Sana’ani weddings: Yesterday’s language, today’s dream

Published on 2 February 2012 in Culture
Amira Al-Arasi (author)

Amira Al-Arasi

Many Sana’anis still practice traditional wedding customs.   Photo by Adnan (

Many Sana’anis still practice traditional wedding customs. Photo by Adnan (

Yemeni weddings have unique customs – especially those of Sana’a, which are so popular that people all over Yemen copy them in detail. Many Sana’anis still practice old customs during social ceremonies like engagements, marriages and the celebration of newborn babies. But celebrations are about more than just one happy event.

As well as the festivities, these events are also used by women to find potential brides for any sons or brothers who have reached the age of marriage. On the lookout, these women assess every young woman with an eagle eye. Initially looking at the way they behave and the clothes they wear and as far as clothing goes, modesty is always preferred.


Once a girl is chosen, she will be investigated without her knowledge, while her background and that of her family will come under scrutiny. If girl and her family are deemed suitable, and the groom’s family is convinced that she is the one, women – usually the would-be groom’s closest kin – will pay a surprise visit to her home after being introduced by a woman who knows both families. 


Such visits are often made for the purpose of inspecting the way in which the girl’s family receives guests – they will even examine the cleanness of the house, including the bathroom. At the end of the visit they will take her home phone number to talk to the family again later.


 After they have finished scrutinizing the girl, the bridegroom’s family will meet to review the information they have acquired, compare notes and discuss their impressions of the potential bride and her family. 


If they all agree, they will call the girl’s family and arrange an appointment for a second, “official” visit. As soon as the would-be bride’s family agrees to receive them, they buy chocolate or other gifts and, again, only women go on the agreed day. 


The visiting mother proposes on behalf of her son to the girl’s family, officially requesting her hand. In return, the girl’s family requests some time, often a week or so to do their share of background checks on the groom and his family. They also agree on a day to get their reply to the proposal.


When the deadline arrives, the girl’s family calls to either accept or decline the marriage offer. If the response is yes, initial congratulations are exchanged and the young man’s father, or one who represents him, visits the young woman’s family and asks officially asks for her hand in a small ceremony.


After that a girl from the groom’s side goes to take the bride’s measurements for the wedding dress and shoes as well as the engagement ring. When that is done, they prepare an engagement “package” or bag that contains an engagement dress, a gold ring and other jewelry, a pair of shoes, two pieces of expensive fabric to make dresses for the girl’s mother and grandmother, two perfume bottles, a wristwatch, an amount of money to hold the engagement party (usually not exceeding YR 30,000 or $150) and high quality chocolates.


As for men, they buy a large quantity of good quality qat to give away to those attending the engagement celebration. They go to the bride’s house to chew qat with her male relatives who seal the engagement by reciting a special verse of the Quran.


All people attending the session also recite the same sura as a means to bless the engagement, after which the engagement gift bag is delivered. When the session is concluded and the girl is congratulated, the visitors leave.


When the big day approaches, the dowry of about YR 800,000 (around $3,600) is paid the bride’s father to buy jewelry and clothes for the wedding and the days following it. 


The bride’s week


This starts with her going to a steam, or Turkish, bath that has been reserved exclusively for the celebrating women. The bride-to-be often goes with her girlfriends where they have a spot dedicated to them. She wears a necklace made of red onyx that is traditionally believed to fend off the evil eye.


When they arrive at the bath, the bride is received by a female singer. And when she finishes her bath, a cosmetic expert and hairdresser attends to her to apply the make-up and put the veil on her face, adding aromatic herbs to her head cover. She wears a traditional Sana’ani embroidered dress and an outer cover called a sitara – a piece of cloth that is still worn today, especially elder women in Sana’a’s Old City.


When the bride is ready to leave the steam bath, a car comes to take her home. As she steps out of the Turkish bath an egg is broken – another tradition to repel the evil eye. Women accompanying the girl then utter ululating cries of joy before she enters the car, with happy songs playing until she arrives home. Once there her male relatives and neighbors shoot guns into the air and set off fireworks to express their joy at her arrival.


When she enters her home women receive her and break another egg, cheering loudly until she arrives at her bedroom. On this day large quantities of food are cooked and relatives and neighbors of the brides are invited to lunch.


The second day is called the “green day” because the girl wears a green dress, which is very loose and has long sleeves with a head cover fixed in place with silver clasps. The bride usually borrows the green dress because she will wear it only once in her life. She also wears a thin veil that will remain in place throughout the party, along with various silver accessories. The bride is ushered by a female singer, singing traditional songs and accompanied by a flute and drums from her bedroom to the room where women are waiting for her.


Hot drinks like traditional coffee and white tea as well as homemade cookies and biscuits are handed out.


The next day, the bride goes to the hairdresser to have her hair done for the thebbal day when she wears a red, thick dress with gold strings. The dress is made up of three pieces and is similar to an Indian wedding dress. The girl wears all the gold that she has as well as a gold-colored veil. Also on this day the bride is accompanied by the Sana’ani singer to her guests. This day may be celebrated either at the bride’s home or at a wedding hall. 


After this day, which is two days away from her wedding day, a day is dedicated to henna. This is a type of black henna that is used to decorate the arms, shoulders and legs. It is mixed in water with a little salt or perfume so that the bride does not become allergic to the dye used. The bride gets a special pattern, different to that given to her family and friends.


During the henna process, all doors and windows should be shut tightly so that no wind can spoil the dye. After the henna is applied, the decorator waits until the dye is dry before applying layer of oil jelly and some baby powder, wrapping the dyed areas until she begins to sweat – after which the wraps are removed. Some women have the name and her husband written inside a well-decorated heart to the left of her chest as a dedication of her love.


