The Wedding Guests Who Sailed The Red Sea

For about two weeks in October 2016 Dar es Salaam was overrun with pilgrims from the Dawoodi Bohra community. Some 30,000 of them (enough to populate a large town) had descended on the coastal city to listen to their religious leader, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, deliver a series of sermons to commemorate Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Many of them had traveled from India and Pakistan; some had come from Egypt and other parts of East Africa and some had come from Yemen. With their distinctive dress — the menfolk robed in white and the womenfolk covered from head to foot in colourful two-piece ridas — the pilgrims temporarily owned the sleepy sun-baked streets of Tanzania’s largest city.

As is the custom, the followers of Saifuddin, the 53rd Da’i al-Mutlaq, were only informed of the location of the annual Muharram gathering 15 days before it took place. In spite of the short notice, thousands had traversed great distances to see the man they believe to be the infallible vicegerent of the so-called Hidden Imam, a messianic figure who is expected to one day come out of hiding and establish global peace. Some, like the war-stricken Yemenis, had put their very lives in peril to make the journey.

By the time my wife and I arrived in Dar es Salaam, the 10-day Muharram gathering had come to an end. The tiny departures terminal at the international airport was seething with Bohra families heading home. It was a mass exodus that overwhelmed the airport’s capacity and took several days to complete. The Syedna, meanwhile, stayed on in the city to bless a few weddings before heading to the Zanzibar archipelago to visit the Bohra community there.

Dee and I were guests at one of the weddings that had been planned for the week after Muharram. The main event took place in a large mosque in the neighbourhood of Upanga — the same mosque in which the Syedna had delivered his Muharram sermons. A covered area outside the main building blazed with electric light and thronged with worshippers coming and going. The residual energy hanging over from the previous few days was palpable.

We were late to the wedding, having been detained at the hotel. This meant that we missed the grand arrival of the groom on horseback and the nikah ceremony. We were not even sure if we had come to the right place. We had no idea who were wedding guests and who were simply part of the general throng of worshippers at the mosque. Eventually a lady we’d met at the previous day’s event spotted us and directed us to the wedding hall.

The hall was divided by a retractable wooden screen into two sections — one for men, the other for women. It was an open, sparsely furnished space. The ceiling was held up by stout pillars and the white fairy lights coiled around them were the only concession to decoration. On one side of the room, huge portraits of the Syedna and his late father were mounted upon wall-length window panes. The entire space was illuminated with stark fluorescent white light.

Having parted ways with Dee at the entrance to the hall, I entered the men’s section. I was greeted by a confusing hubbub that seemed out of keeping with the restrained, low-key design of the interior I had stepped into. Boys and men of varying ages were singing with great gusto in a language I assumed to be Arabic (although Bohras normally converse in a form of Gujarati) and clapping in time. On the other side of the wooden divider women ululated shrilly.

As the energy in the room mounted, the men linked arms and began dancing in frenetic circles. Despite the absence of alcohol and music (stringed instruments are forbidden in the Bohra community), the celebratory atmosphere was infectious.

It was at this point that I found out that I was actually attending the joint wedding of two brothers. I watched as the two grooms were hoisted onto the shoulders of four men. Then I noticed that the clapping had given way to a steady, primal beat. A Yemeni man had turned the cylindrical base of a thaal into a makeshift steel drum and was hammering rhythmically upon it with his palms. The curved blade of a janbiya, a ceremonial Yemeni dagger, flashed above the head of one of the grooms, perilously close to the ceiling fans. The singing grew more jubilant and the rotating coil of dancers expanded, filling up the space.

IMG_4255

The most energetic dancers seemed to be the Yemenis. They were distinguishable by the patterned turbans on their heads and the scarves draped over their shoulders. Some of them had janbiyas tucked into their belts.

