Part 1: An interracial marriage: Over my dead body

Seven years ago, I married a wonderful woman. My wife-to-be was an Arab-American Muslim and I was a Cuban-American Muslim. Both she and I considered our ethnic identities incidental; after all, although my Cuban family raised me and she was brought up by her Algerian parents, we both shared the “American” after the hyphen, which made us quite compatible. For starters, English was our stronger language. We also had a similar taste in books and films, shared congruous views on the philosophy and practice of our faith, and both knew who “The Simpsons” were. We were a perfect fit, or so we thought.
From the start, my future wife warned me about the obstacles we’d face. Her parents were unlikely to allow their oldest daughter to marry a Cuban-American convert. More precisely, they didn’t want her to marry a non-Arab convert. Her father made this abundantly clear when I approached him about his daughter: “Over my dead body,” he replied. In his view, marrying a convert was a step “down” since my knowledge and experience as a Muslim was presumably less than that of his daughter’s. He wanted her to marry a knowledgeable Muslim, not a novice. More importantly, he was unprepared to let his daughter marry a non-Arab. Admittedly, he didn’t know much about Latinos at the time. About Cubans he knew even less. But it was enough for him to know that I wasn’t an Arab for him to decide that I could not marry his daughter.

My wife-to-be’s mother was less forceful in her response. While she didn’t outright refuse her daughter’s hand in marriage, she nevertheless expressed “concern” about her daughter’s marriage choice and its potential implications for their standing with the family back home in Algeria. As an Algerian, she should select an Algerian man as her husband. If not an Algerian, then a Moroccan. A Tunisian, maybe. The idea that she would marry a non-Arab was unthinkable; it was beyond the parameters of even an undesirable marriage scenario. By framing the situation in these terms, her family placed an immense burden upon my prospective wife’s shoulders. If she wanted to marry me, her mom cautioned, she would have to face the family with the most shocking news: her decision to wed a foreigner.

Fortunately, we had one basic fact in our favor: her parents lived in the United States, and had no intentions of returning to Algeria. The local Muslim community’s collective opinion carried weight in their eyes and its involvement could sway their otherwise hardened stance on the matter. I was fairly well-known within the community having worked on various anti-Iraq war campaigns and having spoken publicly about the Palestinian cause. My activism had earned me a great deal of respect within our community and it wasn’t long before several key figures expressed their willingness to quietly but persistently push the idea of our marriage upon my wife-to-be’s unwilling parents. They spoke on my behalf, defending my character and qualifications, and even placed their own reputations on the line stressing that, if it were their own daughters, they would bless the marriage.

Of course, I did not garner unanimous support. Several men in the community openly expressed their disapproval of our marriage; they believed in the “back home” practices of marrying within, not without. As a Cuban-American convert, I couldn’t be farther from the “in” they were talking about. Despite their strident objections, these men were not as influential as the team I had managed to assemble. I had successful businessmen and academics on my side who were also primary contributors to the community. If anyone could speak for me, it was this group of well-respected men.

The task of persuading my wife-to-be’s family was difficult and drawn-out. It took months to overcome the social and cultural boundaries my prospective wife’s parents placed upon our marriage, but eventually we prevailed. As time passed, I discovered that many other couples were wrestling with similar problems—it was not a potential match’s religion, economic status, or level of education that created a roadblock to marriage; rather, it was his or her ethnic identity. This was a troubling revelation, one that left me thinking about the future of Muslim marriages in the U.S. Could it be that ethnic/racial prejudice had poisoned our community? Like most of American society, was racism our problem too?
Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and former senior editor of Islamica Magazine. He is currently a diversity teaching fellow at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania.

Photo Credit: Tango Foxtrot

5 Comments

  • ghina says:

    It’s a good question.  However to me an important issue in cross-cultural marriages is that you have to work harder at them.  Not only the husband and wife, but also the parents and rest of the family.  From a recent immigrant parent’s perspective, while you do speak English, you revert back to your “mother tongue” without thought, but it takes effort to speak English no matter how fluent. The food is different, how do I communicate with food when it’s not “comfort” food for everyone?  The people both families know decreases. etc etc.  Most people know that intercultural marriages are more likely to fail than those within a culture, whether this is true or not.

    This all probably something that all immigrants to the US encounter.  I imagine with subsequent generations reared in multicultural situations, this might be less of a problem

  • edabdalghafur says:

    Does preferring to marry within one’s ethnic community or religous community necessarily entail racism or xenophobia?

    What makes the cultural restriction similar or different from the religious?  Many non-Muslims think its equally xenophobic to only marry within one’s religious group as it is to restrict marriage to one’s ethnic group.  Many Muslims say the former restriction is valid but the latter is not.  That sentiment seems to be expressed here. 

    In the minds of many immigrants, religious and cultural traditions inter mingle so much that such a distinction isn’t as clear as American Muslims assume it to be.  Perhaps this partly explains why immigrant parents are so hesitant about inter-racial marriage, they see it as a loss of identity.

  • OmarG says:

    >> having worked on various anti-Iraq war campaigns and having spoken publicly about the Palestinian cause

    Its very curious that Michael advanced his pro-Arab political activism as a point for why he ought to have been a good choice for the family. Its a shame he couldn’t considered on his morals and manners / personality, but if he used these things in arguing with them, it seems a wise move, but still a shame.

  • OmarG says:

    >>This was a troubling revelation, one that left me thinking about the future of Muslim marriages in the U.S. Could it be that ethnic/racial prejudice had poisoned our community?

    I can see that Michael came very late to the game. My brother in Islam, its always been this way; I’ve faced it continuously from the very first day I became Muslim 20 years ago up until now, right now, actually. Inshallah, you will be one of the people who’s actions helps smash this evil lurking within our so-called “communities”.

  • Mikaeel05 says:

    Bismillah hir Rahman nir Rahim

    AsSalaamu Alaikum

    This has been a problem within the Muslim community for quite a long time. The big question is does it fall within the guidelines of Quran and Sunna? What was it that the Prophet(salawat) said about ones race or color not being superior? Didn’t the Prophet(salawat) say that if someone seeks your daughters hand in marriage and you are satisfied with their character, morals and Iman that you should give her hand? Where did he mention race, color or national origin? So would these same people have a problem with Bilal or Salman Farsi wanting to marry their daughters, even though hadith and history speak of their qualities as Muslims?
    So that means that some families marry their daughters to someone of their race or country even though their Islam may not be what it’s suppose to be. Also, many of these people who feel this way have no problem with their men marrying the women of other races, colors and/or countries.
    As far as Islamic education is concerned, many converts/reverts are quite knowledgeable concerning Islam. I can attest to this being married to a sister from the Indian sub-continent. She may do certain things because of her culture but doesn’t fully understand the Islamic reason for doing so. Ones culture may not always be Islamic, even though that person may think it is. I was just recently in a conversation with an Arab who was totally wrong about something Allah says in Quran. Islam and its knowledge is not the sole property of any one race of people. Muhammad (salawat) was a mercy to ALL the worlds, and that included ALL people.
    In a nutshell, this is reverting back to ignorance instead of advancing to the higher qualities that Islam bought us. And it is these sort of practices that have placed the Muslim world into its present pathetic condition and situation, being subjected to the type of oppression we now endure.
    We must remember that it was Shaytan who was the first to think he was better than another of Allah’s creation and therefore damned himself.
    Allah says that the best of us are those who are strongest in our faith…and who would not want his or her son or daughter to be married to the best of Allah’s creatures, regardless of color, race or country of origin.

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