The Jirtig: A Belief As Old As History

KHARTOUM (Sudanow.info.sd) – “Good omens … Noble angels … follow him, our groom!   All goodness … Allah’s goodness, escort and tend to him!”

Who in Sudan doesn’t know these words and savor them as they are uttered by his loved ones on his wedding day? For those already married they invoke the happy events of their wedding days. And for bachelors, they speak of a happy day yet to come. They are words of joy and signal an occasion of fulfillment when religion is complete. That is because of the common wisdom that: marriage is half the religion.

Wedding customs vary in Sudan as do the country’s cultures and ethnic groupings. However, all Sudanese agree upon one social custom: The Jirtig with its amazing representations and production. Many Sudanese, women in particular, consider the jirtig a good omen … a harbinger for a prosperous and enduring married life.

The Jirtig is a typical Sudanese practice, cherished very high by the society that deems it a basic complement of weddings.

By that definition, the jirtig and its requirements take priority when the wedding day draws closer. Families of the new wed take care that the jirtig process is produced in the best way. That is because the jirtig is the first occasion when the bride and groom families sit together as one family surrounded with songs of good wishes and practice its rituals with full conviction that the practice was a good omen for the new couple.

 

Zainab Abdel-Gadir, a citizen of al-Sayyid al-Makki neighborhood of Omdurman has told Sudanow how the jirtig processes are performed:

A black bead hanging down from two red hog at the far end of the jirtig tray.

A black bead hanging down from two red hog at the far end of the jirtig tray.

Omdurman’s old and new suburbs are still careful about the jirtig and consider it the most important of the wedding processes. The jirtig day is a source of pride and honor for the families of the new weds.  The jirtig is usually performed late at night after the wedding party, following the bridal dance. Well to do families sometimes organize the jirtig ceremony on a separate day and at a hired wedding hall, perhaps to parade their financial might.

When the scene is set for the jirtig , party a brim- embroidered,  red-covered wooden bed is brought in. That is the throne where the queen of the night is made to sit.  She is escorted with all fanfare and descends her carefully looked after body on the bed.

Then enters the groom and his family, the latter carrying a heavy black rosary. The groom is wrapped in the well-known surrati toab (cloak) and puts on a golden crescent on his forehead, carefully placed above a white or red piece of cloth.

In his hand the groom carries a gilded sword that he shakes with happiness to the audience during and after hearing the enthusiastic jirtig songs.

The bride’s family then enters carrying a silver plate embroidered with the same colors of the groom dress, usually bright red or crimson. On the tray are arranged plates of sweets, quality dates, different sorts of perfumes, mostly the local sandaliyya and the Parisian fleur d’amour perfumes and Sudanese incenses made from crushed sandal wood that odor the place and add happiness.

Elder women from both families move on to dress the bride a gilded head cover, decorate her body with a black rosary and wrap her forearm with a bundle of silk threads. On her hair parting they put some Sudanese “khomra” perfume.

The British couple

The British couple

Then the groom is made to sit opposite to his bride. The two exchange dates and sweets for seven times. She gives him her handful of dates and sweets and he returns them to her.  Then the groom stands up and distributes these dates and sweets to the audience.

Young girls then roam the place serving the audience with food, dates, sweets, popcorn, pancakes and steaks cooked from a ram slain purposefully for the occasion as a sign of good omen and to drive away evil eyes and envy, and to bring blessings upon the new couple.

Then the bride and groom shower each other with milk amidst the audience’s joy and ovation. Then the place is refreshed with sprays of perfume, with all the audience singing special melodies to the energetic dancing of the brightly ornamented bride. That signals the close of the jirtig party and also the end of the wedding processes.

Jirtig rituals are admired even by non-Sudanese. Last September a Sudanese Director, Ms. Izdihar Mohamed, won the award of the Best Collective Ritual Performance for her theatrical show “jirtig” at Amman International Theatre Festival, Jordan.
Also, a few years ago a newly-wed British couple who work in Sudan expressed interest in the Sudanese rituals of jirtig. The extended family of the prominent politician and ex-Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi organized the rituals for them at al-Mahdi home in Omdurman, inviting many Westerners as well to attend the ceremony.

Dr. Amal Abuzaid Khalifa says in an academic thesis “the jirtig was previously performed on the seventh night of the wedding, known as the soboo (seventh day). It used to be exclusive to the bride as the groom was jirtigized on the first day of the wedding. But now the jirtig is performed for the two in one party. A common characteristic of the jirtig party is that the bride is made to wear beads and bracelets of specific types such as the someeta, fish bone, a green bead, a ring and the usur rosary. These beads and bracelets vary from one ethnic group to another. Both bride and groom put bundles of red to purple silk on their forearms. Raw perfume is put on the couple’s heads. The bride is made to wear a charm encased in leather on her neck or arm. Inside the charm is a folded paper containing verses from the Koran or words written by a holy man.”

10

In addition to Zainab’s narrative, Dr. Amal says both bride and groom are sometimes made to put their feet and hands in a basin filled with oil. Sometimes the groom is escorted to the river where he washes his face and hands three times. Back from the river, he has to carry with him a green date palm branch, what is related in the popular song:

Our groom has gone to the river, Oh! Adeela (good)!

