The Outsider’s Guide To Libyan Weddings

Libyan Weddings 1

A tradition during the preparation of the marriage contract (fatiha) – the bride holds up a silver knife in front of a mirror with the Quran next to her, reciting the names of unmarried women (the equivalent to throwing a bouquet…sort of).

They’re loud, they’re expensive, and for Libyans of any age, they’re a rite of passage. I’ve been fascinated by Libyan weddings for as long as I can remember; extravagant and complicated social practices that are saturated in centuries-old customs, reflecting so much about the dynamics of Libyan society. While weddings have become modernized in the past few decades, there are many traditions that still stick.

Ask any Libyan about our society’s weddings, and they’ll be quick to vilify them. They’re too ostentatious, with focus on minute details in the quest for a perfect ceremony. They’re too expensive, as both bride and groom shell out tens of thousands of dinars on food, venue, favours, clothing, presents, etc. And yet, there’s a lot of societal pressure to make sure that weddings are as big and glamorous an affair as possible. After all, wedding culture in Libya is a complex web that serves many, from unmarried women to bored in-laws.

But to the unsuspecting foreigner or newly returned double shafra, it’s very easy to get tangled in this web as you wonder “Why the hell is that woman wearing green and pink eye-shadow?” or “Are my eardrums actually exploding right now?”. This guide will help you to navigate weddings in Libya and ensure that, even if you can’t fully understand them, you can make the experience less awkward. Let’s begin.

Preparation & Arrival: Libyan events run on a bizarre system of timing where it’s never explicitly stated when you should arrive or depart, and yet everyone seems to come and go around similar times. Whether it’s some kind of collectively synchronized biological clock or pure coincidence is a question best left to anthropologists. Ask your mother or grandmother, and she will tell you when you should go. (It’s also important to note that Libyan weddings – like other events – are segregated, which means from the men’s perspective, you just awkwardly sit outside the wedding hall waiting for dinner).

Preparation is a slightly futile event given that, no matter how glamorous you look at home, you will look pale and sickly under the cold, dazzling glare of the wedding hall bathroom lights. It’s best not to dwell on why the other girls look polished while the hairstyle you spent hours tending somehow wilted into a shapeless mass on your head as your mascara helplessly melts.

Upon Entering the Hall: If you want minimal interaction, pick an empty table near the wall and strew your belongings (abaya, hijab, handbag) on the other chairs, discouraging others to sit near you. If with friends and relatives, it’s best to get a table to yourselves somewhere near the middle. If there is no empty table and your only options are half filled tables, avoid ones that have old ladies (unless you enjoy listening to their stories, which they will ply you with for the rest of the evening) or little children (who will eat most of the pastries on the table, which are, let’s face it, the reason you decided to attend in the first place). Now comfortably seated, it’s time to get your bearings.

Types of Libyan Wedding Guests: You will see a wide variety of colours and shapes at a Libyan wedding, which can be overwhelming at first. But soon you’ll be able to pick out a pattern, based primarily on age:

The Not-Yet-Engaged: The girls you see walking back and forth throughout the halls despite wearing 6-inch heels are not, in fact, busy with anything. They are showing themselves off to the mothers of eligible single men, the telltale signs being the flipping of their curtains of hair and constant reapplying of their makeup. I could go on a feminist rant of why this practice is appalling and why it’s horrific for Libyan girls to be taught that their main asset and value is based on their looks, *deep breath*, but I’ll spare you. The not-yet-engaged are not to be interacted with, they are not here for you.

The Just-Married: This is the woman in the fancy hairstyle who sits confidently at her table like it’s a throne, constantly being surrounded by people who greet and congratulate her on finally snagging a man. You can feel the confidence and self-fulfilled attitude emanating from her for miles.

The Postpartum: With a few extra pounds and a perpetually tired look on her face, the postpartum is often toting around a baby in the crook of her arm as she tries to convince her relatives to take care of it. The postpartum’s glory days are over, and she knows it.

The Hajja: Named so because they are often called ‘ya hajja’ by storekeepers, and it would be rude to call her anything else. Too old to wear a strapless dress but too young to wear a jard, these are the League of Libyan Mothers – established monoliths in stylish but sensible bob haircuts – the basic backbone of Libyan society. They’re here to eat, laugh with friends, and glare disapprovingly at all others, thereby completing their societal duty. They’re also the prime target for the women in category 1.

After the Meal: This is the dull period between eating the food (which is always delicious) and waiting for the bride to come in. At this point, your eardrums should have become numb from of the incredibly deafening music if you haven’t brought ear plugs. You can have a shouted conversation with your neighbour, or, for the more adventurous, dance on stage. Be warned, Libyan dancing requires a lot of hip dexterity and confidence. Bringing a book to a wedding is highly discouraged. These are social events where you are expected to, err, socialize.

The Bride: Let’s face it, unless you’re directly related to her, no one cares much about the bride apart from a cursory glance to judge her dress, hair and makeup. If you want to personally greet her, do so as soon as she sits or the photographer won’t give you a chance.

The Groom: You’ll be alerted to his imminent appearance by a flurry of hijabs and abayas being whipped out and worn. The only time you’ll see him is when he’s walking down the aisle until he reaches the bride, where relatives will quickly converge on the couple to congratulate, cry and take pictures.

Conclusion: Once the bride and groom leave, that’s your indicator that the evening is done. Usually friends and relatives stay behind to help clean and gossip.

The above clip is from an old Libyan comedy show which parodies post-Libyan wedding gossip.

There’s not much to Libyan weddings, once you get over the initial noise and flurry of activity. Like everything else in Libya, they’re held together by unspoken rules. As a guest, you’re not expected to do more than smile, eat and leave before closing time. And once you go home, your hair will finally look perfect.


