Romantic comedies can be dangerous things.
Huda Al-Marashi grew up the daughter of Iraqi Muslim immigrants who had moved to California, where mainstream American books and movies fed her a steady diet of meet-cutes and romantic dinners, wisecracking friends, forgiving parents, surprise proposals and hints of happily ever after.
But because her family follows the tradition of arranged marriage, none of those things happened. Instead, on the day of her high school graduation, she became engaged to a family friend named Hadi. She recalls having affection for her chosen bridegroom, but remembered him as a pudgy boy. Their betrothal gave them permission to talk but not to date one on one.
Their courtship posed a conundrum that she covers in her new book, First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story.
“I thought, ‘How can I have my American story if nothing romantic is happening?’” she said recently from her home in San Diego.
That led to “several moments of fallout” before Al-Marashi realized that she wasn’t struggling with the man she married, but with her own expectations of romance and love. Her book chronicles her struggle to honor her upbringing, while still holding onto the wide-open possibility that Western love represents.
But Al-Marashi did more than just tell the story of her traditional courtship and marriage to her now-husband and father of their three children. Her book also seeks to dismantle Muslim stereotypes that swarmed around her after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“In that climate, the word ‘Muslim’ started getting thrown around,” Al-Marashi said. “‘Muslim’ this. ‘Muslim’ that. And in the comment sections, that hate and the trolls, and people asking, ‘Who is the Muslim community?’ There is this great misunderstanding of how diverse Muslims are,” she continued. “The countries we come from, the languages we speak. We are all different people, different groups. We don’t have some central command.”
And yet, the Islamic “ideal,” Al-Marashi said, is that young Muslim men and women don’t date or have physical relationships before they get married.
The idea of an arranged marriage is sometimes seen by non-Muslims as a forced marriage, as a young woman entering matrimony against her will. In truth, “it’s more of an introduction,” Al-Marashi said.
“People can’t get past the idea that our parents would arrange our marriage,” she said. “Even to us, that sounds ludicrous. We grew up together, we knew each other and when my husband became interested in me, his family asked that he be allowed to get to know me.
“At any time, if I had said ‘no,’ that would have been OK.”
Another common misconception: that Muslim fathers are overbearing and domineering, and that their wives are meek and passive.
“It’s more egalitarian than people could imagine,” she said. “(Muslim) women are encouraged to go to school and to study. No one is a living, walking stereotype and that’s why we need a book. To be immersed in a family dynamic, so you see the subtleties and the nuances there.”
To frame those nuances in a love story made sense, she said, because those stories have universal appeal.
“It’s a way to reach people you might not be able to reach otherwise,” she said. “I think love is the one thing that everyone has in common.”
And yet, hers differs from most Hollywood versions in that she didn’t abandon tradition, which is common in many stories of fish-out-of-water, immigrant children aspiring to fit into a new culture, and “shuck it all off,” she said.
“The people I knew were struggling to uphold tradition in the most respectful way possible,” she said. “We had a respect and sense of value for our parents, and I didn’t see that represented. I thought that maybe we didn’t have stories worth telling.”
Al-Marashi is 41 now; a woman who got engaged at 18 and has been married nearly half her life. That seems traditional, too. From another time and place. And yet, it is a story she thinks belongs among the books and movies that fueled her dreams, for it is rich, and true.
“It’s OK to stay with your spouse for a really long time,” she said. “I wish the trope of the boring old married couple would die. The fascinating married couples, and the ups and downs are nothing to fear. They can be fascinating, too.”(The Seattle Times/TNS)
FIRST COMES MARRIAGE
By Huda Al-Marashi
Penguin Random House
297 pages; $24
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