I crashed a Beduin wedding

Yes, there was a dancing camel.

Trotting around on a camel as part of the ‘dehiya,’ the traditional Beduin dance celebrating weddings (photo credit: JACK BROOK)
Trotting around on a camel as part of the ‘dehiya,’ the traditional Beduin dance celebrating weddings
(photo credit: JACK BROOK)
I don’t care where you were in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, the best party was happening in Hura village.
At least, I hoped so, having on a whim decided to make the threehour trip down from Jerusalem, when I learned, from a friend of a friend, that there would be a wedding going on in Hura, an unrecognized Beduin community 30 minutes south of Beersheba.
I asked my friend Ehab, a Beduin who lived in the area, what would happen.
“There is a space for the horses to play, it goes on for six days, and everyone sleeps outside,” he said, as we bumped and rattled in his car down the gravelly dirt paths that connect the highway with Hura village. “It’s like an American wedding.”
We pulled up in the open clearing in the middle of the Negev desert, the air swirling with dirt from the many cars filling the space. A few hundred feet away stood a large open-air tent, providing the only light in the area and decorated with fluttering white flags jutting out from the corners. Ehab said that the white flags are put up to signal a wedding, as opposed to a funeral, another occasion for pitching the massive tent.
Ehab left me and I walked in alone, excited but a little nervous. Perhaps, in my jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, I was under- dressed for such an occasion? I came into the tent, where dozens of men were seated, smoking hookahs, sipping coffee and brewing tea with curved metal kettles over a bed of glowing coals.
The young people stared, kind of confused but smiling broadly at the sight of a foreigner. They, too, wore jeans.
The older people, in their keffiyehs and ankle-length thobes (the long white Arab robes) glanced over, and went back to rolling their cigarettes with fingers stained of tobacco.
A man named Muneer al-Assam, a friend of the friend who’d suggested I come, came and greeted me. He had a reputation as one of the premier horse trainers of his village, and the racehorses he worked with in his spare time made thousands of shekels at the track.
I soon learned that nearly everyone in attendance was related to him. He introduced me to his cousins, his uncles, his nephews and his brothers, and I could see the close resemblances of each group of immediate family members, who shared the same facial features.
Muneer also took me to meet the most prominent family members. There was Musa the businessman, a cheekyfaced man who commanded the authority of the tent; Carl the Giant, with shoulders twice as wide as anyone else and a head above the next tallest man; Mueen, who sold chickens in the morning and sang beautifully in the evening; and, of course, Firas the groom, a stocky 21-year-old with immaculately trimmed facial hair, extraordinary light eyes and a faux-hawk haircut.
For Firas to marry his wife, Muneer explained, his mother had to ask the woman’s family for her hand, although the final decision ultimately rests with the bride herself. Most people marry young – Muneer had married two months before.
In the Beduin world, engagement takes the place of dating.
Firas nodded as Muneer spoke, and called for someone to bring “the Ingleze” tea and coffee. The coffee was potent and bitter, the tea was lip-smackingly sweet. As I sipped, Muneer confided that he had never really spoken English before until he met me. He had learned his English from watching Hollywood movies from the age of five, and reading the subtitles. Now 21, after 16 years of The Terminator and Bruce Willis, he could speak at a level of near fluency.
The same could not be said of his relatives.
When Muneer left, we all stared at each other, grinning but unable to communicate beyond English at the most basic level.
Minutes after I had settled in, the music stopped abruptly. I worried I had missed the best part, but soon realized it was simply a break to pray (the Beduin, after all, are Muslims). About half the wedding reception, mainly the older men, gathered around the former dance floor and went through the steps of the final of the day’s five prayers.
I ASKED Muneer where the women were, especially the bride. I had noticed as soon as I arrived that there were only men. Muneer seemed embarrassed to talk about women, but it eventually came out that the women were having a separate celebration on the other side of the village. The bride and groom wouldn’t meet until the end of the next day, when he went over to pick her up for the honeymoon.
Soon after the prayer ended, the three large loudspeakers crackled to life and the younger people began to congregate in the center as Salem al-Assam and Mueen, who I was told were the best singers for miles around, took microphones and began to chant. Mueen had woken up at four in the morning that day to sell chickens in Beersheba. Now, he transformed into the de facto DJ, the man responsible for chanting songs for hundreds of people to enjoy.
“Come,” Muneer told me. “It is time for the dancing.”
Everyone managed to line up in chronological order, with the youngest and smallest at the far end, then the teens and the 20-somethings before ending with the middle-aged men. The most important figures, the sheikhs and patriarchs, remained in a dignified state of rest, sipping their tea and taking sucks on their hookah pipes, watching the spectacle of the dehiya, the Beduin traditional dance, unfold.
They cranked the music up so loud that the ground seemed to vibrate, drowning out all possible conversation until everyone became entirely immersed in the surreal realm of the twilight dancing.
