At the wedding of Ibragim Arsanov and Zarema Bashayeva, plum and pear trees were in bloom and the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains formed a picturesque backdrop for the estimated 700 guests at the celebration.
Old men sat at long tables laden with broiled turkeys and bottles of nonalcoholic pear juice, exchanging news and renewing friendships. Young women in billowy dresses and headscarves in yellow, blue and pink pastels milled about in groups, looking like flocks of tropical birds.
Afterward, when the groom learned of such happenings at his wedding, he was pleased the festivities had gone so well, because in keeping with tradition in Chechnya, a small, once war-torn region in the south of Russia, he had missed the party.
So had the bride. She spent her wedding standing silently in a corner, where she had been ushered after Arsanov’s family delivered a sheep to her father in symbolic exchange for the bride to be, also in accordance with tradition.
“The bride just wants this day to be over,” said Marieta Kartoyeva, a university student who was enjoying the party, though aware the bride and groom were having a very different experience, which is typical for weddings in Chechnya.
“It’s not a party” for the bride, she said of Bashayeva, who was standing at the time in her corner, without speaking. “It’s not accepted for the bride even to smile,” Kartoyeva added.
Chechnya is a Muslim region that fought two wars for independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a place where stunning mountains and natural beauty contrast with a dark recent history.
The Islamic religion animated the rebellions, particularly during the second war that began in 1999, but also later played a role in keeping the peace. After the wars, the Russian government made it clear Islam was not the enemy, even encouraging a revival of traditional Sufi Islam, so long as the region remained loyal to Moscow.
Chechens turned to religion to piece together shattered communities, a trend particularly noteworthy at Chechen weddings, where tradition now reigns supreme. One traditional practice that re-emerged during the wars, the kidnapping of brides, has not been revived today.
Arsanov, 49, who is the director of a school teaching foreign languages, and Bashayeva, 23, who aspires to run a small business, met in January at the wedding of a mutual friend — an event that in Chechnya, as almost anywhere else, is a prime opportunity for guests who are single.
“We didn’t talk. We just looked at each other,” Arsanov recalled.
“It was fate,” that brought the pair together, Bashayeva said.
The future couple sat at the same table. But with older family members and strangers around, going any further — such as talking — was out of the question.
But Arsanov was intrigued. He wasted little time in taking the next step. He called a cousin of Bashayeva to set up a date. “I told her relative, ‘I like this girl,’” Arsanov said. The two met at the cousin’s house for tea.
Flirtation and positive signals ensued, Arsanov said. Bashayeva let drop that she hoped to learn English, an encouraging hint for a director of a language school. Arsanov said he admired her for being a woman respectful of tradition but wanting a career as well. Asked what she saw in Arsanov, Bashayeva said, “It is a secret.”
They met again at the cousin’s house. With ongoing, casual dating not an option, the time to make a commitment came quickly for Arsanov.
“In a few days, I asked her,” Arsanov said. “I said, ‘Do you agree to marry me?’ And she said yes.”
The couple married on April 14 in Shalazhi village in Chechnya, home to both their families. Akhmed Beriyev, the imam of the village mosque, officiated.
In keeping with custom, the couple did not exchange vows; instead, each separately committed to the marriage in ceremonies a few hours apart. The bride was married in her father’s home, without the groom present. The groom married in his walnut orchard, also without his bride at his side.
Vows, in Chechnya, are offered to God, the imam and the witnesses, not to the future spouses, who are never to be seen together at their wedding.
The groom turned his expansive backyard into a festive space, furnishing rows of tables with gold-colored tablecloths and fruit bowls. A cook with a pole stirred beef in a gigantic, iron pot brought to a boil over a wood fire.
Important guests arrived. The head of the Chechen Union of Writers turned up, as did the regional minister of education and the chief imam of a neighboring region.
Arsanov comes from a prominent family. His great-grandfather, Deni Arsanov, led a Sufi Muslim order and is revered by some Chechens as a religious figure akin to a saint. Shrines were built in Deni Arsanov’s honor.
Those were big shoes to fill. And at first, it wasn’t clear Ibragim Arsanov, the youngest of four brothers, would be the one to carry on the family tradition.
Chechnya has a history steeped in the blood of revolts and repression. A 19th-century insurgency stretched for decades before the army of Czar Alexander II triumphed. Islam then, as during the post-Soviet wars, was often a rally cry against Orthodox Christian Russia.
