Friday, February 4, 2011

The Kurdo-Turko-Southern Engagement Party


Nişan—the engagement. I have been traveling the States with a ring on my finger these past few days. My seatmate on the plane—a woman going to Tucson to hit the Gem Show—schooled me on the system here. She says a ring on my finger indicates marriage, and it should be on the left. She also said that according to her very good girlfriend who studied in Turkey all the women wore burkhas and thank God I’m American. She also said I should have babies as quickly as possible.

There are certain ingredients that every successful nişan must have. Unfortunately, neither I nor Delal really seemed to have any idea what they were. Her grandfather, for instance, gave me the idea of providing gifts for her parents as explained in previous blogs. Of course, Delal had a better idea than I.

The first thing required was parents, in particular a father to say the all-important words to the bride’s father,’ Allah'ın emri Peygamber'in kavliyle kızınız Delal'ı oğlumuz Jeff’e istiyoruz.’ In English, ‘by the command of God and with the consent of the prophets, we request your daughter Delal for our son, Jeff.’ (This bit necessary despite the fact that her father is an atheist and grandfather an Alevi) With my mother in Alabama and my father ‘with the mercy of God’, as the Turkish euphemism goes, we had to find a proxy. Delal chose my good friend and housemate Padraic. Ideally, the man speaking as my father should have been older than me, but elders are getting harder and harder to come by and since Padraic was taller and had more gray hair than me, it amounted to the same thing. It was between him and Ekrem, who often acts as if he is everyone’s wizened grandfather, but I was not a hundred percent sure what Delal wanted done, so I mentioned nothing to Ekrem and left the recruiting to her. In any case, I will, to the day I die, always assume that people shorter than me are younger, and people taller than me are older, so Padraic was a good choice. He spent two weeks memorizing and practicing the phrase—which also involves some ruminating and ‘the love that has sprung up between these two young people’.

For engagement day, the weather took a sudden turn for the Arctic. I met Ekrem around five o’clock down by the metrobus station.

‘So have you bought chocolates yet?’ he asked.

‘What for?’

‘The groom’s side always brings these things, Damat!’

We walked shivering and huddled toward each other in the cold toward the nearest bakery—the Kara Fırın (Black Baker). He kept calling me ‘Damat’ or ‘groom’. How do you feel, Damat? How many chocolates do we need, Damat? We settled on a box of one hundred and sixty which he generously paid for. Then we bought flowers from the Gypsy man at the bus station. I chose white daisies mixed with lavender, because I knew Delal hated red roses. The Gypsy approved then poked me with the bouquet. ‘Kommst du nach Deustchland?’

‘Whatever you say,’ I answered.

Now Delal told me to make sure everyone was there by eight. When I asked her grandfather (hereafter referred to as Dede) what time I should be there he said, in typical Dede fashion, ‘Well I am not one to tell others what to do, I mean, what do I know? But if I were you I would show up at six o’clock.’ And so I did, thinking I would find just Dede and Zelal and we’d help set up tables or move furniture or whatever, but I discovered Delal not at home (she was at the hairdressers’) and in her stead, a whole team of relatives meeting me at the door, none of whom I had ever met before. So I hit the ground running.

Or kissing.

My first task was kissing the hand of Dede who sat grinning on the couch. I completely screwed this up, of course. Though I had not been nervous all day, I suddenly felt like someone had released the world’s entire population of monarch butterflies into my stomach and they were now spreading to other organs, until my whole body felt aflutter. Normally I should bend down, kiss Dede’s hand, then touch it to my forehead, but I got so flustered I just kind of mashed his fingers into my mouth like a dog play fighting. He laughed and pulled me up into a hug. Bright red at this point, I was introduced to a whole new set of aunts, uncles and cousins I had never met before. I immediately forgot all their names.

