Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Category: Celebrations

A Chaldean Henna Party with an Indian Twist

My cousin and his fiancée decided to have an Indian-themed Chaldean henna. I thought this a wonderful idea and an opportunity for me to buy my first sari.

For over five thousand years henna has been a symbol of good luck, health, fertility and sensuality in many parts of the world. The art of henna (called Mehndi in Hindi & Urdu) has been practiced in Pakistan, India, Africa and the Middle East, and it has led to “the Henna Night.”

The henna night is where the bride, her family, relatives and friends get together to celebrate the wedding to come. The vibrant and colorful night is filled with games, music and dance performances. Sometimes guests get henna patterns done on their hands.

In the old traditional way, the groom’s family would dance through the streets of the village until reaching the house of the bride. When the men enter where the bride is, the bride-to-be and groom-to-be are united. Their mothers then get both their hands done with henna. The bride-to-be usually gets gold jewelry as a gift. For Muslims, this is where the groom offers the bride her mahr, a mandatory required amount of money or possessions paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage, for her exclusive use.

Adopting beautiful traditions from other countries, while honoring one’s own traditions, is a profound statement. It is one way of saying “Namaste” to the world.

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Happy 80th Birthday, Mom!

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Millions of Iraqis, including my mother and three of my older siblings, have a July 1st birthday. However, that is not the real month and date of when they were born. Until the First World War, many people, especially in villages and remote mountain areas, never had any identification. They simply belonged to their families and tribes. Their language and culture were their identities. Later, many people did not register their children when they were born.

In 1958, Adul Kareem Kasem was making a census, population count. The government told everyone that they could not leave the house for several days. They went door to door doing a count. Anyone who didn’t have a birthday, they gave him or her a July 1st birthday.
“July 1st was the happy medium, and was an easy way to do everything,” my brother told me. He and my older sisters also received a July 1st birthday.

So, since technically we do not know when my mother’s 80th birthday is, we did not feel too bad that it got postponed from July 1st to September 15.

The Candle Dance

Weddings in the Middle East vary from country to country and even village to village. While the majority include Arabic songs, belly dancing and the depka (a line dance), each region has its own traditional dances, songs, and in some cases, their own language.

Yesterday I attended my friend’s Palestinian wedding. It was quite beautiful, held at a banquet center with an elegant décor, delicious cuisine, and a panoramic view of its lake and golf course. Towards the end of the party, luckily before we decided to leave, we got to witness the candle dance.

The candle dance is a procession of women led by the bride. She enters the banquet hall, accompanied by her mother and mother-in-law, walks to the dancing floor and takes turn sharing the candle dance with the women who love and support her.

I tried to research the history and symbolism of this dance. The only thing I found is this from the book “La Milenaria Danza del Vientre, el lenguaje oculto… de Amir Thaleb.”

“This dance was inherited from ancient rites and ceremonies that took place in sealed religious temples, the lighting of the candles have a purely mystical significance and is a way to provide spiritual light to the various events and deities. Today this dance is usually performed at weddings or baptisms as being a symbolic way of illuminating the newly betrothed or newborn in his new path to take.”

Amir Thalbe adds that “in all these dances, dating back many millennia ago it is impossible to define them in their real meaning.”

Well, as long as they are kept alive, those watching and participating in these sacred rituals can make their own definitions and meanings out of them.

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Chicken Blaster, A Birthday Wish

I thought I was a deprived little child who never got to celebrate her birthday or attend any of her friends’ birthdays because my parents wanted to save on a few bucks. Or given that I was the 11th of 12 children, they were sick and tired of celebrating birthdays. Turns out that people don’t normally celebrate birthdays in the Arab and Muslim world – though they do it a lot in the movies. Many Muslim scholars and clerics consider the celebration of birthdays a sin, as it is an innovation of the faith. While others have issued statements saying that it is permissible, mostly Muslims (and Arabian Christians) adopted the custom after they migrated to the United States.

Even many modern rabbis do not endorse the celebration of birthdays. Origen in his commentary “On Levites” writes that Christians should not only refrain from celebrating their birthdays but should look on them with disgust. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Sacred Name groups also refrain from celebrating birthdays, believing birthday celebrations are portrayed in a negative light in the Bible and have historical connections with magic, superstitions, and Paganism.

Wow, I had no idea! Good thing I did not research this information as I prepared for my daughter’s seventh birthday – although maybe it would have been a good thing if I had. I’ve been consumed the whole week planning a Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party. When I asked my daughter why she chose Chuck-E-Cheese, she said, “Because I want to go inside the Chicken Blaster and the only way you can do that is by having a celebration there.”

“What is a chicken blaster?” I asked. She repeated, so again I asked, “What is a chicken blaster?”

She laughed and repeated it one more time, only louder. “A ticket blaster.”