The day described above is usually called the ‘zaffa’, the culmination of a week-long procession (nowadays shortened to three days due to aforementioned modernization but also the economic crisis).

It’s also important to note that each Libyan city has its own specific traditions – for examples the henna patterns for brides in Benghazi differ from those in Tripoli. Wedding music is another region-specific aspect, with everything from ‘shetawa’, ‘gheeta’, ‘noba’, or hiring a zamzama/darbaka (I always like to brag that the Foonsha sang at my parent’s wedding. An entire post could be written about the fascinating underground life of Libyan wedding singers). The traditional outfits worn during these occasions are always very beautiful with their striped cloth and silver or golden jewelry, and there’s something special about walking into a house in full-wedding mode with its smell of bukhoor (incense), and women in a constant state of food-preparation while kids run around and fathers yell for tea.

I always learn something new when I attend a wedding, and I’m never bored. Being part of the preparation is also interesting but considerably more tiring (I’ve done my fair share of comforting nervous brides, scooping half-frozen ice cream for guests and applying eyeliner to a procession of young girls). The erosion of our customs in favour of faster ceremonies makes me sad, but I also know that I don’t have the time (or foot arch) to go through a week-long event. The new fads, like gift baskets overflowing with chocolate and euros, will hopefully die out, along with the need to inject so much money into the whole affair. All you need is someone who knows how to hit a darbouka and an endless supply of coffee and tea.

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Culturally Bankrupt

As a representative of the Libyan people, I’d like to file for cultural bankruptcy. I guess it’s kind of like regular bankruptcy, except we don’t have any debts to pay. Unless you count what we owe our children in the form of a legacy. But they might be more worried about the imminent financial bankruptcy they’ll inherent if Libya’s oil continues to be sold on the black market.

A Libyan might scoff at such a claim. “Look at Libya’s rich history!”, I imagine them saying, in an unfounded tone of self-righteousness. “Gaze our ancient ruins from the time of the Greeks and Romans, gander at our Italian architecture from the days of the occupation, observe the books and paintings left behind by great Libyan minds!”

Except, how long have we been using the same, tired line when trying to showcase Libya’s culture? Besides a handful of dead authors and artists, and a cluster of dilapidated buildings, what else do we have to show for our history?

Look left and right on a map of North Africa. Tunisia is famous for it’s sprawling, seaside towns. Morocco is well-known for it’s rich art, and Egypt is, well, the mother of civilization. But Libya? How many times, oh smug Libyan, have you encountered a person who had never heard of your country before?

To be fair, we’re pretty well-known now. Just type up Benghazi in any search engine and it will be embarrassingly obvious what the world identifies Libya with today.

There’s an annual event called “World Architectural Day”, each year with it’s own theme. This year’s theme is, you guessed it, cultural architecture.

A few architects in Benghazi got together twice, to figure out how we’ll celebrate. If you’re an Arab, I need not transcribe the blood-curdling chaos that is us trying to unify around one idea. If you’re not an Arab, count your blessings. One of the recurring ideas was holding a festival at a historic site in the city.

Gah. No, please. Not more tradition-glorifying. Since we’re already devolving into a more backwards society, I don’t think we need anymore “returning to the past”. It’s the go-to concept for the lazy thinker when asked to come up with an innovative solution to any social crisis these days. “Let’s work on preserving our culture!” Let’s not.

I proposed the idea of implementing what we want Libyan culture to look like in the future, and perhaps by personifying it, it will seem more attainable. I was, of course, drowned out by the raucous din of several voices trying to talk over each other.

My mother habitually surfs through the multitude of inane Libyan channels, with the hope of finding a report on current events, rather than the typical armchair analysts droning for hours about an event that happened months ago, or a blast of shrill, auto-tuned, generic music. One time she stumbled upon the taping of an “event”, a word I use in the loosest sense. It comprised of a crowd sitting on bleachers watching an infamous Libyan “actor”(again, in the loosest sense) parading around on the stage in a teen-style costume and singing, in the distinct gruff voice Arabs use when trying to convey humor, about drugs and guns. It might have been a social commentary on the ills of these criminals, and how they corrupt our society. Except there were children present. Singing and dancing, with this apish imbecile.

Whatever message was being conveyed here (and if, in fact, there actually was a message and this wasn’t some kind of brain-melting exercise in debauchery), I highly doubt the children picked up on it. This “actor” is well-known in Libya and, much to the chagrin of the intellectuals, pretty well-loved. Most other actors here are not far behind on the no-talent scale.

After the revolution, a burst of talent erupted from the most disenfranchised demographic, the youth. Writers, artists, aspiring politicians, etc. etc. But they were plagued by two curses; de-motivation and hubris. There was no one to encourage their life-choices (“you’re going to throw away 4 years of engineering school to paint?”) and they expected accolades for their every achievement, since there was virtually none prior to the revolution (“I spent a week making that hip-hop album in my garage, how dare the radio stations refuse to play it!”).

So, let’s summarize the painful reality. Architecture: Falling apart, if not already in ruins. Artists: Dead or dying. Actors: Dismal. Authors: If Facebook users who write out essay-length posts qualify, several. Musicianshahahahahaha

All we have left to clutch onto is our faded history. I think this is a pretty strong case for declaring cultural bankruptcy. In the future, if globalization doesn’t engulf us, there is still perhaps hope of recovery. The talent we saw after the revolution was completely unexpected, which means that it’s still there under the surface, waiting to be noticed. Strong institutes and even stronger minds are needed. But there also needs to be demand. Once the novelty of talking about politics wears off, Libyans might start seeking other topics to converse about. Whether the lack of culture prompts them to act or not is still uncertain.