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.

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.