If you want to take a snapshot of Tripoli culture, learn the elaborate and often complex customs, and discover the role that tradition continues to play on society, then attend a traditional wedding. But, if you want to see the raw social truths that often go overlooked in the hype of celebration, witness a funeral.
Though it seems odd to compare these two very different, yet equally important occasions, both weddings and funerals are ubiquitous and a part of Libyans’ daily lives. When new to Libya, the prevalence of both occasions may come as a shock.
Making an appearance to each is considered a societal responsibility, so it is not unheard of for people to attend one funeral and one wedding on the same day.
It is important to note early in this column that wedding and funeral customs differ depending on the region in Libya. This article focuses on Tripoli.
Weddings are embellished displays of a society’s past and musical culture. The traditional customs that take place in weddings in Tripoli such as the application of bridal henna, the dressing in traditional striped silk, the men’s musical tadreeja, and women’s female singing band known as zimzamat, are confirmations of society’s preservation of tradition.
All the wedding details from the bride’s pink, striped silk dress worn for the pre-wedding party to the groom’s twine of jasmine petals around his neck on the wedding day are displays of Tripoli’s valued culture.
There are also clear influences of modern culture, such as the dresses imported from Europe and America that brides, as well as guests wear. Or, the use of wedding halls, as opposed to ad hoc tents set up near or on the family’s property.
Traditional weddings have a little something for every age group, which make them exciting for all members of the family. Funerals, however tend to be more exclusive.
Children tend not to be seen in funerals that last three days, if not more. Tradition also restricts unmarried females, despite their age, from attending. One interpretation of this that I received was: Girls should experience their own happiness before witnessing sadness.
Of course, when the deceased is a family relative or a very close friend, that rule is no longer applicable.
Just until recently, what happened in the privacy of a funeral tent was a mystery to me.
The heart-wrenching tears were hard to see, but it was the moaning, gasping and wailing that were hard to bear. It was exactly what I had been warned to expect.
But after the initial shock of losing a loved one faded with the hours of the morning, family and friends seemed to enjoy each other’s company.
I had heard the saying: Weddings do not come without tears, and funerals without laughter. I understood how tears of joy could be shed in a wedding, but laughter in funerals?
Conversations in the funeral did not always mention the deceased, and at some points it seemed guests were trying to avoid the topic all together. Initially, I was extremely offended to be a relative of the deceased and have guests speak to me about their latest purchase. However, I realised that I may be experiencing a culture clash at perhaps, the worst timing.
My friends and relatives had good intentions. I knew that. This was their way of helping me move on; to be reminded of the little things in life that might make me smile. For them, this was their way of showing their love. It didn’t cross their minds that I might misunderstand their behaviour as a lack of consideration.
Having hosted both a wedding in the family and a funeral, I understand how less societal pressure is placed on funerals in Tripoli.
Looking closely at the customs expected of a Libyan funeral, it is less work all around. Rules for serving guests are apparent – the family of the deceased are expected to cook three meals a day and serve dates and butter cream to guests – however, these expectations are simplified significantly in comparison to what is customary in weddings.
Society’s obsession with fashion also refrains from playing its normal role. Most women wear casual clothing, and refrain from removing their hijab, religious headscarf. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t talk about fashion while at the funeral.
Funerals, despite the mournful cause, are less complicated, and less-costly occasions where family and friends sit without societal pressure to look good and present well because in the situation, it is actually expected.
What does this say about society? Perhaps it is hard to conclude anything at all since weddings and funerals are so different. Many people may find my observation relatable, or at least interesting, but in the end it remains mine. What’s yours?
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 9 June 2012