Lipstick, mixed dancing at first Raqqa wedding since ISIS

Female fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces making the "V" sign in Raqqa on Oct 18, 2017.
Female fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces making the "V" sign in Raqqa on Oct 18, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

RAQQA, SYRIA (AFP) - At a house in Syria's Raqqa, women and men danced together in celebration at a wedding that would have been unimaginable just months ago, when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group ruled the city.

Residents said that Ahmad and Heba's wedding, held last Friday (Oct 27) in Raqqa's western neighbourhood of Jazra, was the first in the city since US-backed forces seized it on Oct 17.

Out on the patio, a man in a dark robe and a thick puffer vest spun his prayer beads to the beat as he led a line of men and women in the dabke, a Levantine dance performed at celebrations.

The dancers hopped and swayed to and fro as children ran around. Elders looked on approvingly from seats and benches on the edge of the makeshift dance floor. Almost everything in the scene would have been impossible during the three years of brutal ISIS rule.

The group banned music and dancing, imposed a strict dress code, prevented women from wearing make-up, and forcefully prohibited the mixing of men and women.

But in Jazra on Friday, music mingled with the sound of generators providing the only electricity in the ravaged district, which like much of the city was heavily damaged during more than four months of fighting.

Jazra was one of the first districts of Raqqa to be captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that broke into the city in June.

The groom's family, unlike many others who fled Raqqa during the fighting, were able to return to their neighbourhood and celebrate. "We're very happy, it's the first wedding since the jihadists left," Ahmed's father Uthman Ibrahim said as he received guests.

"Before ISIS, there was dabke, songs and the traditional rituals of the region at our marriages, but ISIS banned everything, there was not a single celebration," the man in his fifties said. "Today it's a return to joy," he added, his face lit up with happiness.

An elderly man, wearing a long robe and a pristine white headscarf, performed mawals, unaccompanied poetic songs sung across the Middle East.

Female guests, forced under jihadist rule to wear all-enveloping black including gloves and face veils, took obvious delight in sporting patterned robes and bright red lipstick.

Some covered their hair with matching patterned scarves, while others, including the bride, had their locks coiffed for the occasion.

Seated on plastic chairs, the young bride and groom looked slightly nervous.

Eighteen-year-old Ahmad wore a traditional brown robe, while his new wife was dressed in a frothy white wedding dress, a layer of tulle embroidered with a floral pattern draped over its ballgown bottom.

A delicate veil edged with white flowers rested on her tightly curled hair, and a gold headpiece dangled over her eyebrows, darkened with make-up. Her hands were painted with henna patterns and she fiddled nervously with a bouquet of artificial flowers.

Around the couple, guests took photos with mobile phones while little girls also made-up with darkened eyebrows and coloured lips danced to the beat of the music. Other children handed out water or brought chairs for late arrivals.

"It's been a long time since we've had a party," said Umm Ahmed, the groom's 25-year-old cousin, dressed in a traditional robe with black hair tumbling over her shoulders."We're celebrating with joy this marriage after the end of ISIS' rule," she said with a large smile.

The smell of perfume hung in the air, and women ululated in celebration. Khalaf al-Mohammed, another of the groom's cousins, was delighted by the celebration.

"It's been years since we danced the dabke, we're tasting life again," the 27-year-old said, leading the line of dancers and spinning his prayer beads.

"Everyone was waiting for this moment. What use is there to a wedding when everything is black?" he asked, referring both to the robes ISIS imposed on women and to the colour of the group's flag. "Today everything is white," he said, with a smile.

For now, Raqqa is virtually uninhabitable, with many buildings destroyed and large parts of the city off-limits for fear of unexploded ordnance. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the fighting and many residents are still searching for missing family members.

But for the wedding guests, the celebration was a glimmer of hope for the future.

"Raqqa will be happy again," said Ms Khaldiya, the groom's aunt, as she tapped out a beat on a small drum. "No one will prevent us from singing and dancing," the 30-year-old said. "We will party as we like."