As diversity grows, Md. catering hall becomes a 'United Nations for weddings'

Maryland catering hall Martin's Crosswinds has become a "United Nations for weddings," incorporating elements from various cultures into their wedding receptions. Here are three recent weddings at the Greenbelt venue.
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Toward the end of her brother's Persian wedding reception at a Greenbelt catering hall, Mitra Elyassi-Castro looked up to see an unexpected sight on the dance floor: four women in elaborate West African tribal costumes. The gate-crashers were quickly welcomed by the delighted Iranian guests, who encircled them, clapping and dancing to the festive Bandari music pouring out of the sound system.

Turns out the women were guests at a wedding reception next door, but "they said they liked our music better," Elyassi-Castro, 36, of Potomac said with a little laugh.

Located in a sterile office park near the Beltway, Martin's Crosswinds could be anywhere, or nowhere. On hot summer weekends, the marble-trimmed and faux Baroque hall hosts as many as a dozen weddings, receptions and other events -- celebrations that have grown as diverse as the region. Staff members now find themselves having to go beyond a wedding's typical perils -- anxious brides, inebriated guests, interfering mothers-in-law -- to juggle complex religious traditions and tastes for a burgeoning ethnic clientele.

"We call this place the 'United Nations' for weddings," said Ben Sarfarazi, Martin's affable major-domo, who himself hails from Iran. He rarely gets weekends off and sometimes works late into the night, describing his workplace as a "lifestyle" rather than a job.

Last weekend alone, there were wedding receptions for Elyassi-Castro's brother -- whose father had been a bodyguard for the deposed shah -- a Haitian bride marrying a groom from Sierra Leone and a couple from Bangladesh, complete with the groom's arrival on a white horse.

There was love, drama, drunkenness and heartbreak -- even a wedding that wasn't. (One would-be bride dumped her groom 10 days before her July 3 wedding date, risking the condemnation of her family and losing more than $16,000.)

Tears were shed. Glasses raised. Life unfolded, one ceremony at a time.

In sickness and health

Sanam Moshtagh had already been through a lot in her young life when she met a handsome Army doctor from Potomac at a medical conference in Hawaii in 2007. Her family had fled Iran when she was a child and lived as refugees in Turkey before ending up in Vancouver. The doctor -- Ali Elyassi, 32 -- had a similar background.

The two fell in love right away. But their strict parents wanted them to put off getting married until Elyassi was finished with his four-year medical residency in head and neck surgery at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.

It was too long to wait. Without telling their parents, they got a civil marriage license and moved in together.

"There was something inside of me that said, 'You are doing this no matter what,' " Moshtagh said.

The reason for her sense of urgency became apparent soon enough: an egg-shaped tumor in her throat that her husband helped diagnose. It was benign but dangerously close to a major artery. Elyassi was at Moshtagh's side through four successive surgeries that left her with strained vocal cords.

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