The beat, quick and electronic with the catchiness of hip-hop, infected all of us until you couldn’t move without synchronizing your actions to the energetic sonic thumping of the stereo. The old men lying sideways on their mats nodded their heads, I tapped my feet, and a boy with Down syndrome stood facing the line stepping left right, left right, like a human metronome, for the duration of the entire night.
The people in the line, dozens and dozens, clapped their hands and bounced up and down, bending their knees, all in one motion, every now and then doing a wave down the line when the music called for it with a string of what sounded like “Uh-heehee! uh-heehee! uh-heehee!” Although the real power of the dehiya came from the unison, like in a flash mob, everyone seemed to put their own spin on it as well – jerking their necks back and forth like broken bobble-heads, popping shoulders, swaying sideways, dipping backwards and tipping up on their toes like Michael Jackson.
The dance comes from the Anza, an ancient Saudi tribe, who brought it to the desert where it was gradually integrated into Beduin culture and folklore over time. Originally, it served as a war dance, symbolizing the power and status of the tribe. Now it had become the highlight of the second-to-last night of the wedding, which had been going on since Saturday, a way to bring the whole village together in what amounted to an epic bachelor party.
Two women came into the center of the semicircle, the first I’d seen the whole evening. One, plump with age but lively as ever, moved down the line in hypnotic gyrations to the music, twirling a baton and entirely covered in a pink shawl with a jangle of metal atop her head. She’d come up to the boys and singled out the most energetic – coming closer, shaking, swaying, hopping to the beat like a bewitched doll come to life. The other, less certain in her dancing, tried to mimic these movements.
Only later would I learn that these were not, in fact, women, but rather men who had dressed up as women because, Muneer said, bringing out the opposite sex would have been too provocative.
Towards the end, they brought out a camel, which came out into the center of the circle with its spindly legs appearing to trot to the music, the driver controlling it by tapping back and forth on the side of its neck with a long staff.
Firas climbed on to the rump and the pink-shawled “woman” hopped ahead as the camel strutted across the turf.
After a while, the camel was replaced by an Arabian show-horse, directed by a boy with a Nike hat on who got the horse to canter from one end to the other, jerking the reins at the last minute so that the horse swirled around and dirt flew into the air before the spectators, leading to whoops and cheers.
Muneer then rode bareback on Tomahawk, one of the best horses under his care, a black-haired beauty twitching with muscles and, unlike the Arabian, not accustomed to so much noise and commotion.
Nonetheless, Muneer led him around proudly; he never missed the chance to show off the horses. The al-Assam family is known for its devotion to its horses, and to be a jockey or a trainer like Muneer is considered a sign of manliness and prowess.
Everyone took photos when wild-eyed Tomahawk entered the dance.
“Are you hungry?” asked Musa, who after Muneer spoke the next best English.
I hadn’t eaten in hours. Moments later, one of the younger cousins came bearing an immense silver platter piled high with thin floury bread and several bowls of things to dip it in, ranging from olive oil to chickpea hummus and sliced tomatoes. We all sat or squatted around the food, tearing off chunks of the bread and dipping it in.
When someone ate their share, they left the circle and another person filled the void, while the youngest waited around the edges at the bottom of the pecking order.
AS THE night dragged on past midnight, the dehiya line gradually lost more and more of its dancers until finally everyone congregated around Musa and Islam Ibrahim, who were engaged in an intense match of what looked like Beduin tic-tactoe, using cigarettes on a 3x3 grid etched in the dirt.
Musa beat all his challengers, until Carl the Giant got bored, took off his belt and grabbed six of the most macho young men, throwing them down and thwacking them as a crowd gathered and everyone began tussling. Before he too was grabbed and beaten, Muneer assured me this was all in good fun, and not the makings of a village-wide brawl, as I had first suspected.
No one escaped Carl, who would search the tent for victims and throw them in his pile for whipping.
After hours of dancing and play-fighting, I felt my eyes burning with tiredness and began to sink into the mat Muneer slid under me. Already, the younger children and many of the older men were settling in as well—most people slept right there in the tent, on their red embroidered mats.
The next day there would be the mansaf, a meal of lamb, rice, bread and soup. Firas would don a suit, and each of his relatives would give him some money, with the expectation that on their wedding day, or that of their sons, he would offer back a reciprocal amount. Following the mansaf, Firas and his entourage would complete the zafa, in which an entourage of cars and horses would follow him to the women’s camp to pick up his wife. They would leave for their honeymoon on the spot.
Waking up to the crow of roosters and the sound of packs of wild dogs roaming through the camp, littered with empty water bottles and packs of cigarettes, I spotted a solitary grazing camel in the distance.
The excitement and energy of the dehiya had evaporated from the camp with the rise of the sun. Now it was too hot to do more than rest and eat.
“This is the best part,” I remembered Muneer shouting into my ear the night before, both of us sweaty and happy from the dancing. “After this, we all go back to our regular lives, working.”
He would go back to his construction job, Mueen the singer would continue selling his chickens, and the colossal gathering of the al-Assam clan would dissolve as each person fell back into their routines, waiting for the next wedding and the chance to dance another dehiya.