Asking for a Hand

I returned late at night from Damascus after attending a Tleebeh, an “Asking for a Hand” ceremony. My father and I drove the tiring round trip in about five hours. The entire process of the intricate ceremony was over in sixty minutes, more or less. Does this ritual fulfill any necessary role or is it an outdated pretentious leftover of social behavior. I am going to elaborate on my opinion about this episode, marriage and so much more.

First, however, I have to admit that although my principles haven’t wavered over the years, my tolerance, my acceptance, my embracement, my perspective on certain moral codes have softened a bit. I might not agree with some people on many points. However, our difference of opinions is not a matter I take seriously. I am, generally speaking, a tolerant person. There are just two exceptions to the above “generalization”. I cannot stand a fellow countryman who disgraces himself by maliciously attempting to shame the people or ignominy the land that is our living conscience. No matter who he or she is, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell them to go screw themselves. I also avoid arguments with, not religious people, but rather with narrow-minded religious people, and, there’s a big difference. They unfortunately see the world in black and white. Not only do they miss all the beautiful natural colors, they even fail to notice the shades of gray. Therefore, I see no point in arguing with them at all. You might be wondering at this point why I’m quartering but not attacking my subject. I just needed to clarify where I stand. My sense of morality is the offspring of my conscience. If I agree with the established social mores and religion on some definite points it’s because they both make sense. Sometimes! Well, here we go.

“Tleebeh”, the traditional way for a suitor, along with a group of men from his extended family to visit the home of a girl and ask for her hand in marriage, is one of the most meaningful social forms of behavior we still have here in the Levant. I need to quickly add that this original tradition is devoid of religion, although it is culminated for Muslims in the reading of the “Fatha”. It is practiced in most traditional societies around the Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa and Asia by various faiths.

When two young people fall in love, cross the preliminaries and seriously consider marriage, it often is the time for the “Tleebeh” visit. In most cases, both immediate families are well aware of the relationship between their son and daughter and they have already met socially on several occasions. Now is the time to inform the rest of the clan.

My paternal uncle called me in midweek and told me that his son, my cousin, is getting engaged. We should meet at his house in Damascus at 7:00PM. We left Tartous and made it on time for a cup of coffee and a brief introduction on the “family” we are to visit. There we were, all 12 of us formally dressed men, knocking the door of the would-be bride. We were greeted by 10 of her men, including her grandfather, in the large and elegant salon. We briefly exchanged pleasantries then got to the serious matter at hand. The most important aspect of this entire procedure, and I strongly believe the most detrimental for a successful marriage, is the feeling of equality among this large group of men. This status of egalitarianism is a manifestation of compatibility in moral, social, cultural and familial backgrounds. The two proud fathers introduced the rest of the men meticulously and with a clever hint of reserved pride. There was no competition, just a simple assertion: “We are who we are in Tartous, you are who you are in Damascus” and the reverse of the equation. Those of us who were apprehensive became convinced now. The young couple had made the right choice. In their honor, let’s read the Fatha.
We went in total strangers; we came out godfathers of a new family.

I have learned that love alone is not enough for a successful marriage. Of course marriage without love is a lot in hell. I am talking about the whole package, the kids, the brothers and sisters, the grandparents, the cousins, the uncles and the aunts. Harmony is very essential if we were to take full advantage of what our culture has to offer. We might not see members of the family for years, and we might be lucky that we don't. In fact this is exactly the case as we tend to barely meet in weddings and funerals as a result of the changes that have swept our way of life. But when we finally meet the sense of belonging is overwhelming.

As I sat, quietly most of the time, in that salon, I couldn’t resist the flickering of a thought struggling for my attention. My children will grow up one day and the time shall come. A group of men will pay me a visit or I have to make that call myself. I would very much like to be in the company of my men. I would very much like my father to lead my pack.


