Spotlight on Mauritania

By Emma Livingston, Co-editor

Mohamed Vall from Mauritania (photo courtesy of Mohamed Vall)
Mohamed Vall from Mauritania (photo courtesy of Mohamed Vall)

It was a one of those Thunderbird mystique moments. The students relaxing together over a couple of bottles of wine were from all over the world. We had representatives from China, Japan, India, Northern Africa, Latin America, and the US. Talk turned to wedding ceremonies around the world. We talked about wedding showers in North America, hiding the bride’s shoes in China, and the elaborate wedding ceremonies in India (To learn more about these, read Incredible Indian Wedding by T-Bird Kyle Morgan). Then, our classmate Mohamed Vall (MBA ’15, Mauritania) shared with us a fascinating story of marriage traditions in his country.

“Wedding ceremonies in Mauritania revolve around one theme,” he said. “The man wants the woman very badly, but she doesn’t want him.” Why doesn’t she want him? In reality, she wants him and is excited to go with him, but “for a woman to show she wants him and want to go with him, it means she wants to leave her family, which means she’s not grateful for her family.”

A Mauritanian man and his shy bride (photo courtesy of https://libral.org/vb/showthread.php?t=211387)
A Mauritanian man and his shy bride (photo courtesy of https://libral.org/vb/showthread.php?t=211387)

On the wedding day, the man will come to his wife’s house with his friends “and they’ll come in such a way like they want to take her by force.” The woman is dressed all in black, with a vale covering her face. She’ll be at her house with her friends and she must act very sad to be leaving her family. Her friends will be  protecting her from the groom’s friends, who are trying to steal her away.

Mauritania, where 100% of the population is Muslim, has a very conservative culture.”But during the marriage we get to be unconservative about everything! So the bride’s friends will be very vulgar. They will call the groom bad names, saying ‘You are not a man!’ Or say bad things about his sexual performance, saying, ‘I know, I dated this guy…’ or ‘You are not going with her until you can show us you are a real man.'” The groom’s friends will harass the women and maybe even wrestle them, but it should be all in good fun.

“In the end, he will take the bride, preferably carry her away. But this is difficult in my country, because women are overweight, usually.” Traditionally in Mauritanian villages, the larger a woman is, the more beautiful she is perceived to be. “We’re talking, 300 lbs! So to carry a woman, you have to be really strong.”

Iggawin from Mauritania (http://www.nouadhiboutoday.info/index.php)
Iggawin from Mauritania (http://www.nouadhiboutoday.info/index.php)

The wedding party will move to just outside the village, where a local musician, called iggawin, will sing ancient songs “complementing your tribe” After the guests have thrown money to the iggawin, “he will say a new poem for the groom and the bride.” The iggawin is one of the castes in the hierarchical Berber / Arab society which predominates in northern Mauritania. They are the only caste that is allowed to work professionally as singers.

During the ceremony, the bride and groom’s friends will dance and sing, but the bride and group should not dance. They will sit together, for the entirety of the five hour ceremony and “the man should show love the whole time” with his arms wrapped around the bride.  “But she should not talk to him. I was surprised at my wedding,” Mohamed said, “because my wife was not talking to me. We had been engaged for a year!”

Food, of course, is an important part of the wedding ceremony. They eat a grilled lamb dish called mishwi, couscous, and tajine, a type of stew. After the professional musicians leave, the wedding party returns to the groom’s house, where people will recite ishwar, improvised rhymes, often teasing the couple saying, ‘Tonight you are not going to sleep.

Mauritanian with traditional mishwi (photo courtesy of Mechoui royal chez Kory. http://www.visoterra.com)
Mauritanian with traditional mishwi (photo courtesy of Mechoui royal chez Kory. http://www.visoterra.com)

‘”Traditionally, they will not let you sleep the entire night,” Mohamed says. “You will try to convince them to go, but they will not.” The man may try to run away with his bride and ditch her friends, but if the woman’s friends are fierce, they will keep by her side and refuse to let her leave.

In the morning, when the man has finally dropped to sleep exhausted, the woman’s friends will return to the home and the bride will sneak out. This is one of the most fun parts of the ceremony for the women. They will run away and hide, and the man has to run through the streets of the village, looking for her. “When you find her, there will be a big fight.” The man will hit her friends (in fun) until they let the bride go back with him.

Henna on the hands (photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuart-matthews/6338491205/?ytcheck=1)
Henna on the hands (photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuart-matthews/6338491205/?ytcheck=1)

Mohamed says that for a week after the ceremony, “the woman is not supposed to talk to her male relatives.” She should still be sad and must hide her face in public until the henna that they painted on her hands for the wedding has turned black. Only then can she begin to show signs of happiness again.

Mohamed says that while many traditions in his country are beginning to fade because so many people are moving away from a nomadic lifestyle and settling in big cities, the tradition of the wedding ceremony is different. “We still love this tradition, so we keep it in the city. We find it so entertaining.”

Mohamed’s story took me away from the small, air-conditioned lounge in Glendale, Arizona, to a world and a culture I never knew existed before. I felt grateful to be at Thunderbird, where we can have authentic, intimate, cross-cultural dialog between good people from all over the world.

Emma Livingston

Emma Livingston

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