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Back at the House: a Rare Look Inside a Private Reception

The groom's mother jumps into the back of our car. His grandmother climbs in, too. I only wanted to meet the bride, but now I learn that the only way to get to her house is to be escorted by Wael's relatives. Singing and clapping, they shout out of the open windows like high-school cheerleaders.

"We asked for the hand of Maha from her father ... we counted the money for your dowry under the shade of the lemon tree ... you're beautiful and we took you but we ... gave you a man."

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Mother and daughter end each refrain with an "aiy-YEE!" a sort of Palestinian yee-haw.

"We will distribute meat and invite everyone in the village ... Maha's worth all the girls in the West Bank...."

It's been a week since the pomp and politics of the Hamas wedding (story, Page 1), all of which seem far away when two graying women are giggling in the back seat. Their chants carry us all the way to the house of their daughter-in-law to-be, Maha Dweikat. All the men wait outside, and I can hear women inside singing and drumming.

Upstairs, I find Maha sitting like a queen, atop a platform that stands five feet off the ground. Black-haired and thin, she wears a heavily beaded white gown with a heart-shaped collar that stands up like the cape of a superhero. She has curls and pearls and silver sparkles in her hair, five gold chains with religious pendants around her neck, and a thick coat of makeup that is already melting in the July heat. Beneath her white satin gloves, I can see the burnt sienna designs from her henna party - a Middle Eastern tradition in which women decorate their hands and feet the night before a wedding.

Though the others are joyous, Maha doesn't look particularly happy.

But she is proud to tell me that she has agreed in her marriage contract to cover her face, as well as her hair. That's common in places like Saudi Arabia, but rare here. The other women offer words of respect over her plans to lead such a pious life.

"Islamic law says that women should be covered all the way, because it's a shame to show yourself," says Maha, who met Wael while studying Islamic law at an-Najjah University here.

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When it is time to make the bridal procession through town, Maha's parents put a tulle veil over her face. Then they put an orange-and-black scarf over her whole head, and then a black men's cloak over her dress. She looks as though she's being kidnapped.

At the bride's party at Wael's house, the atmosphere is steamy and boisterous. Maha watches from another regal platform, this one with two red armchairs for the bride and groom. Maha sits alone. Wael will stay at the groom's party across the street until all women not related to him leave the house. Then, he'll take Maha to their honeymoon suite and new home: an additional floor he built on top of his family's house.

No food or drink is offered to the guests, but there is joy in the air. Wael's two sisters, well-dressed, coiffed and unveiled, twirl at Maha's feet. Wael's mother, Inaam, dances too. Maha's relatives sit in a row with veils drawn tightly around their heads. They watch without cracking a smile.

Maha also sits looking on the verge of tears. She tells me she's happy, but I am still baffled. It's a month almost to the day since my own wedding, when my feet ached from too much dancing, my face from too much smiling. Finally, someone explains to me that the bride and her parents are not to be seen to be having too much fun. The bride should be melancholy over leaving her parents, and her parents should look sad to be losing their daughter. Celebrating is for the groom's family.

But there are other layers to the contrast. The Dweikats are more fundamentalist that the Hashash family, and they don't seem to approve of the rowdiness of their in-laws. Inaam had not raised her children to be nearly so religious, but Wael grew zealous while in college.

Inaam says that in her day, she never would have agreed to dress the way her daughter-in-law will. Her children's generation, she readily admits, is more interested in religion than hers.

"I used to be very modern and stylish," she says. "But I'm so glad that Maha's a religious girl. Wael didn't want anyone to see his wife except him. Yes, religion is coming back, and it's a blessing."

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