Turkish weddings: An American witness

As the only foreigner at the wedding of my Turkish friends, Kubilay and Zeynep, I expected to play a minor role as an unrelated guest sitting in the back row during the ceremony.

I was wrong. Kubilay and Zeynep – and Turkey, for that matter – are full of surprises, and this occasion was no exception.

Kubilay and Zeynep were the first friends I made after moving to Turkey. Kubilay was my Airbnb host while I searched for a flat in Istanbul, and Zeynep was the first person who greeted me when I arrived in the city.

Over the course of our friendship, we have had our share of adventures, but since the pandemic transformed our lives, we hadn’t seen each other at all.

As a result, I was overjoyed to find out about their wedding and to be invited to it in Kubilay’s hometown, Elazığ, in Eastern Anatolia.

What I didn’t anticipate is that I would be part of the wedding ceremony. More on that later.

Kubilay’s family included me in all of their activities leading up to the wedding as if I were part of the clan – another example of Turkish hospitality.

After I landed in Elazığ on the same flight as Kubily’s sister, Kubilay’s dad fetched me and several of Kubilay’s relatives from the airport in a rented van and took us to the family’s summer house in a tiny village called Kara Ali in the town of Baskil – at the crossroads of Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

His nieces chatted with me in English and gave me a tour of the gardens, where we gave each other mini-lessons on the names of fruits and vegetables in Turkish and English.

Later in the evening, his family held a dinner on a terrace overlooking a valley. We feasted on grilled kebob, meatballs, roasted peppers, salad, stretchy flatbread and a bowls of colorful grapes and other fruits plucked from the family’s garden.

The next morning on the day of the wedding, I joined Zeynep and the couple’s female relatives at a hair salon to have our hair and makeup done.

Just before the ceremony, a patchy autumn drizzle gently fell on the garden at the Akgün Hotel where Kubilay and Zeynep would pledge to be husband and wife.

Wrapped up in a Turkish peştemal, I was surveying the guests and scouting out somewhere inconspicuous and dry to sit when Kubilay’s sister, Esma, surprised me with the news that I was going to be one of Kubilay’s two witnesses at the wedding.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said, somewhat stunned, and then, deeply touched that Kubilay would bestow such an honor on me – a complete outsider with toddler-level Turkish skills.

“This is how it’s going to go,” Esma said. “The wedding officiant is going to ask you if you witness the marriage, and all you have to do is say ‘evet’ or you can say, ‘yes.’ Then, afterward, you will sign the marriage certificate.”

When Kubilay and Zeynep made their grand entrance in the garden, the rain had cleared and flocks of birds soared over the wedding party as if choreographed to herald the happy news. Kubilay looked as if he was about to explode from pride and joy – the smile on his face seemed to spread a mile … sorry, a kilometer, wide. After the fanfare and the emotional impact of the moment sunk in, Zeynep’s cousin who was serving as one of her witnesses signaled to me to head up with her to the stage where the wedding officiant would conduct the ceremony.

Speaking in Turkish, the wedding officiant announced that there were no legal obstacles to the union and then asked the couple to declare their willingness to marry in front of the witnesses.

Unlike American weddings, Turkish weddings are more to the point. There are no flowery vows with “till death do you part.” It’s a simple question: Do you agree to marry?

“Let’s ask this once in front of the witnesses,” the officiant said. “Mr. Kubilay, do you agree to marry Miss Zeynep?”

The same question was posed to Zeynep to which they both responded with a loud, joyful “Evet,” which means “yes” in Turkish.

Then, the officiant asked the four witnesses to affirm the marriage by saying “Evet.”

I chose to say “evet,” rather than “yes,” no doubt, heavily accented and even mispronounced, for the amusement of the guests.

We then signed the marriage certificate, and the happy couple were presented to the guests from a COVID-19-appropriate distance.

Among the many things that the coronavirus pandemic has altered are Turkish weddings. Once distinct for rowdy “damat halayi” dances (Imagine “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding”) and decorating the bride and groom like a pair of Christmas trees with ornately wrapped chunks of gold or delicately folded banknotes, Kubilay and Zeynep’s ceremony was revised into a much more muted format.

The wedding was planned with the pandemic at the top of mind. The ceremony was held outdoors. Guests wore masks and left their gifts for the couple in envelopes in a socially distanced velvet box, rather than following the tradition of pinning the gifts on the bride and groom’s clothing.

An after-dinner, attended mostly by family members, also was held outdoors on the patio of Ensar Mangal Vadisi in the ancient hilltop town of Harput.

Winding up the mountain to Harput feels like stepping back in time. The city – often referred to as the old Elazığ – takes its name from the Armenians who lived there for several hundreds of years.

Surrounding the patio where we dined with each other were layers of history – the scent of time emanating from the old cobblestone roads and rock fortifications. Most of us tried the restaurant’s specialty, tenderized meat with a special sauce, and a dessert called “dolanger,” a roll of pastry filled with walnuts. It’s Turkey, so the event wouldn’t have been complete without a visit from some stray cats who also feasted with us.

While more subdued than weddings before the pandemic, Kubilay and Zeynep’s ceremony was no less a celebration of love, of family and of friendship that transcends pandemics and countries’ borders.