride waited on the throne, her white dress the only color visible. He took his place on the empty chair next to her and shyly took her hand.
I tried to imagine what this wedding looked like through his eyes, the heady scent of perfume, the hundreds of women all in black save his bride, who looked straight off the cover of a magazine. No wonder he looked stunned.
“Let’s go,” my roommate whispered. I agreed. My first Yemeni wedding had been thoroughly eventful. We headed home, carrying the scent of the wedding with us. Even after I showered, the scent clung to my skin for days.
These memories of Yemen still cling to me, too. I remember the words of the woman holding the silver pitcher after she drenched me with perfume. “Helwa?” she asked me. “Is it beautiful?”
My time in Yemen was at times overpowering, mysterious, overwhelming – a mix of emotions and experiences poured over me when I wasn’t quite ready for it. Still, I accepted it as the gift it was.
It was helwa, indeed.