Two Weddings: Nurjol and Alma in Kazakhstan

While taking language classes last summer, I scored an invite to a Real Kazakh Wedding. A few years ago, our research team interrupted huddled marriage negotiations in a Mongolian yurt, to ask marginally relevant questions about citizenship. And we were invited into a six-hour wedding’s eve party in another town. And I first visited Kazakhstan over ten years ago. But somehow I’ve previously missed out on the actual wedding itself, so I’m excited about this.

The Background

My understanding is that Kazakh marriage negotiations used to involve discussion and gifts passed back and forth between the two families, a gift of earrings to the new bride, a payment to the bride’s family on the part of the groom, and perhaps some livestock changing hands. This was followed by receptions for both families; at times, both religious and civil leaders have been involved.

But the urban families I interact with now live in a city of well over a million people, with many professional residents having studied abroad and speaking in three or four languages. My host mom, Gula*, is solidly middle class, with a job in the arts, relatives living in Turkey and others studying abroad in the United States.

The Wedding

The wedding itself was scheduled for a Wednesday evening in late June in the large southern city if Almaty. This means that 10 relatives joined our tiny apartment the preceding Sunday.

Pre-gaming the wedding food

We gather early on the day of the wedding. When the relatives sit down for cucumber salad, chicken, potatoes, and tea, Mama Gula’s sister Orazgul* tells me that the bride, who I’ll call Almagul, is paying $500 to rent a dress for the day, and almost $100 for the veil. It’s another $500 (80K tenge) to rent a limousine for five hours, and they’ve rented a restaurant hall to seat for 170 people.

I comment that weddings often cost $10K in the US. Orazgul seems to think these young people are paying something similar. But the couple doesn’t have steady employment, so I’m not sure who’s paying the bills. This is wedding season; there were dozens of fluffy brides and entourages, high-heeled and glossy-dressed, gliding across the wet Panfilov Park today.

Wedding Day

The wedding vows may have been actually said and signed earlier that day at the ZAGS, the traditional Russian civil wedding registration service.

But our Kazakh uilenu toi (wedding feast) is at five o’clock. I’m told no one will actually get there for several hours. We all do our hair in the narrow hallway of the flat:

We leave our flat at half to seven, and it’s after seven when the bride and groom arrive. I count fourteen tables with twelve seats each, covered in bottles of juice, cognac, vodka, and cola; four types of salat; traditional baursak and modern rolls; strips of horse meat and horse sausage; raw fish in pink and white; and a scattering of candy. No one sits until the couple arrives; instead, Mama Gula’s young relatives, Meruert* and Ariana* and I walk around to the back of the faux-marble palace in the evening heat, and take glamour shots of ourselves.

Ariana’s a cutie…

It’s cool when we step back into the hall; mothers and aunts sit on chairs ringing the large hall, while the men and boys squint in the late afternoon sun out front.

When the wedding couple arrive, the MC takes over. He invites everyone to cluster around, and everyone claps their hands. The bride’s eyes are traditionally downcast, under a fine veil with creamy lace embroidery. The groom (I’ll call him Nurjol) looks around freely, wearing a tux-lite with a white rutched shirt underneath.

The dombira player begins with the bet-ashar, someone holding a microphone up to his dombira to improve the acoustics. Bet-ashar means that the bride’s veil is lifted, revealing her face.

dombira player (pic by Dave-Gray; ours was in a suit…)

Next, groups of relatives are called out by name to give money, each person giving $3-15 (500-2000 tenge) into a common pot.

“Do you have this in your country?” The girls keep checking in with me. Usually, we have something similar; in this case, Americans often pay to dance with the bride or groom.

The bride and groom exchange rings, then sit at a podium. They often stand when addressed. There are cycles of toasts and dancing; family groups dance forward to wish the couple and the new in-laws a bright future, then everyone gathers together on the floor for a dance.

Among this dancing and toasting, chicken and appetizers are served, followed by beshbarmak (lamb and noodles), plates of  manti (steamed dumplings), and then desert. We eat over four courses of food from 7pm until 1:30am, when the party winds down.

