The August night was clear and cooled off with a very slight rainfall early in the evening. I was sitting outside at a big round table with a group of girls I had come to know over the past year. We had a view of the city lights of Tarsus in the distance, and were gathered with perhaps a hundred people who were all here for one purpose: to celebrate Eda* and Sertaç. This was Eda’s kına gecesi (kuh-NAH GE-je-see), or henna night, traditionally the bride’s “last night” before she weds (and in my opinion much more enjoyable than the Western-style bachelorette party). Celebrated for centuries during Ottoman times, the tradition wore away after the founding of the Turkish Republic and the modernization movement due to its traditional and religious nature. In recent years, however, it has reemerged, and is now one of the most delightful occasions of wedding celebrations. Eclectic music filled the air, and a delicious plate of assorted meze sat before me. We were enjoying the view, the stars, and the company, but everyone was waiting expectantly for the bride-to-be and her groom to make their entrance. Soon, she appeared!
[I recommend you play the following background music as you read the rest, to get a sense of the atmosphere.]
Graced in a gorgeous turquoise cloak, a shimmering hairpiece dangling around her head, and glittering spiky heels adorning her feet, Eda descended the stairs of the pavilion. She looked graceful and exotic, calm yet excited. The music changed, and the party really got started. Right away, she took to the dance floor, accompanied by all her closest girlfriends and family members. And this is how the night continued.
Often, this event takes place the evening before the actual wedding. Eda is wise, and planned hers a week prior. We surmised it unfathomable to think of expending all that energy on a Friday night, then waking early, taking wedding photos, and having the actual wedding celebration Saturday evening. This event only happens once, so why not space it out and enjoy it? She did.
In Turkey, there are countless customs, beliefs, and superstitions surrounding weddings, henna nights, engagement parties, and everything else related. This is a land steeped in tradition, and some people are extremely set in their ways. There are a slew of things that could go one way or the other, jinxing the future or ensuring a lifetime of happiness together. Of course, it is up to the couple—and sometimes their family—which traditions they chose to observe.
As the evening progressed, more and more ladies hit the dance floor. A female family member beat the drum with tremendous power, and an exotic playlist blared from the speakers. Eventually, a group of women (traditionally the unmarried members of the party, but in this case close girlfriends and relatives) gathered to prepare for the henna ceremony. We each held a plate with a votive candle and small lump of fresh hand-mixed henna. We descended the stairs and circled the couple, walking around them, singing the melancholic Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere (To the High Hills, which is actually a very sad song about a young girl missing her parents and her village) and surrounding them with love. Eda and Sertaç sat side by side, Eda enshrouded in a sheer red veil sprinkled with jewels. Her mother-in-law brought henna to place in Eda’s palm, but going along with tradition, she rejected the henna at first. Her mother-in-law returned with a gift of gold, and after placing this in the bride-to-be’s hand, only then would Eda accept the lumps of henna. Traditionally, this serves as a gesture on behalf of the groom’s family that they will help support this new family whenever needed. These days, it’s just bad luck to not go along with the tradition, and after all, everyone likes gold! Her hands were then wrapped so the henna would stain them. The groom gets some henna rubbed on his pinkie finger, and other female guests wrap henna into their palms so that people they encounter over the next few weeks will understand they attended the wedding celebration of a close friend. The henna is made into a round clump, not intricately scrawled on in any particular design as is done in some cultures, and leaves a circular stain on the palm.
Traditionally, every small gesture and detail serves as a symbol: the henna, the gold, the dress, the behavior, each and every action. In the past the bride was supposed to be sullen throughout the night, mournful and a bit scared to be leaving her family—all she has known—and moving into her husband’s family’s home. Now, brides are generally—and hopefully—excited to be starting a new life with the man they love. It is no longer the norm for the newlyweds to move in with the groom’s family. Traces of past symbols of transformation from girlhood to womanhood, from one family’s “ownership” of the girl to another, and of societal responsibilities are all present at a modern day henna night, but these days are no longer taken so literally.
I will admit, as we ladies circled the happy couple, singing and surrounding them with love, I shed a few tears myself. Not because I was sad that she was starting a new chapter and “leaving my family”—of course I am happy for her and Sertaç, and I know she will always be “my family”. Perhaps they were tears of joy, seeing my dear friend looking so gorgeous, so visibly happy. Perhaps they were tears of appreciation for her falling into my life (or me into hers is more accurate) and for being able to be present on this wonderful and very special evening, in a land far away from my home, experiencing a melding of ancient traditions with a modern day tone. Appreciation that I was here with close friends and so many family members from both sides, many of whom I had come to know over the past year and now felt in a way that they were like my extended Turkish families. Perhaps also they were tears of realization, that although I was looking forward to a new year filled with new experiences in Turkey, life would never be the same. After all, it never is.
Soon after, a bowl of sugar was brought around so that all the single ladies could take a big pinch to partake of. The larger the pinch, apparently the quicker one might find her own love and marry. At the end of the evening, everyone realized their exhaustion. The week ahead was a big one. Still to come was bridal hamam, wedding photos, family dinners, and general wedding preparations. But for that night, the next thing to do was to eat soup, so eat soup we did.
A week later, a large wedding was held in Osmaniye, in the courtyard of a local hotel. Fancy tables were set up around a glowing swimming pool. There was live music, delicious food, and the bride and groom looked stunning. Again, I felt humbled to be able to take part in all of these festivities, celebrating a major event in the lives of my good friends.
[Listen for a short clip of live music from the wedding celebration.]
Clink clink. I’d like to propose a toast. “Here’s to Eda and Sertaç, wishing them a lifetime of adventure, discovery, peace and happiness together! Enjoy it all!”
*Last year I was so incredibly lucky to stumble upon the best roommate I could have ever imagined for my start to life in Turkey. Having lived alone for a number of years prior, I was a bit hesitant to revisit the roommate concept, not wanting to obstruct my positive record thus far. But Eda was a perfect fit. She helped me in countless ways, we maintained a happy home, and we soon became close friends. In August, I was honored to be able to participate in her wedding events.