Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Kazakh Wedding

The bride and groom, plus "best man" and "maid of honor," sitting at their special table at the head of the room. Apparently, the balloon arch cost 20,000 tenge, more than the fur coat I bought here.

My very first Kazakh wedding started two hours late. Apparently this is common, because my host mom didn't even plan to leave the house until an hour after it was supposed to start, and then when we were running late she wasn't in the least bit worried. And with good reason. When we showed up at 5:45, the room was only a third full. As if by magic, though, by 6:00 the room was packed and the ceremony began.

The actual marriage had happened the month before, and this was one of two receptions that were being held. Both the family of the bride and the family of the groom must hold a reception. The actual marriage is simply the boring and official business of going to the wedding registry office (ZAGS) and filling out the paper work. No one goes alone for this tedious task except the groom and bride. The real party is at the receptions.

This particular reception was thrown by the groom's side, and, like most celebrations thrown by anyone who can afford it, it was held in a restaurant. (Restaurants here aren't for casually going out to eat, but for big parties. Cafes are for informal occasions.) At 6:00, the bride and groom entered the room and stood on a cloth spread on the floor in the middle of the room. An empty plate was in front of them. The musicians began to sing a song, calling out certain people's names at the end of each line, and those people paraded up to put some money on the plate in front of the bride and groom. As I found out later, this money is for the singer, not the couple. At the end, the groom lifted his bride's veil in an ancient custom, and the ceremony was over. I was glad it was quick, because all the guests were standing, crammed together in an attempt to have a good view of the bride and groom.

The bride and groom, with the plate for collecting tips for the musicians.

Following the lifting of the veil, it was time for food. Tables at the other side of the room were already spread with a vast array of salads and a large selection of drinks. I sat at a table with many teachers from my school. Since the groom's mother is our school psychologist, many of us were invited.

There were so many salads, there was no more space on the table.

While we ate salads, the musicians performed a variety of pop songs. Sometimes, people would get up to dance to them. Sometimes, everyone would get up to dance, including the old grandmothers and the respectable housewives and the stoic old men. After my first refusal, I decided that I'd better be culturally polite and got up to join them. Little did I know, this was only the beginning of the discoteca.

In between songs, groups of people were called to the front of the room to make toasts. Every time people were talking the bride and groom had to stand; I don't know how they managed to eat anything all evening, because people here are very long winded when it comes to toasts. After the toasts, one of the group would normally sing a short song while others went around clinking their glass with everyone at the various tables.

I should have given up any hope of anonymity long ago, but somehow I convinced myself that I would escape the toast-giving. No such luck. In fact, I wasn't even called up in a group, but all by myself, the special guest from America. While I walked up to the front of the room, cheeks burning, my host mom scuttled beside me, whispering the words to a simple toast and giving me the names of the bride and groom, which I promptly forgot.

Because so many toasts eventually get repetitive, most of the time people just keep right on eating and chatting while the well-wisher speaks into the microphone. But I am still a curiosity, and so all 150 guests put down their forks and turned toward me. I got even redder. I managed to say, in barely passable Kazakh, “My name is Anna Rodgers. I'm from America. This wedding is very good and beautiful. I wish you happiness.” I was supposed to wish the bride and groom happiness, but I forgot their names, so I just wished happiness to everyone in the room.

Then I had to sing a song, so I sang the only Kazakh song I know, “Kozimning Karasi.” I only know the words to the first verse, and normally this serves me just fine, because once you start singing everyone joins in and you can just mumble your way through the rest. But when you're singing into a microphone, this foolproof method doesn't work any more, so I only sang the first verse. But I was rewarded for my efforts. In addition to receiving presents, the bride and groom give presents to their guests, normally little trinkets like a scarf or a pack of tissues. I got a mirror and comb, which somewhat offset the embarrassment of what I'd just done.

After an hour and a half of munching on salads, the main dish came out. It was, of course, the Kazakh national dish, beshfarmak. This beshfarmak had special, expensive meat for the occasion: horse. Actually, horse meat is quite tasty, much better than mutton. One of the men at our table began cutting up the large chunks and distributing the meat to our individual plates. Almost immediately after the food was served, a lady came around with a roll of plastic bags and gave everyone one. They were for taking home the leftovers. I started to eat the meat off my plate, but my host mom stopped me. “Eat the meat from the central, shared dish,” she admonished, as she quickly bagged up my portion and tucked it in her purse. Despite the occasion, we still ate with our hands. Later, the mother of the groom came over and showed me particular respect by giving me an extra bag of horse meat, containing one of the finer cuts.


Cutting up the horse meat so we can eat it with our hands.

The remains of our beshbarmak.

It was only after the meat was nearly gone that the disco began in earnest. For the next 1 ½ hours, everyone went a cleared portion of the floor and had a great time dancing. Although I was not the most awkward dancer in the room, I was close to it. Thankfully, I was the only American, and that forgives a multitude of faults. I even got asked to dance several of the slow dances, though after a while I think the men figured out that getting their toes stepped on while I tried to keep time, stiff as a board with sweaty palms, was not worth even the honor of dancing with an American, and they stopped asking. The fast dances were much more fun, though. I saw a lot of traditional Kazakh dance moves combined with more modern styles, several congo lines were started, and only a few people were ever sitting out at one time. Mostly, people stood in a circle (there were several circles at one time, because of the large number of guests), dancing around the edges while two or four of the better dancers would take turns in the middle doing more complex moves. I was called out to the middle at least twice, and out of politeness couldn't refuse. I tried to copy the moves of my partner as best I could, and hoped that they attributed my red face to exertion rather than embarrassment.

Finally, at midnight, tea was served. There was a huge spread of cakes, cookies and chocolates, but most of these also went into bags to go home. It was late, and although the discoteca seemed to be starting up again, we had school the next day, so most of the teachers slipped out after filling their bags. The whole evening was very enjoyable, but now I know to work on my dancing and toast-giving skills.


  1. Sounds like a fun and enlightening evening Anna! Some of the best steak I ever had was horse. Horse hamburger isn't so good though. Take care chica!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story! My children were born in Kazakhstan and I am always looking for pix, history and stories to share with them. I think they will love the part when you had to give the toast and about all the desserts ;-)

  3. That's so wonderful that you're helping them remember their culture! They'll really appreciate that when they grow up!