Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Category: Celebrations

Meeting St. Pucchi, the Designer of my Wedding Dress

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A few days ago I discovered that a Facebook friend, Rani Totman, was the award-winning designer of my wedding dress. We’d connected a year ago through a book marketing program we had both joined. Recently, when I saw pictures of her standing next to rows of beautiful wedding gowns, I realized she’s the one who created the wedding dress which reflected my personal story, a story of a traditional woman with an ancient lineage who’d traveled the world and wrote books. Rani asked to see a picture of the dress and to share my story, so here I am, as my 12th wedding anniversary approaches, going down memory lane.

Years before I got married, I bought a wedding magazine as I was about to get engaged. There was only one dress that interested me, a ball gown with a tulle skirt. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for – I wanted something more couture and extravagant – but it was a good starting point in search of my perfect dress. I tore out the page and gave away the magazine. Too in love with books, I was not the type of girl who kept beauty or fashion magazines. That engagement did not work out, but I kept the picture of the dress in one of my drawers.

Years passed and my now-husband came into my life and asked for my hand in marriage. In our Chaldean culture, we go through many festivities before the wedding, one of the major ones being the engagement which, in our case, consisted of 150 guests (that was considered moderate in comparison to larger engagements).

One day, my brother’s fiancée called me at work and said, “Weam, I ordered a beautiful wedding dress that is at Orosdi Beck Fashions. I want you to go try it. I know you’ll love it.”

She’d ordered it for a wedding that didn’t happen, and she did not want to wear it now when she was marrying my brother. But because she’d put a deposit, it sat there waiting for someone to pick it up. And she thought it too special not to be worn.

“Okay,” I said reluctantly. “But I haven’t even gone shopping for my engagement dress yet.”

“Just try it, please! It’s so you.”

I said I would but didn’t make it a priority. At the time, I was a full-time student at the Motion Institute of Michigan, worked full-time, and was getting ready for the publication of my first book, The Feminine Art. I had a big to-do list – still do (guess some things never change). She called several times afterward to see if I’d gone yet, and each time, I had to give an excuse of why I hadn’t. She persisted, and finally, to get her to stop pestering me, I took one of my sisters to Orosdi Beck Fashions, which was famous for its couture dresses.

I quickly tried on the dress and when I walked out of the dressing room, my sister’s eyes and that of the owner widened. The moment I stood in front of the three-way mirror, the phone rang. It was my now-husband. He asked, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I said, taken aback by what I saw in the mirror. The dress resembled the picture I had saved, but this one was much more exquisite. It was lavish and luxurious, to meet my culture’s tastes of an elaborate traditional wedding, yet clean and timeless, to meet my preference for elegance.

I told my then fiancé I’d call him later and the owner of Orosdi Beck came to take measurements. “This fits you so perfect, it doesn’t even need any alterations,” she said.

It was the first and last wedding dress I tried on,  a dress with a story I often tell women to help them realize their dreams. Having connected with the designer that made my dream a reality, I’m now also inspired by her story as a businesswoman.

Rani’s love of fine fashion started early, drawing on experience from her family’s business as the largest purveyors of fine lace in Thailand. Having earned a degree in English literature during her college years, and much to the dismay of her parents who did not want her to follow them into the fashion business, the story of St. Pucchi is an against all odds tale as success came to Rani without any formal fashion training. She pulled only from her experience growing up around fabrics, her lifelong enthusiasm for style and design, and remarkable natural talents that invoked her true calling as a designer at a young age. This led to her world-renowned Bridal house St. Pucchi. And recently, she published her book “Your Body, Your Style: Simple Tips on Dressing to Flatter Your Body Type.”

Sometimes, by making our dreams and fairytales come true, we illuminate the dreams of others.

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Iraqi Folklore Party

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My husband and I attended a party the other day that was hosted by Beth Nahrain Community Club, a new club that I recently wrote about. It was lovely to see the people who are all connected through heritage and bloodline meet in one banquet hall, together celebrating their folklore dances and costumes that span from various villages in northern Iraq  – something that, unfortunately, people who are still living in our ancestors’ ancient land are not able to do.

Some of the people at the party ran into relatives they had not seen in decades. Beth Nahrain seeks to solidify the bond and spirit of friendship and fellowship among the shareholders, their families and friends. Its founders are working with various Iraqi Christians organizations and/or groups (Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs) in an effort to coordinate resources for the betterment of the community. The goal is to preserve customs, traditions, and social values.

