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Friendship bridges cultures
Morning Star Staff
Summer is wedding season the world over, and the exchange of vows is celebrated in myriad ways, from high atop a mountain to the edge of a waterfall.
But the wedding Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka attended in June may be one of the most unusual, at least by western standards.
The Vernon resident attended the Arabic wedding of friends in the village of Faradis, near Haifa, Israel, where a parade float, dozens of glamorous gowns — both traditional and modern — and seating for 3,000 guests were just a few of the highlights of the celebration that lasted an entire month.
“I have been to a couple of Arabic weddings in my life but this one took the prize,” said Gottlieb-Tanaka, who runs the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care in British Columbia. “No wonder the divorce rate in the Arab population is lower than in the Jewish population — after all the investment that went into it, very few would dare to divorce.”
But the story really begins a number of years before the big event, when the Israeli Jewish Gottlieb-Tanaka met the Muslim Mazhar Mauvasis and the two struck up a friendship in the State of Israel.
Several years ago, on a visit home to Israel, Gottlieb-Tanaka struck up a conversation with her taxi driver Mazhar, who is now a successful contractor.
“He was the same age as my kids and I found him fascinating. I had lived in Israel for many years and never had the opportunity to strike up a friendship with Israeli Arabs. To be honest, I was not looking for such opportunities. This friendship is based on respecting our differences and celebrating what we have in common.
“He used to visit me and we would talk about anything, even our religion and what it means to be an Israeli Arab and what it means to be an Israeli Jew and how we see the world from our point of view, with a real sense of curiosity, of finding out who we are in relation to each other and bridging between the two cultures.”
For Gottlieb-Tanaka, who married someone outside of her faith, she was not prone to passing judgement, and had always been fascinated by other cultures.
“As time passed, I got to meet his whole family and felt very welcomed. I must admit I was very surprised at my own feelings and theirs as well.”
The two families became close friends: Gottlieb-Tanaka, her husband Mineo Tanaka and two daughters Carmel and Talia; on the Mauvasis side, the parents Basima and Achmed and their seven adult children and their families.
“We speak Hebrew with the entire family and English at times with Achmed, who has a master’s degree in education.”
Gottlieb-Tanaka’s daughter, Carmel, lived with the Mauvasis family for two months last winter.
“They practically adopted her and now she carries their last name in the village. She got her own room and in exchange she helped make traditional Arabic dishes and was invited to forage the mountains for mushrooms and Za’atar, a popular spice used in Arabic cuisine.”
Born to Jewish-Polish parents in 1950, two years after the establishment of the state of Israel, Gottlieb-Tanaka grew up with no substantial interaction with the Arab population.
“Because of the political situation, there is a mistrust, with fears both real and unreal. Also, geographically we live very close to each other but in separate neighbourhoods, villages and cities.”
In Haifa, where Gottlieb-Tanaka was born, there is a large Christian Arabic community that mixes with the Israeli Jewish society more readily, unlike Muslim Arabs who keep their societies more closed.
“When my father opened a small furniture factory in Haifa in 1948, all of his employees were Christian Arabs from Haifa and nearby, but again, we led separate lives, although we were invited occasionally to a family event.”
Early in her friendship with Mazhar and his family, Gottlieb-Tanaka learned that there is no such thing as a quick visit. An invitation to lunch is followed by a rest, followed by dinner.
“We became so close to the family that every single event I’m being invited to, whether it’s a family dinner, an announcement of some kind or the wedding I attended. And when I go, I clear the whole day.”
For the wedding of Shadi and his bride, Jamila, clearing the whole day barely scratched the surface of the month-long celebration.
The big event begins with a pre-wedding celebration, with guests invited to the home of the bride-to-be, after which everyone is invited to the home of the groom’s family so a time can be set for the wedding. At this point, the couple are free to meet and talk, but they are chaperoned wherever they go.
“They are not free to do everything they want. It’s not like western culture; they must behave in a certain way, and everything is done in a traditional way, as everyone is watching them. When they were courting, there was a ceremony between them where the Imam has them sign a document that seals this agreement.”
This is followed by two weeks of non-stop celebrating, with dinners and get-togethers, with the women concerning themselves with the topic that consumes many women the world over: what they are going to wear.
“Every woman had at least five to six dresses, all very elaborate — women are starting to look for their clothing and there is excitement in the air and discussion of whether to buy at a Jewish Israeli store or an Arab Israeli store, where it’s cheaper. And the men are teasing the women, complaining about how much they’re spending.”
And with 3,000 people invited to the wedding, the bride and groom’s family had better have a good deal of savings from which to draw. Some of the money was spent on paving an entire block of the street in front of the groom’s family home. The street was then blocked off on both sides and set with enough tables and chairs to accommodate everyone.
The first official event of the wedding is the bride’s evening. Wearing a black sequinned dress with layers of tulle, the bride danced with her groom, who then presented her with his gifts for her.
“There was enough gold jewelry to buy a new car.”
The bride then changed into a white dress and appeared to her guests on a float made to look like a boat, accompanied by a symphony of fireworks.
“The poor girl had to stabilize her balance on the float while inhaling smoke from the special effects. The audience went crazy. They loved it. The women were all dressed beautifully, with the unmarried women showing all the goods.
“It was over at midnight and I was dead tired, so I don’t know how the bride held on.”
But it’s not over. The next day is just for the groom, with the bride not in attendance. Shadi was surrounded by his friends and family, who shaved him and threw cakes on him.
“Meanwhile, everyone is eating, dancing and going wild. There is no alcohol involved in any of the celebrations since Moslems don’t drink. There was an entire block of round tables set up. I have been told they slaughtered five lambs, hired a caterer and chefs. And once you eat, you get up to allow someone else to sit down. Any food that is leftover, it’s customary to give it to those less fortunate.
And all of the celebrations are accompanied by the view of the Mediterranean and a heady, warm scent of the sea mixed with the olive trees high in the hills.
The third day included everyone; the bride arrived dressed in a white wedding dress and sat in a chair at the back veranda at Shadi’s house, receiving well-wishers.
Guests don’t bring gifts: instead they bring cash and cheques for the newlyweds.
“In Israel, it’s traditional to give money to cover the cost of eating at the wedding.”
People will also give money to allow the newlyweds to be able to furnish and outfit their new home.
“I gave money so they could get light fixtures. Shadi has always been so helpful: when my A/C broke down, he came over and fixed it, when my roof leaked, he came over and fixed it. He never wanted money for anything. They cherish friendship above all else, so if you are a good friend of the family, they won’t take money from you.”
On the first Friday after the wedding, it’s customary for the bride’s family to hold a dinner for close friends; 500 people showed up, and this time the bride’s family was serving, although the groom’s family also helps.
“By 10 p.m. I am so tired, but the bride and groom are going around and chatting with everyone. At that point, I felt sorry for the family. If I was terribly exhausted from being a guest, can you imagine having to run it and serve hundreds of guests?
“When I visited several days later, they were recovering — they still have three more adult children ready to get married!”
Gottlieb-Tanaka and her family go back and forth to Israel and stay in Zchiron Yaakov, a small town of 17,000 people close to Caesaria and a 20-minute drive from Haifa on the Mediterranean.
It’s a place she describes as a lovely, pastoral place with red-tiled roofs, wineries and an interesting mix of people working their farms as well as those working in the high-tech industry.
“Israel is one of the most fascinating places on earth to visit, yet it is smaller than Vancouver Island. It is loaded with history and archaeological sites.
“I miss some of the things I cannot get here, but I carry my home in my heart wherever I go.”