Baursak, salads, and chicken

Two hired dancing girls parade in peacock costumes; other relatives take turns singing, including a sassy girl in a short blue-green skirt, and sausy Meruert in her shimmering sequins, a tightly curved dress.

Meruert stands behind Ariana

She’s got it, baby she’s got it… Meruert sings, swinging her hips by the soundboard and speakers. I’m your fire, I’m your Venus, your desire.

Couples begin to dance as Meruert sings, but one couple takes the show, putting on the most sexual dance I’ve ever seen in Kazakhstan. A curvy blonde Kazakh in baby-blue dress locks hips with a slim older man. They go at it, dancing with each other, shaking their hips and her chest, hips back and forth, forward and back, dancing high and low, close and far. It’s the most explicit show of sexual desire I’ve ever seen from adults in Kazakhstan.

Some of the mothers and a few men hoot in delight; other faces are carefully polite. I scan the crowd, who seems to be enjoying this. I assume the couple are freshly married, but the next day the woman in blue is the talk of our flat. It’s a shame (uyat), she shouldn’t have done it, one mother says over tea. You’re only young once, another laughs.

There are other acts: male guests are given clown pants, and women are given balloons to fill the pants, in a giant relay race. Then, seven young men are given boxers to wear over their dress pants. They dance around in a game of musical chairs, while the music plays. When it stops, they  scramble to pull the party boxers down and sit on a set of low basins as if going to the pot, to the hoots and cheers of the audience. The guys all compete eagerly; they’re given small prizes at the end.

The hit of the evening, though, is when four hired acrobats flip on Boney M’s Ra-ra-rasputin and do a break-dance acrobatics show, spinning on their hands, twisting their legs over their shoulders, and vaulting in the air, shirts falling down to reveal their slim muscled chests. The guests hoot and throw 500-tenge notes on a lunch tray on the floor:

Finally—finally—the cake is cut around 11:30pm, followed by dancing. Everyone at our tables dances except for a pregnant woman. Children wander on the dance floor, even around the guest acts. Baby Alia* takes the floor in her long pink dress and white fur jacket. Four years old, she wiggles her hands in the hair, runs to the other end of the long dance floor, and then back, her curly Turkish-Kazakh hair bouncing in its white headband.

The lights dim for dancing

The bride and groom dance with the audience, and shy twelve-year old Alina, with splotches on her face, dances with little Alia and the bride, three sizes of white under the pink and green scatter-lights.

“Toibastar” are large packets of gifts given to each table of guests.

At the end of the party, favors (called toi bastar) are given out, in the form of a bag or box set on each table. Girls at our table eagerly hand out the contents: a shirt, some scarves, a handkerchief, a coin purse, two scull-caps, and bags of crackers and hard candies. I’m handed a pale scarf still in plastic-wrap from China.

Packing up the food

At half past one in the morning, then, we’re told to take all the leftovers home – don’t waste anything! Grocery sacks are handed to each table and the well-dressed aunties pour dumplings and shanks of meat and salad and bread all together in bags. The cousins shake the juice boxes to check their contents, and reach for anything left at other unsuspecting tables.

Balloons at the wedding table

As the guests leave, Aruana begins to pulls down the balloons. (I assume the catering staff do this, but she wants a picture with the balloons!) The bride sits at our table, smiling but tired. She and her new husband have been eloquently blessed and lectured all evening, with wishes to God for their health and happiness, and admonitions falling particularly on the bride.

“His happiness now rests in you,” she’s told. She has the power and the responsibility for the relationship, and for his life.

This seems heavy to me, and even now a woman from the groom’s side walks up to lecture the bride. Beri kizdin kolinda bar, she says. It’s all in the girl’s hands. This strange new relation tells the new bride that her husband is from a good family, and points out each of the relatives. The girl nods, looks down, and smiles.

Portrait of the bride, now joining the groom’s family

I ask Auntie Orazgul a bit crossly why it’s in the woman’s hands. She smiles and replies, sebebi eilda sheitan kop (because women have many devils). She tells me it’s easy for a woman to go astray, and important to speak tetti (sweetly) and act for the husband’s good. Hmm… I may not be ready for this yet.

