The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
Hymen in Nazareth
My first experience of life in the Holy Land was at Nazareth, in an orphanage for girls, of whom there were seventy, varying in age from eight to eighteen, and gleaned from all over Palestine. Two years I devoted to learning the language, and studying the character of the people among whom I was to work—not a very difficult task the latter, as they are simple, folk ingenuous and unsophisticated.
One teacher, who came to give me lessons during the Summer holidays, seemed very preoccupied one day. He gave me difficult letters in Arabic hand-writting to read, but paid no heed to my progress; instead of which, twice he most laboriously wrote the words "Would you like" on a slate he held in his hand, but could get no further. At last, exasperated, I stood up, remarking that I had had enough Arabic for that day. He stood up too, and without any preamble said, "Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?" "Certainly not," I firmly replied, and left the room. That teacher was dismissed.
There were many difficulties, amusing as well as tragical, arising out of English ladies trying to run a school and after English methods, in a Bible town with customs almost 2000 years old. The worst of these difficulties was the marriage question. The suddenness with which betrothals took place was most disconcerting. No girl in an orphanage was safe. Any day a galaxy of relations might turn up, ask for the Lady superintendent, and request to remove poor Hannah or Mary, as she had been betrothed and until her marriage—be she 8 or 12—must be kept concealed at home.
On Sundays it was the Orphanage custom to inarch the 70 girls across an admiring town, and out to the little Church that stood at the other extreme end of Nazareth.
Now, at any or every corner of the narrow, winding streets, lounged groups of old women, who often were related to fond parents or had simply been engaged by them to select a bride for some youth of 14—possibly 40—summers. These women would peer disconcertingly into the shy girls' faces as they passed. A few days later maybe, a sound of loud drumming and shouts of feasting and merry-making might be wafted up to the Orphanage on its lofty heights. Then the girls would look at each other—which of them was it? Far more likely than not, some unfortunate child had been decided upon, her people consulted, and her betrothal was even then going on down in the village. The next day she would be sent for, and taken home to be kept in hiding until her wedding day. What a day that usually was. Early in the morning she was brought forth, and seated on a dais clothed in beautiful raiment", ready for inspection by all the female relations of the groom, approval or disapproval being more or less freely expressed, Poor girls. There they had to sit for hours, eyes firmly closed, and almost always their tears were quietly falling all the time on their folded hands. A bridesmaid stood beside generally, and gently wiped the tears away.
After the ceremony at the Church to which the women folk escorted the bride and the men the groom, both were taken to the groom's father's house. Here, before entering, a picturesque scene, depicting the bride's intensely practical future, took place. First, amid bursts of wedding songs, an ordinary jar filled with water was lifted and placed on the" bride's head for a few moments, signifying that henceforth she was to be the water carrier of the family. When that was over, a small lump of dough was put into her hand. This she had to stick on to the lintel of the groom's door, which meant that she was to be the bread-maker of his future family. After this she was escorted, amid wild jubilation, into the bosom of his homestead. This often was occupied by parents, numerous sisters and brothers, the latter perhaps possessing wives and families—sometimes cousins and their families too. She "joined the clan" literally. Inside two seats were placed for the happy couple, which they mounted in state. A little later, a woman came up behind them, and without any ado' struck their heads together sharply. Then both were made to rise, the groom lifted up the bride's veil, and threw it over his shoulder, as a sign that the "Government would be upon his shoulder"—to use a biblical term. This was supposed to be his first sight of his spouse. On rare occasions, a catastrophe occurs. Once a groom refused to have his allotted wife under any consideration, and insisted on marrying one of the dancing girls present instead. It had to be done, too.