I learned from a bystander that the Yemenis had had to cross the Red Sea by boat to attend Muharram as Saudi Arabia had imposed restrictions on Yemeni airspace amid escalating violence in the country. Civil war had broken out in Yemen the previous year and Saudi Arabia had been quick to get involved, hoping to sway the outcome in favour of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Saudis were now killing Yemenis and destroying their towns and cities in indiscriminate bombing campaigns supplied by the British and American governments. Jihadis affiliated with Al-Qaeda and rival group Islamic State had also entered the fray, seeking to exploit the chaos for their own ends. Yemeni Bohras were being disproportionately targeted by kidnappers as they fetched the most ransom money. By the end of 2016, the conflict had claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions. Yet the international press, preoccupied with the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, had largely ignored the crisis unfolding on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Later I learned more about the epic journey that the Yemeni wedding guests had made. They had started out from their villages in the Haraz mountains, travelling over land to the Yemeni capital Sana’a and then to the port city of Aden. The numerous military checkpoints on the road from Sana’a to Aden meant that the journey took 16 hours instead of the usual five or six. In Aden they had piled onto a flimsy wooden boat and sailed to Djibouti, crossing the pirate-infested waters around the Horn of Africa. From Djibouti they had travelled to Nairobi. In Nairobi, some had boarded flights while others travelled 18 hours by bus to Dar es Salaam.

I watched the dancers circling the room arm-in-arm, voices raised in unison in a language I didn’t understand. I observed awkwardly from the sidelines with the only other non-Bohra in the room, a harbour crane operator from Sweden named Bjorn.

A Pakistani teenager approached us. Like most of the men in the room, he was dressed in a plain white kurta and a thin white overcoat free of embellishments. On his head was a stiff white topi bordered with a simple gold crochet pattern. A wispy moustache adorned his upper lip.

The teenager was jittery and somewhat gauche but eager to talk to the Swede and I. “Did you come for Muharram?” he asked. We shook our heads: “For the wedding”. He informed us that last year’s gathering had taken place in Houston, Texas and his family had been interrogated thoroughly by US immigration officials upon arrival. He was intrigued to learn that I was living in Mumbai. He had always wanted to visit India, but it was difficult for him to do so given the perennially tense relations between India and Pakistan. “Looks like I won’t be going there anytime soon,” he said. I agreed. A few weeks earlier tensions had been ratcheted up when militants killed 19 Indian soldiers in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, prompting talk of all-out war between the two nuclear powers.

The conversation with the Pakistani youth was broken off abruptly when some of the other wedding guests, who up until that point had been observing the Swede and I curiously from a distance, called us over. We were made to stand either side of the two grooms while the dancers whirled around us. We posed as smartphones were brandished and camera shutters clicked.

One of the grooms wore a maroon turban with a fringe of gold threads that he tucked behind his ears to keep them from dangling in his eyes. A maroon sash and matching belt were laid over his white overcoat. He had a maroon armband on his left arm, and a maroon cloth bearing Arabic script in golden thread was draped over his right arm. The other groom was dressed in the simple kurta-saya combo with a few extra golden embellishments.

To make the picture complete, one of the Yemenis tied turbans around the Swede’s head and mine and lent us his janbiya. One by one, the guests took turns to pose with us. “You look like you’ve been recruited to ISIS,” one of them remarked with a grin, apparently finding humour in the common Western perception that all Muslims look alike.

The next thing I knew, the Swede and I were holding hands and skipping around the room with the dancers. This was not something that came naturally to me — my limbs resist all but the most casual movements. But both my hands were trapped in clammy palms. I was a prisoner of the dance and all I could do was clumsily attempt to bring my body into synchronization with it. A janbiya was handed to me and I waved the blade above my head as the other men cheered and took pictures on their phones.

At some point I was able to break away, and I was relieved when a tall Yemeni with a salt-and-pepper beard approached the Swede and I for a picture. He couldn’t speak a lick of English but it didn’t matter as the wedding-photo ritual is so universal that it can be performed wordlessly. He didn’t approve of the first few shots and asked his friend to take a few more. It amused me to see this grizzled mountain man behaving like an Instagram diva.

The dancing had begun to die down, and relatives and close friends of the grooms were now setting up thaals around the room. A thaal is a large metal communal plate traditionally used by Bohras at mealtimes. The wedding guests clustered around the thaals in groups of between five and ten, sitting on the floor with their legs to one side. The Swede and I shared a thaal with some kids who whispered among themselves while glancing furtively in our direction.

One of the servers brought a jug of water for us to wash our hands with. He poured the water into a basin as we took turns to rinse our hands in the flow. The meal began with each of us taking a pinch of salt and placing it on our tongues. This was followed by a lump of ice-cream placed in the centre of the thaal and then the main course — two beef curries with rice and Indian bread-rolls known as pav. At the end, we were each issued with a small ornamental cardboard box containing a single date.