As the bride-to-be enjoys her last maiden days, the man too has his prenuptial “ceremonials”. He goes to the barber to have his beard and mustache shaved or trimmed and to have facial masks applied. The following day, he and his friends will go to a Turkish bath. When he exits the building, a band playing traditional instruments will receive him. The band will continue to accompany him to his home, where he will change his clothes in preparation for an afternoon session with friends and guests. If his home is not large enough to accommodate all his guests, a hall can be booked for the purpose.


During the afternoon party, artists will play the lute and sing Sana’ani songs, with intervals for traditional religious chants. Short breaks will allow people a chance to chat with the bridegroom as well as to allow them to speak amongst each other in a congenial manner. This will continue until evening, when the newly wed man will leave to find some rest, leaving behind guests who likely wish to stay awake through the night and until dawn. They will be provided with homemade cookies and tea.


The next morning, the bride will wake up late in order to prepare herself for her once-in-a-lifetime wedding day. All her family and neighbors will prepare lunch for the big day - called the ‘banquet day’. The groom is invited to this feast and attends it along with his family. When lunch is finished, the groom and his entourage go to his wedding party hall and stay there until night, when his wedding ceremony will take place.


The bride will take a bath to prevent her henna from getting smudged. She will also supervise the preparation of the bag she is to take to her new home. Her white wedding dress is then prepared, along with all its accessories, before she departs with two or more of her friends for the beautician’s. Her mother will put perfume and incense on all her clothes.


In the afternoon, the two families will receive their guests at the women’s hall. When the bride is ready, a decorated car will take her from the hairdresser’s to the hall, where she will be met by all her female relatives, friends and guests, who will enthusiastically celebrate her arrival.


Meanwhile, the groom will be celebrated by men on the street, in front of or near his house, and where decorations, lights and loudspeakers have been installed. The celebration is initiated by the chanter, a man chosen for his pleasant voice. At this time, no music is played. The chanting includes supplications and prayers for the groom and his bride. This continues for an hour, with the groom and all the audience standing or moving very slowly. After that, the flutist will start playing his instrument with assistance from two other musicians - one using a spoon or other metal object on a special brass tray and the other a drum. The band will sing old and popular Sana’ani songs. 


During this time, women from both families and from the neighborhood will climb atop the roofs of surrounding houses to observe the procession and trill. A man with a lute, assisted by a drummer, will play a variety of songs next. Many of the youth attendees will dance to the music. Pictures will be taken of the groom as family and friends surround him.


A number of brass or clay vases will be put in front of the groom. They will contain aromatic herbs, including basil, in addition to some candles. A three-layered tray named al-mashjab will also be provided. It too will contain herbs, candles sprinkled with glitter and eggs on which the word ‘Allah’ is written. When the street celebration has concluded, the procession will move to the hall reserved for the groom’s final party, where he sits and takes a last set of pictures with his friends, who are also offered cookies and tea.


At around midnight, the bride will be prepared to be taken to her husband’s house by a group of men from his family. They will have dinner at her house before she is taken away to her new home. A caravan of many cars will accompany the bride on her trip, honking their horns and moving along slowly. When she arrives in her new neighborhood, she will be received and welcomed with songs, trilling, and fireworks. When the bride crosses over the threshold of her husband’s house, an egg is broken and joyful shrills sound loudly as she heads to a hall full of female guests. The bridegroom’s family provides a dinner for the men who transported the bride prior to their departure. 


The groom proceeds to his bedroom, where he finds his bride. He puts his hand on her forehead and recites al-Fatiha before removing her veil and kissing her on her forehead, at which point attending women trill and congratulate them. Some photos are taken of the two and cakes are cut before they are left alone.  


The next morning, men from the bride’s family come to their in-laws’ house to receive the good news of their girl’s honor. On the third day, the groom will visits his mother-in-law, taking with him a piece of cloth bearing stains of blood which indicate her virginity on the wedding day. The fabric, which he should hand over to the bride’s mother, will have been perfumed and have black seeds and rue added. Out of courtesy, he will congratulate his in-laws on having raised their daughter properly. 


On the seventh day, the bride will wear a Yemeni crown of gold or a special hair covering called qinba’ai, which is adorned with coral beads. On the eighth day, the couple will depart for their honeymoon, either inside or outside Yemen. 


Birth customs


Before birth, all the mother’s and her child’s needs are prepared, including clothes, coffee and so on. After giving birth, the new mother will stay in one room for 15 days without wearing any make-up or fancy clothes. Throughout these days, she will receives guests, who will bring presents for her and her child. The women will offer them coffee or tea from her husband’s family. After that, she will move to another, larger room called the ‘birth’ room. This room will be decorated with the sex of the child in mind; if it is a boy, then a man’s head covering (shawl), a jambiah (traditional dagger) and/or a jacket will be hung over his head. If the baby is a girl, they will hang a maswan (rug), gold crown or a bead necklace. In both cases, copies of the Quran will be handed out to guests to ward off the evil eye from the mother and her child. 


The move from the old to the new room is celebrated by the new mother’s family and friends, and is accompanied by a female singer. On the first day in the new room, her in-laws will prepare coffee, cakes and cooked peas. Over the following days, her family or close friends may do the same until the conclusion of the 40-day occasion, the last day of which being called the ‘completion day’, when her hands and legs will be tattooed and she will be dressed in fine clothes and given a joyful party.