Unknown said…
And I would very much like to be invited :D
ya3ni as usual; another post of Abu Fares.
i agree with you completely about the "whole package"! Though i tend to forget that sometimes, i always tend to meet the parents of the potential boyfriend before i fall seriously.
GraY FoX said…
Adiga tradition of marriage are the best,
it's when the groom kidnaps the groom and they both run away :P
i wanna do the same , less pain in the ....
The Syrian Brit said…
Very nicely put, Abu Fares..
As you quite rightly point out, while love and friendship are the cornerstones of a happy marriage, compatibility and harmony between the two larger families are the pillars on which the whole building is erected..
I just hope and pray that my children would be lucky enough to have that when they eventually get hitched!..
Omar said…
aargh, i can elaborate for hours on this, having gone through a recent engagement and a very soon to come wedding.. but i will keep my promise to myself to stay away from computers when i am not working.. so i will make this brief and tell you that in my jaha (what you guys call tleebeh).. there were people that i don't know, and others that i haven't met or spoke to in decades .. not because of bad feeling, but, well, cos i don't live in damascus anymore... and i have never been the family type of guy...
i still get flash backs over this day and i still find myself shaking my head in bewilderment over how did that gathering of almost strangers make better the base for a successful marriage (knowing that my fiance has been my girlfriend for the past 8 years ...)
but again.. there's so much to it that i won't write on right now.. so i will just wait until i am back to living a normal life.
Abufares said…
Hello Sham
Here's another example of a "liberal" person, (I consider myself so) who believes that a little traditional behavior doesn't hurt at all.
I honestly think that part of our liberation rests in our attachement to "some" of our inherited social values.
Thanks Sham for dropping by.
Abufares said…
Gray Fox
Khatifeh (elopement) is yet another traditional was of getting around certain traditions. Isn't that strange!
While my stand on elopement is strickly on an individual case basis, I think it should be used as a last resort when parents have refused this union for the wrong reasons. This might not be always the case as young people are certainly capable of acting stupidly themselves.
Abufares said…
Hi Syrian Brit
You know what, after one becomes a parent his stand on life certainly softens. This is what happened to me at least.
Despite all the efforts of breaking up with social hurdles I find myself returning to traditions when my family (i.e. my kids) are to be involved. It might be a contradictory form of behavior but as long as it is comforting it must be fulfilling a beneficial role.
Abufares said…
I think that what I just wrote in my reply to the Syrian Brit sums it up for me. It's not aging that changes us but rather the fact that we tend to get protective when it comes to our offspring.
I might accept or reject many notions when I am the only one involved but when it comes to my children I just think differently. It's more likely that you as well will reach that stage one day. When you do, you wouldn't feel the least that you have betrayed your original convictions.
KJ said…
I always say that when you marry, you marry a family rather than an individual. That was the cause of a lot of issues between my own parents, in that they did not consider family relationships as much as the individual. But now in 26 years of marriage they sorted out most things.

