We got to the place at a reasonable time, which is to say, over two hours late. The wedding celebration was being held at a restaurant that caters specifically to such events. A picture of the bride and groom perhaps ten feet tall and twelve feet across greeted us as we ascended the steps and entered the brightly lit foyer. We checked our coats. The banquet hall was ahead of us and to the right. The walls were white with gold painted molding. The ceiling was red and sheen and reflected the lights of the glittering chandeliers. The carpet was red and gray and was woven in a swirling floral pattern. Some 25 round tables were spread throughout the room, mostly full, with the bride and groom’s square table set up on a raised platform to one side facing the guests.
As we entered, one group had already been called forward to stand before the couple and bestow upon them their blessings and best wishes. We looked around for table number 17, the table to which we had been assigned. We sat and attempted to introduce ourselves to our tablemates. The booming voice of the emcee and snippets of music his audio team played to back him up nearly swallowed up all other voices, so we sat and looked at each other. We slowly figured out our table was composed of friends of the bride. She had been one of our first language teachers when we arrived in the country. Others were old classmates. Some worked with her.
Almost immediately, we were served. The table was covered in food. Stands held plates of fruit, fresh round bread, fried bread, crunchy sweet treats, chicken, fish, and candy. Around the middle sat plates full of different types of salads. I recognized the Caesar salad. Another one contained crab meat and hunks of cheese. Another was a mix of meat and vegetables. A waitress brought out a bowl of soup and served me Coke and her choice of the salads. Then she gave me some fish and some chicken. At some point a meat filled pastry appeared on my plate. As did some more salads and stuffed horse intestine. And my glass of Coke was never less than half full.
Several other groups were called up to address the bride and groom. During lulls in the program, we tried to get in as much conversation as possible before the music and speaking made that impossible. The three to our right worked with the bride at the university where she taught. The man, dressed in a bright blue suit, was her boss. Where Coke had been my drink of choice for the evening, his had been vodka. His shot glass was refilled as often as my glass of Coke. He was certainly enjoying himself.
Then we danced. If possible, the music was turned up even louder and blared local techno pop songs. And how these people can dance. All of them. Young and old alike. Those from our table naturally formed a circle. At times Mr. Blue Suit took to the middle, and a young lady from the group would join him. At one point two grandmotherly ladies joined our circle and danced in the middle with the young man. And it seemed marital status had very little to do with the selection of dancing partners. Several young couples were in our group, and yet they danced interchangeably with each other.
When the music died down, we headed back to our table, and the others decided we should sit men together on one side and women together on the other side. I grabbed my glass and found my new place. Then we ate some more. This time it was a heaping plate of beef with vegetables served with rice. I had more Coke. Mr. Blue Suit and the other two guys at my table kept knocking back shots of vodka. “I have to drive tonight,” I told them when they insisted I have some vodka. “Oh that’s OK. You can just call Drunk Taxi.” I asked them how that worked. “Two guys come. One drives you home, and the other drives your car home. It costs about five dollars.” I guess the alternative would be worse.
More groups were called to give their blessings to the new couple. At one point the bride’s sister came over and greeted all of us. She insisted on dumping some of her vodka into my Coke. “So that some of my happiness can spill over into you,” she said.
More dancing. More blessings. Several people sang solos in honor of the couple. A man in a mask appeared and danced with a flaming baton. Then he bent a metal pole, a volunteer holding one end and the other end resting somewhere below his voice box.
The time came for us to stand before the bride and groom and wish them the best. I stood in the back of the group. It didn’t help. The emcee pointed me out, and they handed me the microphone. But I had had a feeling. I had been to weddings before. I whipped out my phone and glanced over the blessing I had already written out. I told them to stay together whether life was easy or hard. I wished them God’s peace and love. And, borrowing a local friend’s words, I wished that their clasped hands would never be loosened. A woman handed Laura a scarf and me a coffee mug. Then we returned to our table.
More dancing. More blessings. Our tablemates, who, hours before, were complete strangers, were becoming new friends. Then came the real meal, the one everyone eagerly awaits. One of their most prized traditional foods translated is called five fingers. That’s because they used to eat it with their hands. It’s a simple food. Life a hundred years ago was much simpler than it is now. The dish consists of long noodles cooked in sheep fat served with horse meat. Waiters carried in the food on large round trays, one tray balanced on each hand. A fanfare accompanied their entrance. Then the food was served, the people of highest honor receiving the biggest hunk of meat.
The remaining groups stood and blessed the bride and groom. The waiters and waitresses brought out plastic bags, and we all filled them with the copious amounts of food that still remained on the table–including the hunk of horse meat on my plate. You always leave large events like this with at least one bag of food to take home, if not more. I assured the other young men at my table that I didn’t need to call Drunk Taxi, and I asked them if they did. “We didn’t drive here, so we’ll be fine.” I was glad to hear that. We got our coats and walked out into the still night. Both the chill and the silence were refreshing. It was well past midnight. At least we had gotten there at 7:00 instead of 5:00. It had been a good evening.
And that’s how you celebrate a wedding in Central Asia.