“We wanted a club that would accommodate all families without discrimination or an attempt to dominate one group over another,” said Sammer Tolla, senior loan officer at Security Mortgage in Sterling Heights. “The main goal is for our families to feel they have a place where our community could safely gather and get to know each other, and also for the new generation to meet and know each other. We want to start programs for the young people so they can take leadership roles.”

Sammer says that there was a private club in Baghdad, with a pool and various social activities, where Christian Iraqis gathered called Al Mashriq. Many had their wedding receptions and other celebrations there.

“If we don’t start now, I don’t think our children would do it at all,” said Shawki Bahri. “Once we establish it, they will do a better job carrying it forward because they are mostly open-minded and well-educated. They will be able to incorporate their professions, skills, and knowledge into this community.”

Watch this short video of the party:

Here’s an article I wrote about this club which was published by the Chaldean News: http://www.chaldeannews.com/efforts-to-add-eastside-club-gaining-steam/

 

Miss Iraq – American Style: 14 Compete in Pageant

This article was first publishedIMG_6286 by The Chaldean News http://www.chaldeannews.com/miss-iraq-american-style-14-compete-in-pageant/

Fourteen young women from across the United States representing different regional ethnicities of Iraq competed for the title of Miss Iraq USA on March 12. More than 700 people attended the event at Bellagio Banquet Hall in Sterling Heights.

The goals of the event were to promote culture and heritage, create a positive image of Iraqi women to the world, and inspire Iraqi women to compete internationally. To qualify, girls had to be single and living in the United States for at least a year, never been married or have children, between the ages of 18 and 27, and have at least one parent born in Iraq. The winner received nearly $10,000 in gold jewelry, gift cards and other prizes.

“This has been an amazing and humbling experience,” said Melinda Toma, 22, former Miss Iraq USA and currently a pharmacy student. Toma, who was born and raised in the U.S., said being crowned Miss Iraq USA gave her many opportunities and helped her gain much more confidence in herself. “I used to be very shy and timid, but not anymore,” said Toma, who in May will visit an orphanage in Costa Rica to do volunteer work.

Ebtissam Khanafer, CEO of Yallafan Productions and Miss Iraq USA, trained the contestants and hosted the show. For one week, she not only taught the women poise and etiquette, but also the history of their ancestral land, even though she herself is Lebanese.

“We all come from the same part of the world,” she said. “We are all one.”

Lebanon is mentioned more than 70 times in the Old Testament. The New Testament has many passages that talk about Jesus and his disciples traveling quite a bit in Lebanon, which was then called Phoenecia.

“I taught the girls historical facts about Mesopotamia that their parents did not teach them,” Khanafer said, listing the names of Sumerian queens, geographical references about the Fertile Crescent, and the fact that Babylonians made more than 150 different types of bread.

Khanafer said that Miss Iraq is not all about beauty, makeup or body size.

“It’s not about the crown,” she said. “It’s about your personality, what’s in your mind and the legend you will leave behind.”

Lilian Farook, 20, has only been in the United States for one year but she left Iraq 15 years ago, traveling through Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt to come to America. She participated in the pageant because, she said, “I want to do anything positive for my birth country.”

In the beginning of the show, the girls came out wearing similar dresses (first all in white, later all in red) that were provided by Betsy’s Bridal. Later they wore traditional dresses that represented their ethnic backgrounds and at the end, they wore evening dresses. They were questioned by the judges on women’s issues and, in the second round, each was asked, “If you had something to say to the Iraqi government, what would you tell them?”

“I would tell them not to forget where they came from, the Cradle of Civilization,” said Sarah Idan, 26, who went on to be crowned the winner. “We came from the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Jewish. We came from diversity and Iraq is diverse. I would tell them that this is a country for all Assyrians, Arab Muslims and Jews. We must respect each other and live in peace.”

While some Assyrians in the crowd were excited that she mentioned them — and some Chaldeans did not like that she did not mention them — Idan said she did not mean to exclude or emphasize any particular group and had no clue of the rift between the two communities. She is a Muslim who was born in Baghdad, came to the United States in 2009, and now lives in Los Angeles.  No one knew of her background until after she won the title because she labels herself a “Babylonian.”

Idan currently has an administrative positive at a real estate company and is studying business, but plans to switch to media. Her many interests and talents include playing the guitar, piano and harmonica. She writes her own music and also sings in Arabic.

“I was not at all expecting to win,” she said. “I figured since no one knew me in Michigan, why would they pick me?”

She participated in the pageant, she said, because she hoped that by doing so she could achieve her goal to start a nonprofit organization to help people in Iraq suffering from mental illness.

