Glimpses into Chechen Wedding Traditions
Mansur, a young soon-to-be cardiologist from the village of Bratskoye, Chechnya, was home for the summer working at the local hospital. A nurse from the same village was also home for the summer. Both were eligible and ready for marriage. In their small village of 3,000, surely their paths would cross; surely love would have a chance to kindle. But they didn’t meet. There wasn’t a first date. They didn’t exchange numbers. Not until, that is, their relatives took the initiative to hold a chaperoned meeting. This is Chechnya after all, not Charlotte or Chicago.
The young woman’s grandmother lives on the same street as Mansur’s parents and hosted the chaperoned meet and greet. Mansur called the young woman ahead of time to ensure that she fit his criteria for a wife: that she be a conservative Muslim and be willing to move back to Russia. Her parents had immigrated to Finland from Bratskoye when she was a young girl.
At the meeting, the couple talked for about 10 minutes, all in the presence of relatives. For Mansur, that was enough. “At the beginning, I had made clear what things were a matter of principle for me,” he said. “She agreed. What else is there to talk about? My goal had always been to move quickly through the process.”
This is Chechnya after all, not Charlotte or Chicago.
This mindset is in stark contrast to the Western practice of prolonged dating relationships, where the elusive spark is sought and compatibility examined. Among Chechens, however, courting takes on a much more transactional nature, which is evident in conversations with young Chechen men similar to Mansur: If she meets my criteria, if she is in agreement, if our relatives approve, there is nothing preventing marriage. An emotional connection between the young couple to-be was not on the criteria list of any of the young men with whom I spoke. That is something to be cultivated after the wedding.
Two days after their initial meeting, both flew north – Mansur to St. Petersburg, Russia, to begin the final year of his medical residency, and his wife-to-be to Finland. In the months following, the two texted occasionally but not often. By November, Mansur knew they would marry.
Mansur (center, white shirt) with friends keeping away from the wedding festivities that day
Wedding in a Pandemic
As COVID-19 held the world in the grips of a pandemic throughout 2020, it also pushed the wedding from March to October. By October, just before a second wave of cases, quarantines had sufficiently relaxed to gather in Bratskoye for a day full of ancient wedding traditions —many of which pre-date the arrival of Islam to Chechnya in the 16th century.
Bratskoye looks like most small Chechen villages. The terrain is strikingly flat, but the Caucasus mountains loom on the horizon. The only paved road runs through the middle of an unusually well-kept community. Nearly every home is built with one of two shades of red brick. Each is surrounded by walls of matching red brick, creating rows of compounds. Tall iron gates open out onto wide gravel roads.
Homes are often sprawling and are built in order to host gatherings of all sizes. Mansur’s parents’ home, where the wedding was to take place, is no exception. There’s an outdoor patio with a large awning, a standard feature of every Chechen home. Under this awning, Mansur’s father initially received and greeted me and those with whom I had traveled to Bratskoye. According to Chechen tradition, male guests are typically greeted under the awning; women are greeted formally inside the home.
Mansur would spend no time here on his wedding day because – according to Chechen custom – the groom should not make an appearance during the celebration. He hides somewhere close, being certain to not show himself to older relatives or to the bride. In Mansur’s case, he spent most of the day at the neighbor’s house with myself, his friends and cousins.
Mansur (in black) enjoying a moment with his friend Usman the day after the wedding
Around 10 a.m. on the wedding day, Mansur’s friends and cousins gathered into a caravan of cars and headed out to retrieve the bride. This event is symbolic of taking the bride from the family she grew up in and receiving her into her new family. In the Chechen mindset, the young married couple are not starting a new nuclear family; rather, the bride is being added to Mansur’s extended family. This is why parents often do not leave an inheritance to daughters — that becomes the responsibility of her husband’s parents.
Our convoy of 15 or so cars made our way through town to the bride’s parents’ home, honking horns along the way. After a brief wait, the bride was escorted to the lead car where she was to be accompanied by Mansur’s brother and two of her sisters. Other than these sisters, the bride’s family did not attend the celebration hosted by Mansur’s family. This is in keeping with Chechen custom. The bride’s family does, however, gather at her family’s home in a more modest commemoration of the event.
