My Parents’ Wedding Was Arranged. I Wanted Something Different.
Huda Al-Marashi on a Not So Typical American Love Story
People can forgive you different food and customs; they can fall in love with your baklawa; and they can respect you for your long school uniform skirts and opaque tights, and for saying your daily prayers as fast as you can in a corner of your cabin during science camp. But saying you couldn’t have a boyfriend or that you’d likely marry someone whom you had never gone on a date with, made you an alien. It made all the girls in your sixth-grade class circle around you during recess and ask why you couldn’t just go with John; it wasn’t as if he’d be your boyfriend or you had to kiss him or anything. It made the same girls corner you in the restroom at the spring social and ask why you couldn’t just dance with Chris; you were making him so sad, and it was really so selfish and mean to keep saying no. It made the guy in the mall who just asked for your number tell you to go back to Kuwait where you came from.
Not being allowed to date was the issue that plucked me out of the realm of exotic and interesting and planted me firmly into a sad documentary about people from other cultures, the kind that makes its audience walk away grateful to be themselves. In my peers’ insistent questions, their shakes of the head, I could almost see them reflecting on how lucky they were to be holding the keys to their own love lives, when there were girls like me whose mom and dad were going to drive them to the door of their future relationship and take a seat inside.
My peers’ relief bothered me far more than the prohibition against dating itself. Deep down, I wanted to marry the Iraqi, Shia boy who would make my parents proud, someone who prayed and fasted, someone who knew as much Arabic as I did if not more, and someone who’d give our children Arabic names and take them to the masjid. I wasn’t the trope of an immigrant’s kid, prepared to reject her family’s traditions in order to fit into mainstream culture. On the contrary, the contents of my mind deeply ashamed me. I could sing along to nearly every theme song on television, but my Arabic vocabulary was limited to words said around the house, my five daily prayers, and some of the shorter Quranic verses that I could recite but did not understand. I did not have a single memory of Iraq, not my mother’s childhood home with the flat roof satah where she slept outside on balmy nights, not the creamy gaymar and freshly baked samoun she used to eat for breakfast, not the gilded shrines she made pilgrimages to every Ashura with their massive Persian carpets and crystal chandeliers.
I had been only two years old in 1979 when my family made their last trip to Iraq. An intense interrogation in the airport made Mama decide it wasn’t worth going back anymore and that it was time to get the rest of her family out. There was no way I was going to sever what little ties I had to my culture and religion by marrying someone outside of it.
My entire extended family consisted of couples who had barely known each other when they wed, couples who had been introduced via photographs or paired together from within the same clan. Mama and Baba were themselves distant relatives, something I never told any of my friends for fear they’d recoil with disgust and forever brand me the child of an incestuous union. Baba was from a branch of the Marashis that left Iraq in the 1920s and settled in the tropical island of Zanzibar. He was studying abroad in Canada when his sister sent him Mama’s picture, a wallet size he blew up to poster proportions and proudly toted back to Iraq to gift to my grandfather as a stand-in for the daughter he was taking with him. Whenever he came across the original wallet-size photograph, he’d show it to me and my siblings and tell us, “Look here. See how your mummy was so pretty,” his Arab–East African accent thick, dragging out the o’s and pushing hard on the t’s.
Mama was, indeed, the quintessential pretty brunette—the kind who usually plays sidekick to a bombshell blond, the kind you wouldn’t expect to find married to a short man, 20 years her senior, with thinning gray hair, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and the beginnings of a potbelly. People often mistook Mama for Baba’s daughter, and Lina, Ibrahim, and me for his grandchildren, but Mama only wanted me to see the wisdom in her union and the folly in American dating.
“The problem with the women in this country is they expect too much,” Mama would often say to me while getting ready for work. “They want love, they want passion, and they want it to last forever. Your father is a good man; he encouraged me to go back to school. Not every man would put up with his wife working and studying. If you want to start believing in this country’s what-about-me garbage, there’s no end to it.”