But the Arsanov family was an exception. Under the czars, the great-grandfather, though he fought in a rebellion in his youth, had taught a pacifist, Sufi Islamic philosophy of acquiescence to government authority. Religion was an inner path to redemption. Stalin had taken advantage of the family’s religious tradition by encouraging Arsanov’s great-uncle to preach submission to the Soviets.
After the recent Chechen wars, Arsanov, who had been a visiting scholar at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, returned to acquire the plot of land where the grandfather’s madrassa had stood, in the regional capital, Grozny.
He set about rebuilding the school, now called the Deni Arsanov School of Languages and Culture, and reviving his great-grandfather’s legacy of teaching a pacifist strain of Sufi Islam and foreign languages.
On reporting trips to Chechnya over the years, I had stopped at the school and visited with Arsanov, always finding a haven from the glum topics of terrorism and repression that are integral to the region.
The school offers Arabic, English and French, equipping children with skills useful for studying religion as well as for potential careers outside Chechnya.
The wedding, though, was a day for tradition. Arsanov sequestered himself in a corner of his backyard, away from most guests, though those considered close friends visited him in this spot. Through the day the groom should not see his father, signifying his new independence.
Both of Arsanov’s parents had died before the wedding. In place of the father, Abdulrakhman Arsanov, who was an accountant, an older brother, Magomed Arsanov, played the role of the relative from whom the groom hid.
The wedding began in the early afternoon. Arsanov sent a delegation to the bride’s house led by another brother, Adam Arsanov. A sheep, bleating and spooked, was packed into the back of an SUV on plastic sheeting.
The father of the bride, Magomed Bashayev, is a retired construction worker, and the mother, Zulai Bashayeva, owned a stall selling hardware at the local market. The couple had six daughters, of which Zarema Bashayeva is the youngest. “She was the last,” Bashayev said, “and the favorite.”
The groom’s representatives also brought cash, to give directly to the bride, not her father. Religious authorities in Chechnya regulate the sum, to keep a check on bride payment inflation. Still, it went up last year, rising from the ruble equivalent of about $470 to $780.
After the marriage ceremony in the bride’s home, Bashayeva, strangely, was married to Arsanov while he was not yet married to her. A procession of honking cars carried the newlywed to the groom’s home.
Soon enough, the crack of gunshots rang out. A noisy, mock skirmish erupted. Along the way, young men and children in the village pretended, as is expected of them, to try to halt the procession. They blocked the streets with parked cars. Engines revved, cars swerved. In a show of heroism to protect the bride, the groom’s men leapt from their cars, fired a pistol into the air, and challenged those who would block the way.
Once at the groom’s house, Bashayeva stood silently in a corner throughout the hourslong party, her gaze trained on the floor. (The bride is allowed to nibble on some food and take bathroom breaks.) The tradition signifies rebirth into the groom’s family.
Asya Mishiyeva, a journalist living in Grozny, was twice married after being kidnapped, a practice that is now legally banned in Chechnya. In these instances, the man “just comes with his friends and throws you in a car,” she said. “Before, it was on a horse.”
However the marriage is initiated, the wedding ceremony “is a very difficult celebration for the bride,” she said.
“It’s a trial. It’s stress,” Mishiyeva said. Positioned in a corner of a room apart from the guests, the bride “shouldn’t talk to anybody, should not show emotions, should not laugh, and must keep her eyes on the floor.”
Like a newborn, the new wife cannot talk, only “learning” to say a few words later in the afternoon during a process known as untying the tongue.
Guests line up to ask a question of the new wife in exchange for a payment, a profitable portion of the wedding for the woman, though some of the yield is shared with the husband. Even after a payment, she sometimes feigned modesty and remained silent, or answered very briefly.
In a break with New York Times practice of never paying for interviews, after standing in line I paid 5,000 rubles ($77) to ask a question: Was she enjoying her wedding?
“It is good,” was all she said.
We talked after the wedding. Bashayeva said she intended to attend university and was already working on starting her own small business: She wanted to become a wedding planner.
On This Day
When: April 14, 2019
Where: The couple were married in separate Islamic ceremonies at the homes of the bride and the groom in the village of Shalazhi in Chechnya, and a reception was held at the groom’s home.
Details: The reception included traditional elements such as the bride remaining silent through most of the party. The bride at times broke with tradition by stepping away from a corner of a room to take photographs with her girlfriends outside in the spring sunshine.