(A word about Turkish-and Kurdish-families. While we have one word for aunt, they have three. Hala is for your father’s sister, teyze is for your mother’s, and yenge is for the wife of your uncle. Now I can keep track of who is an aunt and who is a cousin, but I find it much more challenging to figure out who is the hala, who the teyze, and who the yenge. The same goes for uncle—your father’s brother is amca, your mother’s brother is dayı and your aunt’s husband is enişte. Generally, I have no idea who is who, which makes Delal think I am simply not listening. This occasionally bears a modicum of truth. Worse, when I try to just wing it, as, for example, when one of Delal’s cousins refers to Delal’s father as ‘Dayı’—I have to back calculate. If he is her dayı then she is Delal’s what which makes her father Delal’s what?)

Anyway, with introductions made, I sat on the sofa, made small talk, and rose to greet the next thirty people to walk in. This was when the category 5 nervousness really hit. This engagement party, what I was about to do, was not just some nod to tradition (as we had been making out for weeks). It was heavy. Everyone was here for me and Delal, and our lives were about to change forever. And it was like a veil lifted—for so long we had been so off-handed in talking about this engagement party. We made it sound like a game of scrabble or a night out for beers, but I suddenly understood how much more it was, how important to me, how utterly and uniquely special. I desperately wanted some of MY other guests--my side of the family--to show—yeah, to even the sides up a little, but also to share the moment with me, to lean on in my terror, to be a part of this-- but they weren’t coming for a while. I was ruminating on all this when Delal walked in and literally took my breath away—she was that beautiful. She wore the ruby necklace I had bought her in Syria and it lay gracefully against her olive skin. (I gave her that! I wanted to shout. See? I’m no cheapo!) Her black hair was wound gracefully in a spiral around her head and she was glowing, that warm smile of hers flowing like the Southeastern sun throughout the room. She was nervous, I could tell, but hiding it from her guests, and even from herself, by playing the magnanimous host.

I don’t often write about Delal. The subject feels a little overwhelming, and I feel like my own feelings for her are a vast secret continent which I am only just discovering, clumsily diving into the forests with a machete and a backpack full of ill-prepared provisions—potato chips in a desert-- but here I will try.

I watched her float about the room with a mix of pride, love, joy, and fear. I knew why she was there, I mean this whole thing had come about because she was going to give herself to me. The idea of this gorgeous woman surrendering her life to me (and me to her) made me shiver—was I good enough? Life seemed big all of a sudden, like when I was diving in the Philippines and I looked down and saw a deep cobalt blue below me and I knew that the bottom lay two miles down and then when I looked to the sides I saw infinite blue in all directions, forever, and I felt so small and fragile and the ocean seemed so majestic and huge and other that I felt that old, ancient feeling of awe, fear and joy and surrender and passion before something holy. I felt a little of that awe now in the face of what we were about to do. And this isn’t right, this isn’t really touching it. It was much quieter than this, the feeling I had. It was more like how in Raising Arizona Ed sits down to take a photo with the baby they’ve just kidnapped and says portentiously, ‘Now Hi, this is an awful BIG responsibility.’ She’s thrilled and terrified at the same time.

The rest of my people showed up at eight--Padraic and two other friends, Stephen and Cari. I looked around-- everyone had surreptitiously gathered into one room. ‘Canım,’ Delal said. ‘Honey, it’s time. You have to tell Padraic it’s up to him to start.’ I sent him a text message because he was so involved in conversation with Delal’s father—the two of them merrily lecturing other like mad—that I knew there would be no lull where I could discreetly hiss his name. But then miraculously a moment of silence fell.

‘I think it’s clear why we are here. Two young people have found love.’ This made me smirk—he was calling me young. But as he spoke, we all settled into a solemn silence and when he finished, asking Dede and Delal’s father for her hand, there were audible sniffles. I felt my own eyes start to water up.

‘Well Dede,’ Delal said. ‘Are you going to give me THAT easily or what?’

There was a possibility of a no. One of Delal’s cousins sitting in that very room had brought her fiancé home only to be told by her father that there was no way they were getting married. Dede smiled and said ‘I’m not sure the groom’s side has given anything worthy of you.’

Everyone whispers amongst themselves in surprise.

‘What do you mean, Dede?’ Delal asks.

He raises his hand and rubs his thumb against his fingers.

‘Money?’ I whisper to Ekrem. ‘Do I have to give money? Is that part of the tradition?’

He shrugs.