“Having gone through what they went through, many are stressed, angry, sad and depressed,” Idan said. “Nobody wants to talk about this because in Iraq, depression is viewed as shameful, but it’s a serious health issue that needs treatment. Many young girls are joining militias as a result of mental instability.”

A strong believer in equal rights, freedom and education, Idan believes that Iraq would be great if it could achieve those three characteristics.

“It’s not just the government’s fault but it’s also the fault of the people,” she said. “They have to become independent thinkers.”

I’m Most Grateful for Graduating this Year

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Morning of Graduation

When I graduated high school, I did not walk at commencements. I did not view my high school diploma as much of an accomplishment. When three years later, I received my bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University, I again did not walk at commencements. Although I enjoyed my college years and was happy to attain my degree, I felt there was something missing. I had a deep desire to learn more about myself and real life that seemed beyond what formal education could teach.

For the next two decades, I studied with various spiritual masters and took umpteen writing courses. All were wonderful experiences that helped me grow and flourish as a person and a writer, but most importantly, they led me to an extraordinary school, Lynn Andrews’ four-year shamanic school. I had initially signed up to the school to find my literary voice which had gotten lost by the pains of witnessing the Iraq war and by my enormous responsibilities as a wife and new mother.

I had no idea then that the school’s ancient teachings would not only heal old wounds that had muffled my literary voice, but that it would also improve my relationship with the Great Spirit, with myself, and with my family. The work was mystical but also very intense and challenging. I had to put my heart and soul into my family, home and career while doing the schoolwork because the purpose of these teachings is to incorporate what we learn into every aspect of our daily life.

Last month, I flew to Arizona to join other apprentices in a gathering where we graduated from Lynn’s school. This time, I walked at commencements in a most sacred ceremony.  I had taken a life-changing journey and was now surrounded by amazing women from all walks of life. For me, this was a real milestone that was worthy of celebration.

This Thanksgiving, I give special gratitude for graduating from a school that had, not long ago, only existed in my imagination.

For more information about Lynn and her school, you can visit her website: http://lynnandrews.com/

The Dog Called Hitler – A Kresge Fellowship Winner!

Walerian Domanski

Since the spring of this year, when my friend and poetry editor Elisabeth Khan returned from India and we began to meet more frequently, we have been talking about Walerian Domanski, who is a member of our Rochester writers group.

In her beautiful Flemish accent, Elisabeth told me that she’d been editing Walerian’s second short story book collection, called The Calf. His first book, The Dog Called Hitler, was originally published in Poland. The Dog Called Hitler is about life and problems of common people, mostly very poor people in Communism Poland. But the book is universal, showing the heroism and weakness of people.

Elisabeth found his stories delightful, full of good writing, humor and satire. I told her that last year, for the first time I had listened to him read a poem, a poem that was very beautiful and touching.

Our discussions about his work was inspiring, leading me to write a poem based on his short story title: Kiss My Ass. Then one day, Elisabeth said to me, excitedly, “Our friend Walerian has won the Kresge Fellowship!”

“I suddenly became famous,” Walerian said to us as Elisabeth and I took a stroll with him by Lake St. Clair. “Even my wife, who did not used to read my work, suddenly started reading it.”

We asked him what he was going to do with the fellowship money and he said, “Buy good liquor.” We laughed.

Walerian continued to make us laugh with his sense of humor last Friday evening at Dr. John Telford’s home in St. Claire Shores. The beautiful house is on Lake St. Clair, and Dr. John Telford is the author of A Life on the Run, a memoir about his life and times as a Detroit educator and activist. He hosted, as he has done for some years now, the summer potluck writer’s group meeting.

Later on, we gathered in the backyard and various writers read their works. Walerian read one of his short stories, which was short, sweet, and funny. We have so much talent in our community!

Born in Russia, Walerian went to Poland with his parents in 1946. In Poland, he finished elementary school and high school, received a master’s degree in civil engineering and worked for state owned construction companies. Having joined an anti-communist movement, he was jailed by communists in December 1981. In 1987, he came to the United States as a political refugee.

From the beginning he loved the United States. He found a job in a geotechnical company and in 1994 he received a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering from Wayne State University. In 2008, he retired from the City of Detroit and started cartooning again, and soon switched to writing. He’s truly a man with many talents. Check out his book by visiting this link: http://www.amazon.com/The-Called-Hitler-Walerian-Domanski-ebook/dp/B00TWJ029O

Another Arabian Wedding in America

I love weddings, but as my responsibilities at home and work increase – as do the weddings invitations that arrive to our doorsteps – I have found myself often complaining about the beautification process required to attend these events. Then I get to the banquet hall and I am grateful to be a part of such beautiful celebration.

