Turkish Weddings: Pin gold on the groom

Ilker and Zeyna dance for the first time as husband and wife

When you’ve never lived in another country, it’s easy to take for granted how things go at a wedding. So when I attended my first Turkish wedding on Friday, Aug. 2, I didn’t know what to expect or how it would be similar or different.

I was thrilled to be invited to a wedding so early in my residence in Turkey (three and a half months). Ilker, a fellow journalist and one of the first people I met in Turkey, invited me to celebrate his marriage to longtime girlfriend Zeyna, who is Jordanian.

While there were some Arabic songs on the wedding playlist, the traditions at the wedding were largely Turkish, according to Ilker and my mutual friend, Seda, who also was in attendance.

In America, a wedding begins in a church, or maybe on a mountain top. Regardless of the setting, there is a priest or some other wedding official to officiate the exchange of vows – the couples promise to stay together through bad times and good, in sickness and health, blah, blah, blah. In many ways, the whole point of the wedding is for the couple, in front of everyone who is dear to them, to “publicly” make this promise to each other.

In Turkey, the marriage ceremony is private. There might be members of the bride and groom’s immediate family, but that’s it.

Instead, the couple’s family and friends gather at what we would call in America a “reception” – the wedding party. Spoiler: There are no funny, or emotional speeches, and the bride and groom don’t feed cake to each other.

The party kicks off – way later than the time printed on the invitation – with the couple’s first dance. Ilker and Zeyna did a few practice runs before performing the dance in front of the 100 or so guests.

After the dance, dinner is served. During this time, Ilker and Zeyna circulated to each table to greet the guests and snap photos with them.

Instead of wedding gifts heaped on a table and purchased through a wedding registry where the couple essentially picks out their own gifts, the guests give the bride and groom pieces of gold or cash as a sort of founding sum to start their new life together.

This is one piece of information I had in advance of the wedding and for which I was prepared. What I didn’t know was how the guests traditionally deliver these monetary gifts. Being American, I did what I and generations before me did since Hallmark was founded in 1910: I bought a greeting card. I couldn’t find any wedding-themed cards in my neighborhood, so I just bought a blank one, wrote a message and enclosed the money inside the card.

You can probably see where this is going. That’s not how it’s done. Instead, the bride and groom are draped with long, wide white ribbons, almost like an Orthodox priest’s epitrachelion.

The guests stand in line, then greet the bride or groom (depending on whose guest he or she is), kiss each cheek and pin crisp banknotes or a piece of gold, wrapped up like a piece of hard candy, onto the long ribbons (for the lack of a better word).

Perhaps out of nervousness that I had to use a sharp object on Ilker in front of a crowd, I blanked on taking a photo.

In any case, I took the cash out of my greeting card, stood in line and approached Ilker, who immediately asked whether I knew what I was doing.

This was a valid question, given that 90 percent of the time in Turkey, I don’t know what I’m doing.

Nevertheless, I pinned the banknote on the epitrachelion thingy without stabbing anyone, then awkwardly placed the greeting card on a table.

Like at American weddings, the photographer paraded the bride and groom around the grounds to snap their photos before the real fun could begin – the dancing.

The dancing is the best part of Turkish weddings. It’s when the interaction warms up and the joy boils over.

Some modern songs were thrown into the mix before the traditional songs and dances commenced.

Just when I was about to depart, nervous that I wouldn’t find a bus back to my neighborhood if I waited longer, the traditional groom’s dance began.

I filmed a portion of the dance, called the “damat halayi” but cut off the footage prematurely, unaware that there was a prize at the end – the prize being a fast stomp and series of claps that follow some side steps and kicks all while holding your neighboring dancers’ hands and forming the shape of a circle. With each step, the dancers move around the circle like a merry-go-round. I have included a YouTube clip to demonstrate the entire dance – though the dancers are assembled in a line instead of circle. If you want, please, follow along.

I eventually joined this circle of dancing but didn’t master the routine during the length of the song, so this morning, I watched the YouTube video and practiced it in my bedroom to the fascination of my cats.

You take one step to the side, cross your foot over the other, take another step to the side and then do a cross kick. Afterwards, you do four cross kicks and at the end of the final kick, you tap your foot while your leg is still crossed, tap again in front of you and then tap back to home (i.e. the natural position of your foot when you’re standing). There, you do a quick, kind of closed-leg bow and clap your hands multiple times. It was very uplifting, as if we were all applauding each other.

The cadence of the music, and in turn, the dance steps, speeds up as it progresses. In that sense it could be seen as a musical metaphor for a Turkish wedding.

Why would a journalist move to Turkey?

The Neo-Baroque-style Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Since moving to Istanbul one month ago, a common question I hear from Turks is, “Why would you move to Turkey? All of us are trying to move to America.”

Undoubtedly, Turkey is in an economic crisis. Inflation has, in fact, bloated consumer prices to a painful degree. I feel that discomfort almost as keenly as Turks because in my new position as an English copyeditor I earn Turkish liras.

For instance, I pay the equivalent of $25 for one bottle of shampoo. A small bag of kibble for my American feline companion, Cleopatra, costs what would amount to $80 in the United States. Thank 

My penny-pinching lifestyle contrasts with my vacation here in November 2018. Then fortified with U.S. dollars, Turkey seemed an inexpensive and exotic shopping wonderland. Due to the dramatic gap between the value of the U.S. and Turkish currencies, everything I bought with U.S. dollars was effectively 80-percent off. Since November, the gap between the two currencies has only widened.

Perhaps more perplexing to my American friends was why as a journalist, I would want to go to a country that holds the worldwide distinction of jailing the most journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While I weighed those factors in my decision, I was more concerned with how the experience of living in Turkey would fit in with the overall arc of my life. My longtime goal has been to live abroad. What kind of experiences could I have here that were outside my reach in other places? On that basis, Turkey fulfilled most of my desires.

If I live in only one country outside the United States, Turkey seems to offer the most varied experiences in one place. Where else than Istanbul can I within 10 minutes visit both Europe and Asia without leaving the city? Turkey is one of the few places where I can experience European and Middle Eastern culture at the same time.

Around every corner, the land offers spectacular views of nature and geographic wonders – such as the whimsical cone-shaped rock formations in Cappadocia in central Turkey and the stunningly white, travertine-encrusted terraces and hot springs in Pamukkale.

Meanwhile, the historical and archaeological finds are so numerous and rich that even the locals have a hard time keeping up.

The Turks have made me feel incredibly welcome here – a fact that contrasts with the impression many Westerners have about whether Turkey is a safe destination. Complete strangers have helped me for no reason other than to be kind.

As a colleague remarked upon hearing my reason for moving here: “Turkey is the perfect synthesis of Europe and the Middle East” and of nature and civilization.