“Oh.” My daughter’s front tooth has recently fallen out so her pronunciation is not that clear and given I’m getting older, neither is my hearing. Still, I’ve continued since then to call it a chicken blaster.

Birthday celebrations began as a form of protection, to keep the evil spirits away. The Germans are given history for starting celebrations of children’s birthdays. The song “Happy Birthday to You” was composed by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, in 1893.

Whatever their history, for all those who never got to celebrate a birthday, it’s not personal – it’s just religious.

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Daddy Daughter Dance

Last year, a woman in Cranston, Rhode Island filed a complaint about the Daddy Daughter dance, feeling her daughter was being discriminated against since she did not have a male figure in her life. This was followed up with the local ACLU sending a letter to the superintendent of the school threatening a lawsuit, saying they [the school district] were in violation of the law – whatever law that is.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a non-profit oraganization whose stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Founded in 1920, in the beginning its focus was on freedom of speech, primarily for anti-war protesters.

These days, it’s almost impossible to get innocent people out of prison or off death row, yet the ACLU has taken on an issue, raised by one single-mom, to ban the father/daughter and mother/son dance? This is mind-boggling, having just returned from a father/daughter dance which my husband and daughter attended, along with my brother and his girls. I had watched as they, and all the little girls who came out of that dance, floated with delight about their one-on-one experience with their fathers, almost every single one of them saying, “That was so much fun!”

Instead of taking such drastic actions, perhaps someone from the ACLU should’ve simply sat this single mom down and explained that rather than banning the joy of hundreds of other parents and children, she ought to find a way to fulfill her daughter’s emptiness – not necessarily through a male figure but through confidence, love, prayer and faith. But I guess that’s just too old fashioned a solution.

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The Feminine Art

The Feminine Art

After a visit to the gym, we stopped at the Barnes & Noble bookstore. My kids played in the youth services, near the Thomas the Train area, and I just sat there drinking my non-fat strawberry crème, dazing off into space. I was tired, after having walked on the treadmill and done yoga. Soon afterwards, I got up and took a little stroll. My eyes fell on a book, my book, The Feminine Art, which was published nearly ten years ago in 2004.

I became alert again, went and picked up the book. There were three copies on the shelves. I scanned its surroundings. Books by authors like Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) and Anais Nin were alongside The Feminine Art, my first novel. I’d finished writing this story when I was twenty-six years old. For years prior to that, I’d walked alongside these same shelves imagining that one day I’d see my book on these shelves. It’d happened, not half as easily as I had imagined, but it did happen.

I walked away from the shelves, wondering if people generally have the tendency to forget their accomplishments and focus on their setbacks. Or if it’s just me.

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Partying Arab Style


Dancing the Depka

In celebration of finishing the first-draft of my book and as a belated Valentine’s Day outing, I wanted to go to Lazeez, a Middle Eastern nightclub. My sister’s husband operates Lazeez, which is in Livonia. It’s a chic table-seating nightclub with a live band, great food and the wonderful smell of nerguila (water pipes).

We were a large group of siblings and their spouses, but no one knew about me finishing the first draft of my book. I didn’t want to talk or think about books last night. I just wanted to have fun. And it was fun. We enjoyed heart-felt music, we laughed, we danced, and we got home later than we’re accustomed to.

Middle Eastern music influenced (and has been influenced by) the music of Greece and India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, Southern Italy, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as in Byzantine music and Chalga. As for dancing, there’s a growing body of evidence that the thousands year old belly dance moves date back to Neolithic times and the Goddess-based cultures that existed then.

There’s also the depka, a line dance that forms from right to left. The leader of the dabke heads the line, alternating between facing the audience and the other dancers.

Yes, it was a very fun Saturday night, except the party when on the way home someone vomited in the car, my car.

Baby Showers

My daughter with her godmother, who is also my niece and my goddaughter and who is obviously expecting a baby

My daughter with her godmother, who is also my niece and my goddaughter and who is obviously expecting a baby

My niece and goddaughter, who is also my daughter’s godmother, had her baby shower today (it’s not as confusing as it sounds). For a number of family members, this was the first baby shower they had ever attended. Myself, I’ve only gone to two, even though I am an aunt to some 30 + nieces and nephews and a great aunt to eleven or more (not sure). Some of the family members did not understand this ritual as in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Victorian Era, celebrations took place after the birth of the baby.

The modern baby shower started after WWII during the baby boom era and evolved with the consumer ideology of 1950s and 1960s. They not only served an economic function by providing the mother-to-be and her home with material goods that lessened the financial burden of infant care, but purchased “things” also emerged as the principle whereby women make themselves into mothers. The shower basically serves to teach the woman into the special behaviors associated with her new role in society.

We expect baby Jude in March and we still have some 25 nieces and nephews to marry off.