A sudden thrill of control

American Muslim women today are owning their narrative like never before. Author, Huda Al-Marashi, recently released her first book, First Comes Marriage, the “first Muslim-American memoir dedicated to the themes of love and sexuality.”

Below, author Huda Al-Marashi shares an excerpt with us:

Chapter 12: A Sudden Thrill of Control

Nadia called from UC Berkeley and told me of a girl in her Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) who wore the niqab, a veil drawn across her face so that only her eyes showed. She was so attractive that covering her hair with a hijab was not enough to contain her beauty. Men would follow her home, relentless in their marriage proposals.

Thoughts of this girl occupied my mind for days. I’d joined the MSA at the start of the school year, and for the first time in my life, I had a social circle made entirely of people who not only shared my religion but who were also more conservative. In our meetings, the women sat on one side of the room, the men on the other. We averted our gazes before addressing one of the guys with the title “brother” before his first name. And one of the girls was already engaged, the rest screening suitors. This meant that Mama and her friend, Mrs. Ridha, were right. Your early twenties really was the time to get married.

In my MSA friends’ company, I felt remiss for being one of the three girls who didn’t wear the hijab. “Inshallah, you will,” my friend Amina had said to me in the library one afternoon. “You just have to be ready. When your imanis strong enough, you’ll do it.”

For Amina, the decision to wear the hijab was a sign that her faith could withstand the challenges of wearing a scarf in a Western country. She dealt with the stares, assumptions, and stereotypes because she cared more about earning the favor of Allah than she did about the opinion of others. And now there was this Super Muslima in my backyard, covering not just her hair but her face, too.

Although I had no desire to cover my face, I pictured this girl, her life made rich by rituals, and felt as if I’d fallen behind in my faith. As one of two Muslim girls in my high school, I had considered myself observant. I fasted during Ramadan, I said my five daily prayers and kept up a steady stream of personal supplications for Baba and my sister, Lina, I only ate halal meat, and I wore thick tights to school under my uniform skirt. But in college, I feared I was losing a piety contest that I didn’t know existed. I may have been getting As in school, but these girls were excelling in our religion. The very least I could do was stop talking with a boy to whom I was not officially engaged.

A few months prior, Mrs. Ridha’s son, Hadi Ridha, had told me of his intention to marry me. The Ridhas were our closest Iraqi family-friends, and although I had shared this news with my mother and asked for her permission to speak with Hadi on the phone, Hadi had not yet approached his parents to request that they officially ask for my hand.

From my dorm room phone, I explained my concern. “After all these years of being told how it’s wrong to talk to a boy you aren’t engaged to, I feel bad that we’re talking. I know I told my mom, but it’s not my mom I’m worried about. It’s more of a religious question.”

“I can understand that,” Hadi answered as if he’d already given the matter some thought.

“It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. It’s just that I don’t know what you are to me for me to tell myself this is okay.”

“I know what I’d like to be to you.”

“You do?” I asked.

“I do, and in order for me to become that person, we’re going to have to get both sets of parents involved.”

I sat up straighter in my desk chair. This would happen, and I felt a sudden thrill—not of love but of control. My life would follow the script I’d always imagined—engaged and married and with kids before the ripe, old age of twenty-five.

Hadi waited for Mrs. Ridha to leave on a trip to Iran to visit an important Shia shrine with Mama and Lina, and then he talked to his father. Hadi knew that his father was far too religious to resist an appeal to his Islamic duty to get married. Nearly all Muslim scholars encourage parents to help their children marry. This, they teach, is the best way to keep them on a straight path.

After a weekend with his father, Hadi called me in my dorm room and told me that his father planned to ask my father for my hand when they came to visit for the Thanksgiving holiday coinciding with Mama, Lina, and Mrs. Ridha’s return. As much as I wanted to share this news with Mama, I couldn’t imagine shouting that kind of information into a crackly overseas telephone line, and so I spent the next few weeks holding onto this information with the pride of newfound adulthood instead. I walked around campus thinking how very grown-up of me it was to be getting engaged, how very mature of me it was to be so ready for marriage five months after graduating from high school.

On the day of Mama, Lina, and Mrs. Ridha’s arrival, Baba picked me up from school on his way to the airport. My weekend visits had felt haunted by Mama and Lina’s absence, and I couldn’t wait to see them. But during the car ride home, I found myself regarding them all, with the exception of Lina, warily and with a pounding sense of guilt. I was not accustomed to knowing more about future events than the adults in the room, and this knowledge felt like some sort of betrayal.

Dr. Ridha, Hadi, and his brother, Amjad, drove through the night and arrived at my parents’ house before dawn on Thanksgiving morning. When I woke up, Dr. Ridha was leaning against the upstairs banister, waiting for his wife to finish up in the bathroom. He perked up when he saw me leaving my bedroom, as if I was what he had been waiting for all this time. With his head, he motioned for me to join him in Lina’s bedroom, where he and Mrs. Ridha were staying.

Even though Dr. Ridha was of slightly less than average height and build, he was an imposing man. When he spoke, it was as if he were a judge issuing a verdict. He cleared his throat, paused to think, and then gave his ruling on the matter at hand. Now the thought of being alone to receive one of his declarations made me nervous.