After dinner, I mingled with some of the elders. Making small talk, I asked them if they were married. One of them told me he had met his wife at a Muharram gathering and married her within a month of their first meeting. Another guy told me he chose his wife based on the sound of her name before he had a chance to meet her in person. A third guy had been married for 40 years and he too had never met his bride until the wedding day. He imparted some sound advice to me: “If you want to be married for a long time, you must accept each other’s flaws.” He insisted that we do not need to wait for love to strike us — we learn to love; we cultivate it. He believed it was possible to learn to love anybody.

Now that all the guests had been fed, things were winding down. The screen in the middle of the hall was partly retracted so that husbands and wives could be reunited.

Dee called me over to the women’s side where one of the newly married couples was seated and receiving gifts and blessings from departing guests. The bride, a friend of Dee’s from Mumbai, was wearing a heavy brocaded skirt known as a lehenga. Her head and shoulders were wrapped in a thick sequined maroon and gold dupatta, a type of shawl. A gold medallion hung from her neck and her wrists were adorned with bangles. Her hands, bejewelled and patterned with dark mehndis, protruded from beneath her dupatta and clutched a golden purse. On her face she wore a maang tikka, an ornament typically worn by Hindu brides, and an expression of abject exhaustion.

While we waited for our turn to greet the couple, Dee told me that a special guest had made a brief appearance at the wedding. “The Syedna came,” she said. The da’i had come and gone like an apparition without setting foot in the men’s section of the hall. I was taken aback. Some of the guests had expressed a tenuous expectation that the Syedna would show up but I was sceptical. I had assumed that the spiritual and temporal leader of a community of over one million people would have more important business to attend to.

Dee explained that the Syedna has a high degree of involvement in the personal lives of his followers. Bohra families consult him, either in person or via the internet or other communication channels, on seemingly everything, such as when to have children and what names to give them.

I had an opportunity to see the da’i several months later when he was visiting a primary school run by his family in Mumbai. As he entered the main hall with his entourage I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the man who is known to his followers as moula, or master. He was an elderly bespectacled man with a snow-white beard. He moved through the hall silently, dressed in a plain white robe and white turban. Teachers and students bent forward in deference as he passed. For the men, the ultimate blessing was for their leader to place his hands on theirs with a cloth between to avoid skin contact; the women could only hope to be acknowledged with a nod. It was said that a mere glance from the da’i has the power to change a person’s fortunes.

The head-teacher guided him through the classrooms where the students had put on exhibitions to mark the birthday of the da’i’s late father, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. Archive photos showed Burhanuddin meeting world leaders such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. One room was dedicated to the former Syedna’s favourite sport, big game hunting. In one picture he was squinting down the scope of a long rifle; in another he was squatting beside the carcass of a lion. He was, of course, known to be a master marksman who never missed a shot.

Before leaving the school premises, the Syedna paused for a photo op. He sat in an elaborate armchair while the school kids stood either side of him. The shoot was over in less than a minute and when it was done he departed without uttering a single word. As soon as he had left, the kids scrambled to kiss the chair on which their moula had been sitting.


Join 964 other followers

If you found this blog post interesting/enlightening/thought-provoking and would like to be notified of future posts, click the “follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (bottom of the page if you’re reading on a mobile device). Even if you’re not a WordPress user you can subscribe by entering your email address above.

You can also get updates by following me on Twitter (@pushkindisco).

And you can view photos from my travels on my Instagram page (@theborderlandsblog).


If you’d like to know more about the situation in Yemen, you might find the following articles helpful:


18 thoughts on “The Wedding Guests Who Sailed The Red Sea

    1. Thanks Kate. Glad you found it interesting. I had also never heard anything about the Bohra community until I moved to Mumbai. It’s amazing how much diversity there is in the world.

      Like

  1. Great piece of writing Sam so much culture and a world of interesting facts and history. A magazine worthy article. More like this please. It’s great to keep learning through the eyes of others. Thanks for my Saturday morning read. I also passed it onto others to read

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You have the ability to transport me from my armchair to other worlds. You are very observant and unobtrusive; a must if you are to write at this level. Keep feeding us with articles like this they deserve a wider readership.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Entrancing writing! Thanks Sam for an immersive experience through your eyes ( I can practically see your expression as you were pulled into that dance ring 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s