Bulgarian Pomaks carry on the traditional wedding rite

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Ribnovo (Bulgaria) (AFP) – The wedding of 21-year-old Nefie Eminkova and her 24-year-old fiance Schaban Kiselov is an extravaganza of bright colors, flowers, feasting and dancing.

But the bride, who is from the Pomak minority in Bulgaria, cannot see any of this.

His eyes should be kept tightly closed until a Muslim priest blesses the couple.

The couple follow a traditional, centuries-old winter wedding rite that their small community nestled in the southern Rhodope Mountains was forced to abandon during communism but has resumed since the fall of the regime in 1989.

The ritual spans two full days, beginning with a lavish display of the bride’s dowry.

The ritual spans two full days, starting with a lavish presentation of the bride’s dowry Nikolai DOYCHINOV AFP

It includes “everything you can think of” a new family might need, says Nefie.

Handmade socks, crochet baby blankets, and bedding hang on wooden scaffolding across the street, next to a fully made marital bed and a TV.

– Silk flower garlands –

The climax of the wedding comes at the end of the second day with the “gelina” – the face painting of the bride.

Privately and away from the prying eyes of the men, two older women in the family cover Nefie’s face with a thick layer of white makeup, then decorate it with multi-colored sequins.

The bride's dowry is displayed in the street for the villagers to see
The bride’s dowry is displayed in the street for the villagers to see Nikolai DOYCHINOV AFP

They cover her hair with a red scarf and frame her painted doll face with garlands of silk flowers and streaks of shiny garlands, making her unrecognizable.

She is then presented to her future husband wearing a traditional outfit consisting of loose dark purple pants, a multi-colored apron and bodice, and henna painted fingertips contrasting with her simple blue jeans and blazer. noir.

Nefie holds up a hand mirror and secretly glances at her face. She will only be allowed to open her eyes wide after the Imam blesses the new couple and her husband has washed her face with milk in their new home.

Lots of food and dancing to the music of zurnas and drums ensure the success of the wedding festivities but there is no alcohol
Lots of food and dancing to the music of zurnas and drums ensure the success of the wedding festivities but there is no alcohol Nikolai DOYCHINOV AFP

Lots of food and dancing to the music of zurnas and drums ensure the success of the wedding festivities, but there is no alcohol.

The renewal of a forbidden tradition

“This is how people get married here and we also like it to be that way,” Nefie told AFP before the makeup of “gelina”.

Nefie and Schaban will leave Ribnovo, a mountain village of around 3,000 inhabitants, for Germany in the spring, where the young man has a small flooring business.

Nefie and Schaban will leave their mountain village of around 3,000 inhabitants for Germany in the spring, where the young man has a small flooring business.
Nefie and Schaban will leave their mountain village of around 3,000 inhabitants for Germany in the spring, where the young man has a small flooring business. Nikolai DOYCHINOV AFP

Like many other Bulgarians, he was forced abroad in search of a job and a better income, and only returned briefly for marriage.

“My parents weren’t lucky enough to have such a marriage and I decided to do it the old fashioned way in order to make them happy, they look even happier than us,” Schaban said.

The Bulgarian communist regime after WWII until 1989 was particularly hostile to the country’s large Muslim minority.

Two older women in the family cover Nefie's face with a thick layer of white makeup and decorate it with multi-colored sequins.
Two older women in the family cover Nefie’s face with a thick layer of white makeup and decorate it with multi-colored sequins. Nikolai DOYCHINOV AFP

The Pomaks – Slavs who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule – were particularly oppressed and forced to give up their colorful clothing as well as their marriage and circumcision rites during the 1970s.

There are around 200,000 Pomaks living in Bulgaria today, but only Ribnovo and another village in the south maintain the ancient marriage rites.

This is thanks to the geographic isolation of Ribnovo and the “encapsulation” of its community, explains professor of ethnology Evgenia Ivanova.

Nefie Eminkova's in-laws were delighted that she and their son were lucky enough to have the kind of marriage they couldn't have
Nefie Eminkova’s in-laws were delighted that she and their son were lucky enough to have the kind of marriage they couldn’t have Nikolai DOYCHINOV AFP

And while only a handful of weddings take place each winter in Ribnovo, the same Muslim ritual is also observed in neighboring Turkey to south-eastern Bulgaria.


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