Friday 30 September 2016

My big, gay, Arab wedding

After Donal Lynch attended his friend's arranged marriage, he began to wonder: who has the better deal?

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Donal Lynch.
Donal Lynch.

It did feel exquisitely surreal, in the summer of the Yes vote in Ireland, to be on my way to the Middle East to my first gay wedding. Or, as a friend of mine here corrected me, my first lavender wedding, involving one gay person (my friend) and one straight person (his bride).

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I'd long ago given up trying to talk him out of the whole thing. The ceremony would be the culmination of years of denials, evasions and unrelenting parental pressure (his mother had once frisbeed a side plate against the wall of a restaurant in protest at the mere mention of the word 'adoption'). He'd lied to his father about being impotent to stave off the pressure to get married, but that excuse had only lasted a few years.

Now we were here, and in front of his family, a surely aghast God, and half-a-dozen bemused gay friends, he would, presumably, swear to love, honour and never use Grindr. The poor, oblivious woman had been selected based on important qualities such as "unlikely to ask too many awkward questions about nights out with the boys". And I was just praying that, in a Muslim ceremony, there was no equivalent of the "If anyone here knows any reason . . . ".

On the plane from London to the Middle East, a huge, bearded man beside me read and re-read passages of the Koran, while I tried to focus on the in-flight movie and not the images in my head of being beheaded, live on the internet. When we finally arrived, I was driven through the thick night air by a Palestinian man and dropped toward the hotel, where we went through a further round of airport-like security just to be let in the main gate.

This could have freaked me out but, as my friend had already explained to me, turning a blind eye to potential horror is an essential part of not collapsing from nervous exhaustion in the Middle East.

Before I got to my room, I bumped into my friend's parents. They had fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq and escaped political and religious persecution to find a new life for their family in London. Now they had a son who had left their adopted homeland to go back to the Middle East because, under UK divorce law, his new wife would have been entitled to half of everything. Persecution is all relative, it seemed.

While feeling terrible about all the lives that were about to be ruined, I decided to make the best of things. On the first day, we had our bodies slathered in mud by servants at a five-star resort, before lying on our backs in the Dead Sea with Palestine on the other side. In the evening, we went to a 13th-Century steam bath in the mountains. We all sat in the pitch dark and the other men, all of whom were Muslim and some of whom were in-the-closet-gays, sang a kind of call-and-response ululation. I felt like I must be the only white person for at least three deserts in any direction.

The wedding ceremony itself was Kardashian-level lavish, in part, perhaps, to compensate for the emotional emptiness at its heart: fireworks went off through the windows all around the banquet hall, while my friend and his new bride cut a 20ft-high cake with a golden sword. I had been terrorised by the idea of the 'dry' afters, but I discovered that all it meant was that all of the men left the room between courses to do a shot at the bar downstairs. In the midst of all the mayhem, the bride looked like a silent, painted doll.

In the end I would have to say, with no little shame, that the fun I had thoroughly overrode any disquiet I felt at the nature of my friend's marriage. At the airport, preparing to fly back to Dublin, I told him that I wished he could get sham-married every year. He smiled and reminded me that he was going to have kids, security, companionship, a wife who cooked, cleaned and did his bidding, and several fatwa's worth of play on the side. And as I walked through the departure gates, I couldn't help feeling that, for all my pity and hand-wringing, those Arabs are still one up on our hard-won version of marriage equality.

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