Céad Míle Fáiltes in The Holy Land

Palestine was never a place I thought I’d have the opportunity to travel to. Neither had my family or friends expected me to venture there; before my trip, I hosted frequent Q&A sessions regarding the safety of my destination or if I was prepared for the cultural differences. I’m sure ‘Palestine travel guide’ must have gone up on that week’s search trends from my research alone.

However, my visit was the result of a universally joyous occasion: a friend’s wedding. I had only attended Irish weddings before, so I was curious as to what an Arabic and Palestinian wedding would entail. Additionally, regardless of religious or cultural differences in ceremony, there is nothing more exciting than partaking in a celebration of love.

Two weeks before my journey, my friend sent me a message with details for my visit. There would be no alcohol, the celebrations would last a weeklong, and I was required to fill out an Israeli application form for Covid purposes before I could enter the country.

Entering directly into Palestine was not possible; instead, I would fly into Tel Aviv and then progress into Nazareth, where my friends lived. Nazareth is the largest Arab city under Israeli occupation and one of the holiest cities on earth – believed to be the childhood home of Jesus Christ. Pure chaos greeted me as I arrived in Tel Aviv Airport. Hundreds of people were crowded inside the building, and a cacophony of yelling in Arabic, Hebrew and English accompanied the scene.

Passing through passport control was easy enough; I slid my passport into a machine much like the ones we have in Europe, and a small paper visa was printed out. The military checkpoints were what took me aback, being very unlike chats with our unarmed nGardaí – nothing quite prepares you for facing a group of men carrying assault rifles and questioning your entry into their country. Finally, I was out of the terminal and picked up by one of my closest friends, sister to the bride.

Driving in Palestine reminded me a lot of trying to get around Galway City during rush hour; everyone was trying to overtake everyone, only to get stuck in the same traffic queue five minutes later. An hour later we arrived in Nazareth. Most of the roads in the city contained no lines or proper boundaries and had many potholes and other faults. Under Israeli rule, my friend told me, Jewish areas are given more government funding to improve their infrastructure while much less is given to predominantly Arab populated areas. Therefore, there was not as much revenue available in Nazareth to improve the foundations of the city.

Staying with my friends’ family was an absolute privilege. Every member went above and beyond to ensure I was comfortable. My friends’ father later informed me that it was part of Palestinian culture to ensure every guest felt like family. I was greeted with hugs and a plate of Palestinian treats as a welcome. My favourite were the biscuits with crushed dates inside, of which many, many, disappeared into my stomach during the week.

The first wedding celebration was the bride’s henna night, which only female relatives and friends attend. During it, the bride’s hands were painted with henna in beautiful intricate designs to celebrate the bond between herself and her husband. Attendees dressed in traditional Palestinian outfits, such as thobes – beautiful, hand-embroidered traditional dress. The guests celebrated the bride through song, dance and the application of temporary henna.

Following this came the bride’s night, where family, friends and invited guests gathered to celebrate the bride. Entering the event, I passed under a beautiful floral archway to the ballroom where the band was warming up. A film crew were on site, and there was a television-grade camera overhead to document the occasion. The guests arrived in dress ranging from elaborate gowns to traditional thobes, all obviously of resplendent designers. My friend wore a gorgeous gown she had designed herself and had sewn by an Ellie Saab seamstress.

The party began with the introduction of the singer, as the bride’s family, close friends and I danced in welcome. After, it was time for the bride’s entrance. A procession was started, led by drummers, for the bride to make her way around the room. During it, guests clapped and sung around her, and she wove her wrists and arms in a constant dance – I later asked the bride how tired her arms felt, and she showed me her newly gained biceps.

Halfway through the night, the groom entered on the shoulders of his brother, his family in tow, all singing in celebration. Their excitement erased any thoughts of tired feet as both sides of the wedding joined in dance. Throughout the night, I could see the conflicting sadness and joy of my friends as they celebrated their sister’s happiness whilst also already mourning her absence. The most emotional moment was the Teglay, where the bride carried two lit candles in a slow dance across the floor, linked on either side by loved ones. The dance symbolised the bride’s journey, her consideration of the marriage and leaving her old life behind. Finally, the groom approached the bride and gently took the two candles, extinguished them on the floor and took her hand, signifying her final decision to marry him.

With the end of the week came the last celebration of the wedding. Our morning began early as I travelled with the bride to her hair appointment, to help her with her dress: a beautiful white lace gown. Next arrived the photographer, to capture some shots of the bride getting ready. As I carried the bride’s custom Dior perfume and her box of Christian Louboutin heels into the house, I joked that it was the closest I would ever be to the iconic, red-bottomed shoes. Just before the guests arrived at the house, there was a panic with the wedding dress as one of the millions of tiny buttons had come loose – with a needle and thread in hand, I prayed to the Home Economics gods that had ruled my Junior Certificate year and sewed it back on.

The bride was celebrated one last time that evening, adorned in wreaths of money and gold by her family and friends. The women of the party sang songs, played drums, and sang zaghareet – a high-pitched sound of joy. Towards the end of the evening, the groom’s family entered the house to collect the bride and to bring her to the groom. At the groom’s house, the couple were given a ball each of uncooked dough. They pressed it to the side of doorframe, as is tradition; if the dough sticks, it signifies a happy marriage as the relationship will develop like the yeast in the dough does. After this, the groom hosted a lavish party that much resembled the bride’s night. Many of the same traditions were followed: the welcoming of the singer, the dance of the bride, the energetic music. By the end of the night, I was ready to sleep standing upright, full of good food, good energy and happiness for my friends.

And so, my trip to Palestine ended, with my expectations for the week far surpassed. I had danced, laughed, sang and eaten some of the best food of my life. I was wrapped up in a warm welcome from everyone I met and had never been made to feel like the European foreigner that I was in reality. I know Ireland has the moniker of the land of céad míle fáilte – but I now think it’s a title we’ll have to share with our Palestinian friends across the ocean.

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