A car is free for us at three in the morning. At home, we quickly empty the cupboards of blankets and bedrolls. In spite of my protests, there are six people to the floor and I in a bed all to myself.

Rocking bears to sleep

The next day, we all rise late and disgruntled. Meruert plays with baby Alia, and I wander into the kitchen to learn that teenage Ariana paid $20 (2800t) to have her hair done; the women fuss that this is a bit much for a teenage girl. The family assesses the wedding over tea: it cost 120,000 ($800) for food, dancers, and catering at the hall. (That’s a month’s wage for most young professionals in the city, or established managers in the provinces). It cost 96,000 ($640) for the mashina, a five-hour limo rental.

Making salads from the leftovers

We prepare and eat the leftover salads, you know, those ones that were out for ten hours un-refrigerated yesterday. I’m still full, but the meats are recycled in a stew; the dumplings we scooped off the tables are also re-heated. We all lounge around the house together, relatives coming and leaving, until the warm Almaty evening falls.

2 Comments

  1. Hi
    It’s been really nice to read your article about Almaty Wedding customs.
    I’ve been invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Almaty. I am really excited about it. However, i haven’t been to ALMATY before and not known much about ALMATY. Could you please let me know a bit more so that i can have better preparation without being seen too silly or embarrassing the new couple.
    1. I heard there are 2 wedding parties. One is held by parents and the other is a formal wedding. What are the difference? I’ve been invited to both parties but are the 1st party for parents only held for closed relatives and friends? What do I need to prepare for 1st wedding party?Is it Okay to skip the 1st wedding?
    2. What shall guest bring for the new couples? Do I pay money as gift? or give presents as wedding gift? what wedding presents are preferred?
    3. Do I need to pay for the dinner? How much shall i prepare for it if yes.
    4. Do I give wedding presents/money to both bride and groom? or just the bride i know?
    5. Is there anything i should avoid doing on the wedding?

    It would be great if i could hear from you.

    Many thanks and regards,
    MEKO

  2. Hi Meko! I know a little bit, but not as much as some others. So I’ve contacted an anthropologist who studies weddings in Kazakhstan, and she was kind enough to share her responses to your questions:

    ~~~~~
    1. There are multiple wedding events. You’ve likely been invited to a primary wedding reception (“uilenu toi”) hosted by the groom’s party, and EITHER an engagement party (“qudalyq” or in-law-party) or a reception hosted by the bride’s family (“qyz uzatu”). Both sides of the family host qudalyq, or engagement party events. These qudalyq are smaller, intimate events that involve several meals in a row hosted by relatives at different locations, with lots of gift-giving at each stop and gifts presented by hosting parties to the guests. The qyz uzatu party is a smaller wedding reception for the bride’s family. I’ve seen some parties that are almost as big as an uilenu toi, and some that are significantly smaller.

    2. Money is an acceptable gift. The amount varies depending on your relationship with the bride and groom, and with their families. Keep in mind that these families are spending more money than they have to put on the wedding, so monetary gifts help them to pay for the event. If the bride & groom are from a different social class or generation where paying for the event is less of an issue, then other gifts may be appropriate as well.

    3. No, you do not pay for the dinner.

    4. In rural Kazakhstan, monetary gifts are typically presented in envelopes to the host of the party, not the bride & groom. It’s also acceptable for friends of the bride to present jewelry to the bride. In rural, southern Kazakhstan, gold is the preferred form of jewelry.

    5. Pay attention to what other people are doing. Be prepared to eat a lot of food (eat slowly). And don’t do anything that may raise eyebrows, like these women dancing in a sexually suggestive way!

    ~~~~~~
    Thanks so much for asking! If you want to learn more about Dr. Werner’s anthropological research on weddings, debt, bribes, bride kidnapping, social networks, nuclear fallout, tourism, migration, and many other topics in Kazakhstan, you can read her papers here: http://tamu.academia.edu/CynthiaWerner

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