No more Big Fat Wedding: Turks struggle to be wed in times of the coronavirus

From bejeweled masks to dummy brides, Turks struggle to combine tradition with new social distancing rules.

al-monitor Groom Okan Barut and bride Oya Kulaksiz wear face masks as they take part in their wedding ceremony at the Kadikoy Municipality marriage office on July 1, 2020, in Istanbul, Turkey.  Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.
Nazlan Ertan

Nazlan Ertan

@NazlanErtan_ALM

Topics covered

Coronavirus

Jul 10, 2020

Two mannequins — one dressed as a bride and the other as a groom — stood at the entry of a sober wedding hall in the town of Saray in Tekirdag province, the European part of Turkey, on July 5. Visitors wearing face masks pinned gold coins on the blonde-wigged dummy bride and banknotes — either Turkish liras or dollars — on the groom under the watchful eye of the real bride and groom who sat at a safe distance, both wearing masks.

A cheeky Twitter user compared the photos of this coronavirus wedding as “a scene from ‘Black Mirror,’” alluding to Netflix’s dystopian science fiction anthology. However, the newlyweds Sinem and Sinan Dag were simply trying to reconcile tradition with the Turkish government’s new regulation on weddings during these pandemic times. Weddings were once again allowed in Turkey as of July 1 following a new regulation that carefully outlines new rules that aim to assure social distancing.

In such pandemic-conscious affairs, the usual jovial congratulations with kisses and hugs at the entrance are to be replaced with checking temperatures and offering sanitizers. Under the regulation, no one will dance but the grooms and brides. No group photos are to be taken, and gifts are to be placed in a box rather than pinned on the bridal couple as tradition dictates. Gone are the big fat Turkish weddings with lavish celebrations, before and after parties, and the halay — a traditional dance where people dance shoulder to shoulder in a line, similar to the dabke in the Middle East) — where bachelors in the wedding rub shoulders.

Fahrettin Koca, Turkey’s health minister whose terse twits often names and shames those who deviate from his ministry’s coronavirus measures, relented on the halay tradition, tweeting that it was alright to do it as long as people held something like a pole between them, rather than dance shoulder to shoulder.

But on July 8, the minister threatened to send "observers" to the weddings to ensure that the measures were respected. "When we look at the filiation in the new cases, we see that some people [catch Covid-19] at weddings," he said. "One couple's happiness should not cause the misery of others."

His proposal of dispatching observers to weddings and engagement parties has drawn quick reactions in the Twittersphere. "Perhaps we should request international observers," said one tweet.

“Of course it would have been nicer [to have a traditional wedding], but given the risk, this was the best we can do, and it is not too bad,” Sinan told cameras shortly before he swirled his bride, who kept everyone including the groom at a safe distance with her full skirt, on the empty dance floor.

Despite measures taken across wedding halls all across the country to comply with the regulations, wedding high-season months July and August are expected to be a pale shadow of previous years.

“I should have at least three people here on a regular June afternoon,” Belma Ates complained as she discontentedly eyes her empty bridal boutique in downtown Izmir. “It is, after all, the wedding season,” she said.

Her bridal shop is empty save two assistants carefully putting the last touches on a creamy white gown with a full train. Later, they will sew a face mask trimmed with lace and embroidered with semi-precious stones to go with the gown.

Ates’ bridal shop, located at the coastal city’s wedding district near the historical center, has a sign at her door announcing it does not sell gowns to brides under the age of 18, the legal age in Turkey, where, despite the law, child marriages are on the rise. In March, shortly after the first official COVID19 case was announced in Turkey, Ates said she would provide masks for all wedding gowns she designed. At the end of March, however, the Turkish government put a stop to all weddings — delivering a heavy blow to Turkey’s billion-dollar wedding industry that touches many sectors from florists to furnituremakers.

“Now that people can get married again, the business is picking up slowly,” Ates told Al-Monitor.

The coastal city of Izmir, which hosts one of the largest bridalwear fairs in Europe every February, is jokingly referred to as Turkey’s capital of marriage and, ironically, divorce. The owners of the city’s bridal shops like to claim that 70% of all wedding gowns in Turkey come from Izmir. Ates’ boutique — a mid-scale enterprise — makes 250 wedding gowns a year, but her customers come from all over the region. “I have customers in Dubai, Palestine and Lebanon who are already inquiring about my masked gowns,” she said.

From Cairo to Gaza, business-savvy fashion designers are busy adding bejeweled masks to their creations. The idea, explained Ates, is to have a largely decorative mask be used above a regular surgical mask. “It will not be comfortable, but then, the wedding will not take six hours as it used to before the coronavirus outbreak,” she said.

Extravagant Turkish weddings, which are an occasion for the families to show off, included a henna party before the wedding and an after-party where the couple and friends danced the night away. In more conservative families, parallel weddings take place in which women and men entertain themselves in separate places for religious reasons.

“All this meant that we designed not one but several bridal gowns: one for the entrance and the civil ceremony, one for the wedding party and walking through the tables, and another for the after-party,” explained Ates, adding, “And, of course, for the henna party too. But now we only design one, often with full skirts to facilitate social distancing.”

“We organizers will do our best to ensure social distancing, but a whole lot depends on the guests. Some rules are downright impossible. How can you make sure there is only one family per table? What about the traditional table where both families sit together?” Yonca Oner, co-owner of Ankara-based wedding planner Bloomy Studio, told Al-Monitor. 

She predicts that business will come back as many people will want to get married before the predicted second wave of the virus, but they will hold smaller affairs, and possibly many people — family elders or celebrities — will turn down invitations. “It is unlikely that there would be major, headline-grabbing weddings, huge Insta affairs,” Oner said.

Ankara’s headline-grabbing political weddings have stopped for the time being, says another manager who works in a five-star hotel in the capital. Speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, the manager said, “Those marriage ceremonies, where top businessmen or political heavy-weights tried to get the president or the prime minister to be the witnesses or guests of honor, were plum events for the marriage planners and the hotels because the parents would spare no expense. But it is impossible to hold them now. Could anyone expect the president or the first lady to attend a wedding wearing a mask?” she said, adding, “COVID-19 has infected our healthy wedding sector.”

The pandemic has also left its mark on slogans put on wedding cars. “I have poured cologne on your path to stop COVID/ Let’s wed before it gets morbid,” read the bumper of a bridal car in the central Anatolian city of Konya.

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