About the elopement, it is to be judged on a case by case scenario, although most of the time it is a first option and not a last option. You're from Tartous, so you probably know my village, Safita. You probably also heard about most of the teens eloping and returning and eloping again.
Maysaloon said…
Nice post and 3a 2bal farhtak bi Fares and the rest of your children. I agree, a little tradition can't be bad at all.
Lujayn said…
I disagree, Abu Fares. The "jaha" tradition to me seems a bit intimidating if your side does not have the requisite refined male lineup. Maybe in your family both lineups were equal, and that kept it non-competitive and cultured. But the very nature of the jaha tradition is competitive. These are my guys, show me how yours match up. I doubt a waiter cousin makes for a popular candidate in a jaha, while the doctor cousin would be included automatically – all other factors being equal.
Abufares said…
Hello KJ
Thank you for dropping in and welcome to my blog.
You and I basically agree on all the main points.
It is indeed my opinion that if a couple were to get married and live peacefully here, both man and woman are marrying the whole family.
Elopment is a last resort and works best when the couple leaves (geographically) and starts afresh. In some cases, reconciliation is possible.
Abufares said…
Tislam ya Wassim
3a2bal far7rak, if you are still singel that is.
Abufares said…
Hello Lujayn
You always have a good point (or more) in your argument.
My contention, however, is that a socially successful marriage depends on equality. A good solid marriage is an internal affair. But, I believe, a happy trouble-free marriage needs first to be built on love then could benefit tremendously from familial harmony. The social compatibility is essential to me, not the economic one.
Lujayn said…
If we were talking about social compatibility, Abu Fares, then we would take the nuclear family only to a “telbeh”. After all, my family will have to get along with his family, not the entire clan. And the two families HAVE to get along, no question about that, if I am to have a successful marriage. I agree with you on familiar harmony, 100 percent. However, I personally don’t see how my uncle, who I see once every two years or so, is going to contribute to my prospects of having a successful marriage. His inclusion in the "telbeh" would be social posturing (I’m using the poor soul as an example, of course).
Dubai Jazz said…
Since everyone is giving it a go, I would like to add my two fils...:)
I’ve not attended any wedding (Talbiseh) or engagement party (Khotbeh) or asking for a hand (Wajaha) for good 4 years, this is probably the reason I found this post a bit nostalgic…
The part I enjoyed the most was the implied mutual acknowledgment “We are who we are in Tartous, you are who you are in Damascus”… this is actually very true…reminded me of how pleasantly vague those Wajahas (gathering of the dignitaries from both families) used to be, where most of the dialogue is exercised through the inaudible gestures: head nodding, meticulous smiles…etc…
But to be honest, I always thought of it as a formality; a routine social ritual that CAN NOT (or shouldn’t?) be a decision making factor in the grand scheme of things.
Maybe I was mistaken about my earlier observations, but nevertheless I am still wondering: does the future of the couple in hand rely on how smooth this 60 minutes would pass?
I believe that by emphasizing on the significance of equality (or equivalence), one side might wind up feeling inferior or outnumbered …
Thanks for the post Abu Fares, you always manage to bring interesting topics for discussion...
Dubai Jazz said…
Oh! forgot to say : Alf Mabrook for your cousin! and sorry for my earlier inadvertence.
Abufares said…
Hello Dubai Jazz
Thank you for your valuable input. All the Tleebehs (Wajahas)I've attended were a mere formality, yet still very vital. It's in the same line with modern monarchy, they don't really govern but they perform an important function (for the subordinates at least). In Tartous, and as far as I understand, in Damascus, and I'm willing to bet that this is the norm in all of Syria, when the men go and make the visit the acceptance has already been granted beforehand.
It normally is arranged on the nuclear family level before the rest of the family is involved. So, just in case there was no agreement, nobody should hear about it and the whole prospect is forgotten before it is announced to anybody.
So the Tleebeh in itself is an affirmation of the obvious. This is my understanfing of it in recent times. And this is why I approve of it since it's not a decision making process.
Abufares said…
Sorry Lujayn I still need to reply to your second comment.
Your uncle would certainly be playing an honorary role. The decision has been made. There's no point in not giving him the pleasure, and the honor, in participating. Yalli Ma Ilo Kbir, Ma Ilo Sgheer. Right!
Dubai Jazz said…
"Yalli Ma Ilo Kbir, Ma Ilo Sgheer. Right!"

Absloutely right! it's also been said that :"Yalli malo 2adeem malo jdeed"

Aseel ya Ab Fares! besharafy inek aseel we shiekh shabab!
Omar said…
see I agree with Lujain on this. the whole telbeh (for me)is an extension to a primitive ritual where the husband brings the army of his shire to impress (and also scare) the family/village of the bride.
as far as I'm concerened (and from remebemring how our jaha was selected once we got engaged).. the criteria was: what family do they belong to, what do they do, and how socially recognized they were.. so to let you know, my two uncles (aunt's husbands) were not included because they are excentric and life on the margine of society, while mysister's father in law, who's a very respected doctor and a member of a big family in damascus, was invited.. and the irony was that before that day in the telbeh, I have never met him in my life since my sister's engagement happened while I was away.

so, this is in no way a social honoring for the bride (as they claim it is).. this is a socially accepted way of saying: "mine is bigger than yours".. or "mine is the same size as yours" in some cases..