He has cut the palm tree branches Oh! Adeela!

On day fifteen the same party is repeated with the bride and groom decorated in the same way.

Also according to Dr. Amal, the jirtig ceremony begins by slaying a ram as a thanksgiving that the couple is brought into matrimony.

Dr. Asa’ad Abdel-Rahman, Assistant Professor of folklore at the Afro-Asian Studies Institute (University of Khartoum) considers the jirtig a custom‘’ as original as the originality of Sudanese ‘’and which was practiced since times immemorial. This was found in the revelations of the Kerma civilization (2500-1500 BC). A ring was unearthed containing a drawing of the coronation to the throne of a king on the day of his wedding as was the custom. Beside the king sat his bride (the queen).

Dr. Asa’ad says the drawing on the ring represented the jirtig leather-clad bed as we see it today. On it sat both king and queen. Beside them lay a ceramic pot like the one used today by Kordufan tribes to keep milk. The drawing also shows the new weds alternately carrying a child in their arms. This same scene is one of the particulars of the jirtig process up to now. This is an indication that these rituals have kept to be exercised ever since the days of the first Nubian Civilization of Sudan.

Statutes of the Black Pharaohs (Kerma kings) discovered by the prominent Swiss archeologist Charles Bonnet

Statutes of the Black Pharaohs (Kerma kings) discovered by the prominent Swiss archeologist Charles Bonnet

And in the Meroe civilization, that followed the Kerma civilization, a pot known as the hug was found buried in the cemetery of one of its kings as the kings’ precious possessions used to be buried with them. This hug was similar to the one used in the jirtig today, an indication that the jirtig was also practiced in those days. “Accordingly we can conclude that the jirtig is deeply rooted in the Sudan’s heritage .It is a resilient custom that did not fade away with time. It was there all along Sudan’s known history. Moreover, the jirtig’s particulars had remained nearly the same.’’

The jirtig, also according to Dr. Asa’ad, has kept to be practiced ever since the child’s birth, down to his circumcision, his wedding and his death. What is done for the dead is close to what is done in the jirtig. So we have to keep this grand heritage and communicate it to the upcoming generations that should know about the elements of their national identity.

Dr. Asa’ad says the jirtig as a belief is seen as a shield against evil eyes and evil spirits. The dress colors of the jirtig, the costumes put on by the new weds, the color of the silk  rolls and the stripe that keeps the crescent in place, the bright colors used to distract evil eyes from the bride and groom are all seen as a guards against evil.

Mohammad Musa, an attendant at the renowned Abu Merain shops, specialized in wedding and jirtig requirements in Omdurman, says preparations for the jirtig start with the procurement of a red garment and a silk toab (sari) embroidered in golden color. He says red was usually the favorite color for the jirtig. But things have changed with changing times. Some changes were also introduced to the utensils and pots used in the jirtig which were previously made from clay and a special type of wood that does not decay as time passes. These utensils and pots are the “hog” and other dishes and basins where perfumes are put. These have also changed and we can now see new models manufactured abroad by Sudanese craftsmen, though they maintain the same previous colorations and shapes.

Color of the bridal dress is also shifting from red to yellow and other colors to match the color of the tray on which the jirtig utensils are laid. In addition to the garment, we can also see a cap made of pure or fake gold which is worn by the bride. This cap now takes the shape of a crown. Some Gulf and Syrian accessories have also been introduced in the jirtig as part of the bride’s head-wear. The bride also puts on a bundle of silk and a big bead on her forearm.

Mohammad Musa reiterates that all these jirtig accessories have certain significance among elder women as shields against magic and harm.

Musa says that rich Sudanese families are keen about pure gold on this majestic and joyful night, characterized with sweet girls’ singing.

Religious-wise outstanding Islamic scholar Abdel Hai yosif said anything that does not harm the devout Moslem’s faith is permissible in Islam.

He has recounted the well-known fatwa (ruling) that ‘’ all things are permissible, save those prohibited by Islam’’

However, he warned that the jirtig practice had been associated with some sinful conduct.’’ Some women erroneously believe that the jirtig guards against sterility and this is wrong. It contravenes the Koran’s revelation that “Nothing can ever harm us which is not written by Allah for us.’’

Equally, some grooms put on golden jewels and silk and, in Islam, men are prohibited to wear gold and silk, whatsoever.

Further Islam prohibits men to mix with women and this happens in the jirtig. The songs that describe a woman’s body are also not allowed in Islam. The practice when the new weds shower each other with milk is also wrong, as milk is a gift from the Almighty and should not be wasted in this way.’’

Dr. Yosif has advised new-weds to obey the Almighty as ‘’with Allah’s obedience goodness will increase and evil would become less, the angels would come closer and the devils would move farther.’’

“It is imperative for the one whom Allah had honored with the blessing of marriage to thank Him by obeying Him. The new weds have to use the blessing of marriage to serve the Almighty and obey Him. They have to follow The Prophet’s advice to drink milk together and to ask Allah to bless their marriage. They have to enrich their new home with recitation of the Holy Koran.’’

 

E N D

YH/AS