When Mama arrived in the United States in 1972, she was 18 years old. She didn’t drive, speak English, or have a high school diploma. Baba urged her to go back to school right after my brother was born, and from then on, she’d always worked and studied, earning first her GED, then two different associate’s degrees, then a bachelor’s in nursing. Eventually she’d earn a master’s and doctorate of nurse practice. She often said she would have gone to medical school had there been one in town.
For years, Mama worked the 3 to 11 pm shift on a pediatrics floor. We got home from school after she left for work, and most nights, we were in bed before she got back. Days often passed without us seeing her, and so when Mama was home, she expected us to be available for parenting. One afternoon, while getting ready for her shift, she told me of a coworker, “That little twit-twit Sandy has only been married for two months, and she already wants a divorce. She slept with her husband, kissed him, and now she says she doesn’t even know him. How much more does she want to know?”
Standing in front of her dresser mirror, Mama swiped a padded applicator across a square of eye shadow and added, “People here tell me, ‘You married a stranger.’ What stranger? Someone your parents know and your family knows is a stranger? They think if they date someone and they kiss him and sleep with him, they know who they’re marrying. What does that tell you about a person except for what they look like naked?”
“Mama!” I said, from where I sat on her bed, with the sharp tone of surprise I believed was expected of a 12-year-old.
Mama ignored my theatrics. She’d always considered anything biological—pees and poops (Mama always referred to these in the plural), menstruation and sex—to be healthy topics of conversation. She unscrewed the cap from a tube of mascara and added, “That’s how people think here. It’s all about ‘my feelings,’ and ‘do I love him?’ But just because you don’t love someone when you marry him, it doesn’t mean you’ll never love him. The important thing is to marry a good person, someone who shares your culture and religion, and then you’ll fall in love with him later.”
“Is that how it was for you with Baba?” I asked. “You didn’t love him, but now you do.”
“Things were different for me,” Mama said, brushing the mascara wand along her top lashes. “I hadn’t finished high school, and Jidu had just married Bibi.”
Jidu and Bibi are the Iraqi words for “grandfather” and “grandmother,” but in this case, Bibi was Mama’s stepmother and Jidu’s third wife. Jidu’s first wife, Mama’s mother, had died tragically and suddenly in her twenties. He remarried, only for his new wife to meet the same fate, this time as a result of a cooking fire. When Jidu found himself alone with seven kids between Mama’s fifteen years and her youngest brother’s eighteen months, his father pressured him to marry a distant cousin—a spinster in her forties, who lived in a palatial home with her brother, servants, and black cat.
Now Mama tossed the mascara back in her makeup box and continued, “Bibi didn’t like having us all around the house, and she thought she was doing Jidu a great favor because she married off his daughters to doctors. So I just said okay because I always did what I was told, and I got lucky. Your father is a kind man, and I now have you beautiful kiddies to be grateful for.”
Mama affixed her name tag to her collar and kissed me on the cheek on her way out the door. As always, Mama was too busy to waste a moment on regret. She could have easily blamed Bibi for marrying her off to a man who was not just twice her age but also her complete opposite, a sickly, nearly humorless man, far too serious and literal for Mama’s mischievous sense of humor, her boundless energy for exercise, dancing, and projects of all kinds. But Mama did not blame Bibi. Rather she moved her and Jidu into our tiny ranch home, putting me and Ibrahim in the same room until she could afford to build a house with a granny unit above the garage. And not only did Mama never dwell on how different she was from my father, but she also told me time and again what a good man he was, how he took in her family, how he encouraged her to go back to school, and how devoted he was to us kids.
I believed this ability to embrace the relationship you were in was the upside to matchmade marriages. Muslim love was secure and uncomplicated, a decision entirely under a person’s control, but American love was almost frighteningly fragile and mysterious. It had to be fallen into after a number of dates, and when couples on television and in movies finally uttered the L-word to each other, it was a grand moment, a surprise even to themselves. Maybe it was a frustrated, “Because I love you, all right,” cried out in the midst of an argument. Or a tearful, “Now that I lost you, I know I love you.” It was something that could befall them even when they were committed to other people. “We didn’t mean for it to happen,” the cheater might explain to his former beloved.