‘No one told me about this part? What the hell should I give?’

It’s been like this all night. Ever since I tried kissing Dede’s hand. No, that’s not quite right, Jeff. No, Jeff, don’t kiss her hand. Wait, why didn’t you kiss his hand? You forgot to do this, you have to do that. So here is another thing I was screwing up and no one had warned me about. With an embarrassed sigh I started digging around in my wallet and then Dede said, slapping his knee, ‘Şaka şaka!’ Just kidding! This was a little joke they had worked up at my expense. What cards! Ahem.

Then the rings were brought out, two bands of white gold (No Dedei, they are not silver!) tied together by a red ribbon with gold trim. Delal and I stood and faced each other. Dede took each ring and placed it on our fingers. Then he stretched the ribbon out and snipped it in two. This was it. We were engaged. Her father—a man not known for his gushing emotion to say the least—pulled her into a tight hug. ‘Kızım!’ he said, blinking back tears. ‘Kızım!’ He seemed at a complete loss for words. The whole room was in tears--Ekrem, her family, my friends—the all formed a line and one by one came up to us for a kiss on both cheeks and a hug for the special ones. (There was so much kissing and hugging this night that I felt it had become a kind of sport—we kissed on greeting, after the ribbon cutting, and then on leaving as well—and several times in between just for the hell of it.)

After this we ate, talked, laughed, and had an all-around good time. Surrounded by the warmth of friends and new family, I felt a feeling I rarely have in life—contentment. Stephen played guitar while Cari made up a song on the fly about mine and Delal’s first meeting. ‘He was a CIA agent!’ she crooned, in tribute to Delal’s weird assumption that I worked for the CIA when we first met. ‘And then she rocked his world! This beautiful girl.’ Zelal translated as Delal and I grinned. Delal’s dad talked about the evils of capitalism to Ekrem, perhaps capitalism’s number one fan. He also baffled the boy by quoting Socrates at one point.

The various halas, teyzes, and yenges amused themselves by piling my plate with food, and the food was excellent. I had made deviled eggs (everyone kept demanding the recipe) as my own little insertion of the South into the proceedings. Delal’s mother had made helva and Kurdish katmer—a kind of layered pastry with dried fruits and onions. Her aunts had brought börek and a Kurdish bread called pirgaç. We had cakes and salads and wine. I gave Delal’s father his book on the banality of evil and he actually beamed.

The last event of the night was the eating of the ribbon that had been tied to our rings. I gave it to the single men, Delal gave it to the single women. Traditionally they had to nibble a piece off and swallow it, but most of the girls said 'There's no way I'm doing that' and stuck it in their pockets. The boys were more daring.  Papa Padraic even gnawed off a cord and swallowed it all proper like (although he wasn't convinced that the whole ritual was not just another joke at the expense of the poor foreigners)

I had been nervous for weeks about getting married. That Friday I had broken down at school and blabbed everything I’d been thinking to one of the other teachers—another foreigner who had married a local many many years ago. I hadn’t even realized how freaked out I was. But now I was calm. And it still hurt to look at her, at Delal, but it was a good pain, one it made me happy to have.

I remember a meditation I did a long time ago with a German monk in the Thai Buddhist tradition. His name was Stardust and I thought he was a complete goofball, but he had some wisdom. He had given away his company in Berlin at 40 years of age and wandered the world seeking truth—walking with nothing but a robe and a begging bowl from the Southern tip of India to the North. This man never quit smiling. In the meditation, he told us all to imagine our hearts on the outside of our bodies instead of on the inside, completely exposed and vulnerable, fragile, delicate. We would feel every breeze and every touch of sunlight a thousand times more powerfully than we’d ever had because the exposed tissue was that sensitive, that raw. That was love, he’d said. It made everything hurt. That’s the kind of love you should strive for.


Stephen Freer said...

And it was an awesome night. The family, friends, papa padraic, the eggs. Thanks for letting me be a part of it. and you forgot to mention that you were great too. played your role perfectly and looking very strong-shouldered and upstarting and all that.

Marc said...

Glad to hear it went well (mostly). Wish I could've been there.