I'm sorry, but although I am a -mixed-blood- Damascene coming from big families on both sides, i find it revolting that in the 21st century and with all the economical and social changes we are going through, people are still stuck on some decades old rituals that define the future of two innocent souls... just based on the origin of their great grand father.....
The Syrian Brit said…
While I can see what you are getting at, Omar, and while, in principle, I agree that such a social gathering represents a form of tribal show of force, I also believe that it does have another very important function.. I will try to explain it with an example.. If I were to treat my wife badly, be it physically or emotionally, then I know for an absolute fact that MY 'clan' would side with HER, because my bad behaviour would reflect badly on them, by extension.. What the visiting 'clan' are saying to their host is: 'We are decent people.. Your daughter is safe with us..'.. And to me, as a father, that is absolutely priceless..
Yazan said…
We all reflect on our own history when we look at this,

The bachelors have obviously [including me] made their point about such a ritual... which actually supports what abu fares says about being a father...

But Abu fares, doesnt that totally beats the point of the whole thing...? the choice of two kids is now in the hand of the two clans?
I mean, regardless whether it will work or not, but isnt it their right to have their life the way they want it, without that kind of social pressure... and that is one hell of pressure...
Abufares said…
Hello Yazan
Welcome on board.
You wrote: "the choice of two kids is now in the hand of the two clans?"
Not at all Yazan. It doesn't go this way. The 2 kids have already met, fell in love and decided to get engaged. It might be that a few years have elapsed since they first met. Their parents (the immediate families) are introduced to each other, assuming they are not already acquainted. Months may pass. Then the kids want the engagement party in a couple of weeks. Their parents notify their respective families and tell them that their son/daughter is getting engaged soon. Now is the time for the official Tleebeh formality. It's a formatlity that's all. No outcome is expected since it has already been decided. It's an honorary gesture.
My argument is this:
If a sense of equality is evident during this occasion and if the kids really love each other then it's most likely that their marriage would be a successful one. No guaranties of course.
I never, not even for a second, advocated that this ceremony is the deciding factor. In fact I'm all for the boy and the girl meeting each other, getting to know each other, deciding on their future then informing their parents.
My saying that I think that the Tleebeh is a good thing is similar to a Brit approving of the monarchy while still being a firm believer in democracy. And, in Britain (just an example) the 2 terms do not contradict - monarchy & democracy.
Love & tradition are not contradictory by nature. If they contradict we might think that the relationship is more romantic... and it might be true. BUT, this has nothing to do with a successful marriage.
The Syrian Brit is commenting exactly the same way I'm thinking. It's possible that because we are both (uhum, middle aged fathers)we tend to get protective of our children and revert to tradition to get the maximum positive protection. We do get softer because we have kids and honestly this has nothing to do with age.
When my Tleebeh took place I didn't think so highly of it. I felt that it's a waste of time. But to them, to my uncles & hers, to my father & hers, to my men & hers it must've meant something.
This last Saturday, whether I have attended or not (i.e. my brother couldn't attend because he was busy delivering babies in Tartous)the engagement has already been set and agreed upon. I drove the long distance because it was a moral obligation and because I felt honored that my uncle had called me and asked for my presence.
Did I make my point?
The Syrian Brit said…
Thank you Abu Fares for elaborating so eloquantly on what I meant.. and thank you for placing me in the same age group as yourself, even though I do believe I am more 'middle-aged' than you are!..
Lujayn said…
Abu Fares, maybe you’re right about traditions becoming more important when you have children (although I think that with age too, I’ve become more accepting of some traditions). I can understand wanting to provide a social safety net for your children and their marriages, and appreciate that the intent of your family’s “telbeh” was positive. I understand your point about it being a show of respect for family members and I am not disputing that it is a largely ceremonial occasion and that usually, everything will have been decided long before the two sides have been gathered. More often than not, the gathering will never again be involved in the couple’s life and as such, is irrelevant to their future. However, the world is not ideal, and the “jaha” tradition in practice is often a way of establishing one family’s superiority over the other, socially and economically.

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