The title poem from my Arachne Press collection, The Significance of a Dress, is set in a wedding hire shop in a refugee camp in Iraq. People can be left in limbo, unable to return to the country they’ve left, and not yet able to integrate into the country they’ve applied for asylum in. Processing applications is rarely a priority and people can find themselves in camps for years, decades even. The camps’ residents are mostly young men. One reason is that they don’t have caring responsibilities so it’s easier for them to travel alone and they’re often sent on ahead, with other relatives planning to join them once they’ve settled. Another reason is that they are at risk of being conscripted either into the armed forces or into rebel militia. While girls don’t generally have that concern, girls do have to find ways of coping with sexual harassment and finding protection. In the camps, refugees are still expected to pay for food and utilities. Women can find themselves thrust into finding ways of becoming a family’s main breadwinner. No doubt some marriages are love matches, but others are about buying protection or settling dowries. Whatever the motivation behind the marriage, “a bride still wants to feel special, at least for one day.” When “The future is tomorrow. Next year is a question./ A wedding is a party, a sign of hope.”
In most cultures, a bride-to-be is made to feel that a wedding dress is the most significant choice she has. It may be an heirloom dress, worn by a mother or grandmother. It may be a dress of her choosing that incorporates memories of family members who can no longer attend the wedding, whether a sash in a late relative’s favourite colour, a borrowed pair of shoes, or a favourite flower in the bride’s bouquet. Some women have been planning their dress long before there was a groom. Whether the bride is looking for an extravagant ballgown or a slinky sheath for a beach wedding, or a trouser suit, it’s also likely to be the most expensive dress she’ll buy. Most brides will plan to shop with close friends or relatives, with the expectation of being put centre stage with a wide choice to try on. Where do you find a wedding dress if you’re stuck in a camp, possibly with restrictions on where you can travel and shop, and still under cultural pressure to make your day significant?
In one camp a woman, who’d worked in the fashion industry, set up a wedding hire shop to earn for her family. The title poem is based on an interview with her. The dresses were original brought in via her former fashion industry contacts, but she also uses seamstresses based in the camp to repair and alter gowns. A team of beauticians offer hair and make-up styling that won’t melt in the desert heat and will stay in place in the humid evenings so that the bride can have her big day. There is a risk some of the brides are underage, and the staff in the shop never ask the bride-to-be how old she is. A small group of women can’t police a camp, and they understand the desperation of a family.
My poem Casting a Daughter Adrift (from Time and Tide), looks at a wedding from a mother’s viewpoint. This mother has turned to needlework to earn money to feed the family, but it aware she can’t offer much protection against the harassment in the camps, “This man I have agreed to/ in her father’s absence/ I hope will protect her.” The journey from what was hope to the camp has aged her, “The shop’s cracked, foxed mirror/ tells me I’m decades older than my bones.” Neither of them can go back, “The house she was born in is rubble”. Yet she still wants this day to be special for her daughter, “The final payment is the last of my savings/ but I have one less mouth to feed.” Despite her desperation, she is proud of her daughter, “I’m going to let her go,/ my desert flower will bloom.”
Whatever your feelings on marriage, whether you want to get married or not, it’s hard to resist the idea of a wedding as a celebration and a note of hope amongst people whose lives have been devastated by war.
Emma Lee is a regular contributor to our anthologies, and her collection The Significance of a Dress, really fell foul of the Corona virus, with multiple events cancelled, and one of the launches delayed and venue moved. Instead of moping (which must have been tempting) Emma has been very generous with her time, writing this blog and contributing interviews to the website.
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