I feared the fickleness of American love—the notion that someone could love you and still fall in love with someone else, or like you but not be in love with you, or love you for a time and then lose that spark—but like all delicate things, there was something special about this kind of love. In a love marriage, you knew the couple at the altar were drawn together by more than their matching culture, religion, or family ties. They shared a connection to each other. The bride was someone wholly unique and irreplaceable, someone who made the groom misty-eyed watching her walk down the aisle, someone he’d describe as his best friend while holding her hand and reciting the vows that he’d written. These couples got married in weddings they planned for a year, and hired photographers to capture every moment, photographers who would later assemble their pictures into thick, bound photo albums and into framed portraits.
Mama, on the other hand, kept her wedding photographs in a manila envelope stuffed in the back of a half-empty photo album. The pictures weren’t even taken at her wedding, but at a stopover in England at the request of my father’s sister who lived in Newcastle and missed out on the actual wedding, which Mama had told me was really no more than a dinner with some family members at home and had ended with her washing the dishes. In these photos, Mama was wearing an A-line wedding gown made from white and silver lace thrown over an acetate lining. She wore a rhinestone crown out of which flew yards of tulle that pillowed at her feet. In her hands were a bunch of red carnations, and she looked uncomfortable, as if she was trying to suppress a giggle. Baba wore a navy blue suit, his hair and mustache a slightly darker gray. He looked at Mama with what my siblings and I call “Baba’s proud face,” lips forced closed as if to contain the beams of happiness shining inside him. In some of the pictures, Baba’s four-year-old niece posed as the flower girl.
Mama’s dress still hung at the back of her closet but without any attempt at preservation. We were welcome to wear it, play in it, or do whatever we wanted with it. Her tiara, minus several rhinestones, was in my bedroom, left over from all the Halloweens that I’d dressed up as a princess. I wanted Mama’s wedding things to be too special for me to use, but every time I’d offer to return the tiara to her room, she’d shrug and say there was no need. Sometimes she’d add, “I never really liked the things from my wedding. My uncle bought everything, and they just told me to wear it.”
Mama’s wedding memorabilia told the story of resignation, loss, and acceptance that she didn’t tell. Mama could have been the subject of one of those pity documentaries, albeit with an inspirational twist—the Story of How One Woman Overcame Her Heartbreaking Childhood and Arranged Marriage by Taking Pride in Her Children and Getting Lots of Education—but as remarkable as I knew Mama’s example was, I didn’t want to repeat it.
I wanted a love story with the Iraqi, Shia man of my dreams. I wanted to be a Wakefield sister who found her Tarek at Sweet Valley High, a Scarlett O’Hara who met her Raheem without the deprivation of war, a Juliet who lived into old age with her Rumi. I didn’t need a string of boyfriends or affairs—just one grand, sweeping love story so fantastic that it was worth a lifetime of romantic adventures.
Because, falling in love was a veritable jackpot. There was the bounty of the feelings themselves, the spiritual connection, the physical attraction, the thrill of having a handsome man devoted entirely to me, but it was also redemptive. It was life’s way of saying, “Here, little Muslim girl, since you were so good and stayed away from boys before marriage, you will be rewarded with the perfect, Iraqi, Shia husband who is so awesome you don’t have to learn to love him.” And the story I had with this Mr. Khair Inshallah, Mr. Good God Willing, would immediately banish all my American friends’ pity and fear that I was getting married for the wrong reasons. “I love him,” I’d say, and it wouldn’t matter if I only met the guy once in my living room with my family all around me. Americans forgave everything in the name of love, and so would I.
From First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story. Used with the permission of Prometheus Books. Copyright © 2018 by Huda Al-Marashi