How a Muslim Proved My Faith to Me

As one of the only American photographers living in the Kingdom of Bahrain, my services were in high demand, especially by expats who longed for pictures to memorialize their time in the Middle East but who were still American enough to want Pinterest-worthy flare.

During my three years living in the Kingdom, I worked with people from all over the world but had never been approached by an actual Bahraini citizen. I was told by locals that human portraiture is frowned upon by some Muslim scholars. So I was surprised when Sarafina contacted me to photograph her modern – but decidedly Muslim – wedding.

Initially, I turned her down. I hadn’t broken into the wedding market yet and balked at the idea of my pioneer moment being a Lebanese-Palestinian-Bahraini wedding celebration. I’m a white, Christian female from the deep south of the U.S.A.; my southern drawl a dead-giveaway of my roots. Visions of the many cultural traps I could (very likely) tumble into swirled through my mind like some politically incorrect nightmare. So, I typed out an email to Sarafina, respectfully declining, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

I underestimated Sarafina’s determination and skill at negotiation. Before I knew it, I was sitting across from her at a local coffee shop, service agreement in hand, realizing I’d never met anyone quite like her. Decked out in a tailored pair of jeans and black stiletto heels, her raven hair falling all around her shoulders and bright red lips curled into a gorgeous smile, she didn’t look the picture of the Muslim bride I’d had in my mind. We discussed her work with an international finance company, her U.S. education as well as her modern wedding, set in the midst of a traditional culture. We talked faith and family and I admitted my fears of bungling her big day.

“I chose you because I love your work,” she assured me.

Only I wasn’t reassured at all. I spent the next few weeks agonizing over the wedding, my stomach lurching each time I thought of all the things that could go wrong. I had professional jitters, yes. I had grave concerns about angles and lenses and lighting. But my real fears centered around being a part of a Muslim celebration, where I worried my very presence might be an offense. Sarafina reiterated that although her family was traditional, they knew I’d be photographing the wedding and were totally on board.

My fears weren’t assuaged.

On her wedding day, I was nearly hyperventilating on the drive to the opulent resort where the festivities were to be held. I’d checked and double-checked my gear; I had my game plan, but my nerves were shot nonetheless. Out of utter desperation, I began to pray the same prayer I’d uttered for weeks leading up to this point.

Father, enable me to put myself aside and be an encouragement and support for Sarafina. Help me be a comfort to her.

Prayer did what it seems to do and my breathing returned to normal. Calmed and collected, and hopeful that I’d prove myself to Sarafina and her family, I went on to photograph one of the most beautiful celebrations of which I’ve ever been a part. Men performed a high-octane traditional Lebanese wedding dance, and women showered Sarafina with rose petals and money to high-pitched ululations. The decadent food and stunning jewels, the decorative burqas, abayas and hijabs the women donned when the men were present, dazzled me to the point that I found myself giggling with joy throughout the night.

At one point, as I photographed the entire family in a group shot of silly posing, I marveled at being a lone American woman in a gathering full of Arab Muslims who were hugging one another, sticking out their tongues at me and belly laughing for my camera. They not only made me welcome, but they also shared their unreserved and uncomplicated joy with me.

A few weeks later, I sat across from Sarafina at the same coffee shop, reviewing proofs and finalizing details. Her soulful brown eyes locked onto mine as she said: “You know, you were such a comfort to me. My family tradition doesn’t include the sort of pre-wedding preparations I chose and I would have been all alone if you hadn’t been there to help me. You were my encouragement and support.”

Stunned, my eyes brimming with tears, I told Sarafina about my prayers leading up to her wedding day. “You are saying my very prayer back to me,” I whispered, in awe.

She reached across the table and grabbed my hands and we smiled through tears, both of us feeling we’d been given some beautiful gift.

I walked home that night appreciating the hot, sandy roads, and the thick aroma of grilled meats and naan bread cooking in open brick ovens. I’d come to this exotic middle eastern kingdom wondering where I’d fit into a culture and community so different from my own. Would I find myself quite alone in this desert place?

My mind played back scenes from the wedding – Sarafina’s mother hugging her close in a private corner, little children dancing and feasting and running amok, a loving family with their arms around one another – and I knew that these people weren’t all that different from me. I could live among them, get to know them, perhaps even love them, and find myself less alone than I'd ever been.

A delicious shiver came over me as I looked up at the silver moon above my neighborhood mosque and realized that I’d set out to prove myself to Sarafina, but she’d actually proven my faith to me.

Amber Jones