My Mother-in-law and the Wedding Yeast

My Mother-in-law and the Wedding Yeast

My Mother-in-law and the Wedding Yeast
By Raed Saadeh and Raida Farhat Odeh

In a sudden suspension of time, everyone’s eyes turned and focused in the direction of the stairs leading to the main entrance of Odeh’s family house in the Ein Elhamam area in Birzeit.

A huge crowd of people had gathered around the bride dressed in angelic white, and her beauty stole the hearts of everyone who laid eyes on her. Proudly standing beside her was her distinguished mother. With keen and careful steps, her mother moved slowly and gracefully up the stairs in her folkloric dress, carrying the thoughts and spirits of those who stepped up these stairs before her. The intricate stitches and traditional colours of red and green reflected the crowd’s longing and heartfelt memories of their ancestral stories and legacies. The mother’s head was covered with a long white veil that lay behind her in a spirited pose, arranged over her delicately piled and lightened hair. Numerous golden bracelets adorned each of her wrists, and a large golden necklace made of Ottoman coin draped her delicate neck. 

The bride’s mother-in-law also stood at her side. Her velvet dress and her high hairdo brought a shadow of authority and control to the entire scene. She persistently commanded the next step like an impatient stage director whose only concern was the final curtain call.

The crowd’s entire concentration followed the bride’s movements in theatrical enthusiasm as she extended her hand to receive her ultimate test for her future happiness. Her mother-in-law pulled out a little package wrapped in a green grape leaf. The package contained the “Wedding Yeast,” which is, essentially, flour dough that the bride is supposed to paste against the stone frame of the entrance to her home-to-be, just like glue, in order to hang the grape leaf on it. The green leaf represents optimism and the yeast is a symbol of the growing of the family. The bride cautiously grabbed the package and rearranged it with anxiety and apprehension. Indeed, this is a nerve-racking moment, particularly if the dough does not have the right texture to hold the leaf against the wall. The wide-eyed stares in the crowd’s eyes reflected the symbolism of this moment: the belief that the bride will adhere to her home in the same way that the dough sticks to the stone frame of the entrance. 

In Palestine generally, and specifically in the rural areas of which Birzeit is part, the dough is a symbol of blessing and virtue as historically this is the basic element of the peasants’ food – the source of bread. Hence, the bride’s entry to the house should bring blessing and virtue when she manages to paste the dough against the wall. 

The “yeast custom” is the final stage of the wedding-day ceremonies before invited guests regroup for the wedding party and dinner. Earlier in the day, Birzeit streets became inebriated with the voices of the town’s young men as they sang and danced their way carrying the groom on their shoulders, or hopping around him, waving their canes in tireless, yet skilful steps passed from one generation to the other, as they marched to receive the bride. In this custom, known as zaffeh, the groom is often escorted on a horse, reminiscent of the footsteps of the great grandfathers while the stones of the old buildings of Birzeit and its olive and fig trees attest to their legacies, songs, and laughs, as well as their concerns. As the zaffeh passed by the houses, people threw rice and sweets at the procession as a gesture of hope and good will for the anticipated union.

Another traditional wedding custom is the henna ceremony. In the old days when the bride and groom were not allowed to see each other before the wedding day, the search and choice of the bride was the personal endeavour of the mother-in-law. The henna ceremony would precede the wedding day. It is when the bride’s hands are dyed with henna to prevent her family from switching her with another girl. This ceremony is still practiced today with a lot of enthusiasm and zealous singing and dancing. 

Popular and folkloric songs also distinguish a Birzeit wedding. These are often composed by local poets and they depict the psychological status and social traditions of the local community. They are the heritage that is inherited from the ancestors, but their lyrics reflect the status of the current setting.

The folkloric songs connect the past with the present. They portray the Palestinian’s link to the land, the love for his/her village and keenness to protect its heritage and culture. The local character, emotions, and concerns are depicted in the local dialect. The poems praise the men of the village and the lineage of its women. Although there are many common poems and songs among the different villages and towns, such as the infamous dal’ouna and zareef attoul, there are still many Birzeit-specific verses and themes. For every ceremony, there are several pictorial images embedded in the familiarity of the various songs and dances. A common instrument that accompanies the folkloric dance (dabka) is the nay, which is made from bamboo and requires a certain skill and a decent musical ear to produce the range of tones and sounds needed to dialogue with the moves of the men and women who eagerly join the dance arena. Many young and old men and women indulge themselves in a competitive frenzy to show off their skills, talents, and personal moves.

Birzeit is one of the Palestinian villages where men and women dance side by side. The person who leads the line waves his or her scarf, arranges the order of the dance moves that others repeat, and entertains the dance space with agile and lively steps that encourage the other cousins and guests to follow suit.

Village weddings, in particular, are about specific traditions. Customs that don’t seem to have much meaning these days are still practiced because they preserve the identity of the local culture and strengthen its roots in the land and the progression of its community’s historic presence. What seem to have prevailed, though, are the influence, authority, and power of the mother-in-law.

Raed Saadeh is chairman of the Rozana Association, and Raida Farhat Odeh is executive director of the Rozana Association.
Original Published in “this week in Palestine ” Issue No 143, March 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Rozana Association.

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