Closing the door behind him, Dr. Ridha said, “You know why we are here today.” His voice still rumbled with sleep, and his tone was too serious for his tousled hair and plaid pajamas.

I nodded.

“Do you have any objections?”

A volcano of nerves erupted within me. Whenever I pictured how I’d become engaged, I imagined two steps: one, when the parents talked to each other, and two, when the boy asked me. I didn’t expect Dr. Ridha to speak to me directly. I’d known Dr. Ridha my entire life, but as Hadi’s sometimes stern, sometimes playful father. I had no idea how to act like an adult around him when the only person I’d ever been in his presence was a child.

“No,” I answered.

“You know we love you,” he said and kissed me on both of my cheeks, his bristly mustache brushing against my face. This token of affection reassured me. See, I thought to myself, the Ridhas are happy. I’m happy. It’s good to marry family friends.

Shortly after Dr. Ridha and I spoke, I sought out my mother in the kitchen. I found her measuring rice into a bowl. A bubbling pot of lamb and eggplant stew simmered on the stove, and a pallid turkey thawed in the sink. I hovered close by, telling her about my conversation with Dr. Ridha. She didn’t even have a chance to comment before Baba burst into the kitchen and hurried over to where we stood.

“Come with me. I want to talk to both of you,” he said, his face flushed.

Mama and I exchanged a knowing glance. On the inside, I shook like a hit piñata.

On the ground floor, the only unoccupied room was the master bedroom. As soon as Mama and I entered, Baba closed the door so forcefully it sounded as if he’d slammed it.

I sat on my parents’ pushed-together, adjustable twin beds and drew my knees up to my chest. What had I done? Baba was going to be sick. The color in his face had given way to a cloudy gray.

“Are you all right, dear?” Mama asked. “Maybe you should sit down.”

“Huh?” he said, momentarily disoriented, and then, snapping back into the moment, he added, “No, I don’t want to sit down. You see, Dr. Ridha asked us for Hudie, and I don’t know what to tell him.”

Still holding my knees, I began to rock. I dreamt of rocking myself straight through the mattress and into the ground. I knew! I knew all along that this was going to happen, and I did not warn the poor man. But what could I have said? As much as our religion extolled marriage, in my father’s presence, I felt as if saying you wanted to get married was equal to saying you wanted to live with a man and have sex. The very prospect chilled me with shame. I would never say those words to him. Never.

“So how did you answer?” Mama asked Baba, a hand on her hip.

“I said I would have to ask Huda. Let me ask you something, Hudie, do you want to marry this boy?”

I squirmed. With so much shame suddenly called up to the surface of my skin, I could only lament that I was being asked directly for my opinion, again. Why weren’t our fathers behaving like the trope of an Arab dad, making arrangements for my future without consulting me? My mother never told me that in order to get married, I’d have to give my consent to my father and future father-in-law. Dear God, I prayed, spare me this awkwardness. Let me close my eyes and wake up with a diamond the size of a grape on my finger.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You see, she’s too young. She doesn’t want to get married now. You don’t want to get married, do you, Hudie?”

But I did want to get married. I wanted the satisfaction of having been plucked out of the marriage market before I’d even arrived. I wanted to tell my MSA friends that I was engaged and discuss weddings with them in the library. I wanted the love story I had been waiting for all these years to finally start—to have the flowers and plush toys I had watched girls get from their boyfriends all through high school, to have my first date, maybe my first kiss. I just didn’t want to say any of those things to Baba.

Mama shot me a look as if to say, “You’re not helping,” but with my eyes, I pleaded, “You do something.”

“Okay, dear, let’s think about this. I already had a child by the time I was her age, and it isn’t like they’d be getting married tomorrow. He’s a nice boy, and we know his family. I don’t think we’ll ever know another family this well.”

“Huh? But what about her cousin—”

“No, Baba,” I said, suddenly finding my voice. In the Arab world, marriage among cousins was common if not expected, but this was a custom I had no intention of honoring. It was enough to deal with being the non-dating Muslim girl whose parents were distant cousins. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my married life embarrassed by my relationship.

“Why not?” Baba asked, surprised.

“No, Baba,” I repeated.

“How about if I tell him to give us more time?” he asked.

“For what?” Mama said. “People ask for more time when they want to get to know more about the family. There is nothing more to know about these people. We’ve slept in their home. They’ve slept in ours.”

“So what do you want me to tell them?”

“Why don’t you say, ‘Inshallah bihal khair,’” Mama said.

God willing, it will be blessed. There was an ambiguity to this reply that eased Baba’s tense shoulders, his furrowed brow.

“Really, Hudie? Do you want me to tell them that?”

Baba’s eyes begged me for a definitive no, but I nodded. As much as I wanted to be Baba’s little girl forever, I wanted to grow up, to finally be a woman with a man in my life, more.

 

Huda Al-Marashi is the author of the memoir First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story.Her other writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Times, al Jazeera, VIDA Review, Refinery 29, the Rumpus, the Offingand elsewhere. Visit her at www.hudaalmarashi.com.

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