As we made our way back through town, teenage boys feigned blocking the road with sticks and rope and sometimes even cars. They only removed the obstacles when Mansur’s brother gave them 50 or 100 rubles, which is equivalent to about one dollar. This attempt to block the transfer of the bride is a symbolic gesture showing that the town is attempting to protect the bride’s honor. In return, the groomsmen shoot guns into the air.
In the Chechen mindset, the young married couple are not starting a new nuclear family; rather, the bride is being added to Mansur’s extended family
When the caravan arrived back to Mansur’s parents’ home, approximately 100 relatives watched as the bride was escorted along a red carpet to Mrs. Gelekhanova, Mansur’s mother, who was waiting for her new daughter-in-law under an arc of pastel flowers. As is the tradition, the bride gave Mrs. Gelekhanova a piece of candy from which the elder took a bite and then offered the remainder of the candy piece back, symbolizing the sweet unity that they now share.
After this formal reception and in keeping with tradition, the bride proceeded into the main room of the in-laws’ home and stood in the corner where she spent most of the day. Relatives of the groom came and congratulated her, often giving money. In a display of modesty, she kept her eyes to the ground for most of these brief conversations, saying just a few words to each guest.
At one point, in a break with custom, Mansur’s father took me to the bride and I had a brief conversation with her in English. Non-relative male guests are typically not introduced to the bride; but in a show of respect to the foreigner, Mansur’s father wanted me to meet her.
Next door, the atmosphere at the neighbor’s house was less festive but no less stimulating. Throughout the day, various groups of young men came to visit Mansur. They never arrived alone — Chechens move almost exclusively in groups. The conversations around the feast-laden table moved back and forth between Russian and Chechen and were warm and engaging — often touching on what I, the American, think of Trump, of Chechens, and of Islam.
Conversations, Food, and Games
At some point, I was pulled back to the main event next door by Mavsar, Mansur’s brother. Mavsar was keenly interested in me experiencing all aspects of the event. He seated me first at a table with middle-aged men. Our conversations were periodically interrupted in order to stand as older relatives and neighbors came in. No matter how much older a person is, when they enter the room, you stand as a sign of respect.
After 30 minutes or so under the tent, Mavsar decided I needed to meet more relatives — this time his and Mansur’s uncle. The uncle told me that most Chechen weddings are more festive, with more guests and dancing and more gunshots into the sky. That day’s occasion, largely at Mansur’s behest, was more restrained due to COVID-19 and because a relative of the bride had died just three days earlier. I was pulled away again by Mavsar into a new conversation — this time with Muhammad, a young man whose mother was very sick from COVID-19 last summer and whom Mansur successfully treated. Muhammad was in attendance as a sign of his gratitude.
Afternoon turned into evening, and guests began to dissipate. Men could be found continuing to talk in small groups, always in Chechen unless I joined. Women were busy cleaning up, serving tea, and bringing out more sweets. A late-arriving group of Mansur’s friends pulled up from out of town around 11 p.m. By this time, the bride had left her corner spot in public view and was nowhere to be seen. With his father’s permission, Mansur was allowed onto the premises and immediately set about serving his friends, bringing fresh helpings of boiled meat, salads, cakes and tea from the kitchen. There was talk of a late-night round of the role-play party game “mafia.” The next day, I learned that Mansur played with these friends well into the night.
Mansur and friends do Hamaz prayers together the day after the wedding
The day after the wedding, Mansur and about a dozen of his friends loaded up his dad’s box truck with the gear necessary for a cookout on the river. A special armchair was even loaded in the truck for me, the foreign guest, so that I would have a comfortable spot on which to sit in the woods. Just outside of town on a tributary of the Terek River, we grilled shashlik, Russia’s version of meat kabobs; enjoyed Chechnya’s fall foliage and cool breeze; and played two more rounds of mafia. Right on time, the group stopped the picnic to do afternoon Namaz, the Islamic ritual prayer that observant Muslims do five times a day. That evening, Mansur would leave us to join his new wife at her parents’ home for a formal dinner where a small group of her side of the family would gather and celebrate the new couple. As far as I know, this would be their first sight of one another since the summer before, over one year prior.
Mansur and his young wife are now back in St. Petersburg building their new life together. To the bride and groom: May you have a long and joyful marriage! It was a privilege to witness its beginning.
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