Yesterday, my husband’s nephew got married and I enjoyed the wedding so very much that I wanted to share one moment of it with the rest of the world.  So enjoy!IMG_4067 - Copy

The Tradition of New Year Resolutions

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Ancient Babylonians started the tradition of making New Year Resolutions some 4,000 years ago. They made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness—heralded the start of a new year. They marked the occasion with a massive religious festival called Akitu (derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was cut in the spring) that involved a different ritual on each of its 11 days.

According to www.adoptionworld.com, late March is actually a logical choice for the beginning of a new year. It is the time of year that spring begins and new crops are planted. January 1st, on the other hand, has no astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary. The Romans continued to observe the new year on March 25, but their calendar was continually tampered with by various emperors so that the calendar soon became out of synchronization with the sun.

The celebration of the new year is the oldest of all holidays. If there’s one thing to learn from it is that we should stop tampering with nature and ancient wisdom. Perhaps then more people than the current 8 percent will achieve their New Year’s Resolutions.

An Arabian Wedding in America

While I love weddings, anyone who knows me (or who has invited me to their wedding) will vouch that over the years, I’ve grown too tired to last the entire night of fun, dancing and eating – especially since Chaldean weddings tend to occur on a monthly basis, often during the middle of the week.

One thing I never tire from, however, is the main entrance, when the bride and groom appear hand in hand as a married couple for the first time.  My husband’s niece had a most beautiful and vibrant entrance. She looked so elegant that she reminded me very much of a Princess Diana (with a Middle Eastern touch). The welcoming heartbeats of the Arab drums, the colorful dancers, the light surrounding the guests and the exotic and passionate dancing on stage will cause me to not tire of watching this video  – in the comfort of my own home.

Sally's Wedding

The Blessings of a Henna Party

My husband’s niece had her henna party last weekend and it was fun and meaningful. For me, henna parties have become much more exciting to attend than weddings. Aside from the fact that they are filled with so much tradition, in our Chaldean community henna parties are much more intimate (with about 200 guests) whereas the weddings are, in my opinion, a bit overcrowded (at 500 guests and up).

Despite the small number of guests (at 200), one of the most important pre-weddings ceremonies in Arab and Hindu weddings is the Henna Party. A Henna Party represents the bond of matrimony and signifies the love and affection between the couple and their families. It is believed that henna gives blessings, luck, and joy.

The ceremony is a colorful, musical and lively event. The women dress in extravagant, heavily embroidered gallabiyas and the men wear a dishdasha and a 3-piece head cover. Large trays of fruits and nuts, sweets, and chocolate are carried by the women as they lead the future groom to his future bride.

The bride and other females get decorative henna designs on their hands. According to tradition, the darkness of the henna color on the bride’s hands represents the deep love between would-be-couples. Another tradition says that the bride is not allowed to work in her marital house until the time her henna fades away. Then it is work nonstop (no tradition says that, but any wife or mother understands what I’m talking about). Any wife or mother also knows that it’s all worth it, and the henna and other pre-wedding celebrations are beautiful steps that walk us into our new world with enough blessings to last us, and our children, a lifetime.

Sally's Henna

Committed Happily Ever After

Committed: A Love Story is the latest audio book I’m listening to. In it, author Elizabeth Gilbert gives a colossal account of marriage. From the tribal women in Vietnam to modern day Americans, she observes, compares and contrasts marriages, their success and failures, and comes to the conclusion that love is not enough to make a marriage work. You need to also put some thought into it. That’s what differentiates infatuation from real love. Furthermore, she highly recommends that men and women do not rely on their spouses for happiness. Each person is responsible for his or her own state of mind and spirit.

In a memoir I listened to last week, Three Weeks with My Brother, author Nicholas Sparks has a conversation about marriage with his brother Micah. Micah believed that the most important thing to a successful marriage was communication. Nicholas responded, “What’s the use of communication, in the case of an affair for instance, if you are not committed? If two people are committed to the marriage, if they really want to make it work, then they’ll find a way to do it. No matter what happens in life.”

Both Gilbert and Sparks give good old fashioned advice which I would like to share with newlyweds in general, particularly the newlyweds I attended the wedding of last Sunday – where in the midst of a storm and while the power was out inside our home, my family and I enjoyed the ambience of a fancy and beautiful wedding, delicious food, and more food, and my favorite, a violinist who during dinner played famous classics, like the Godfather love theme.

Cheers to healthy, happy marriages!

Firas and Nora's Wedding2