The year I turned twenty-nine was one of the best years of my life. In the space of six months, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, started my dream job, and moved into my own apartment. Each time I crossed a life goal off of my to-do list, I felt more and more like an adult, and a successful one at that. I was inching towards the person I wanted to be, an independent, ambitious woman, a person defined by what I had, and not what I lacked. My accomplishments filled me with a confidence that I had never known before.
Then I spoke to my Indian relatives, and within seconds, my confidence shattered.
When I called my grandparents to tell them that I had passed my defense, my grandfather said, “Fine. Now it’s time to get serious about having a husband.”
My cousin, who is ten years older than me, arched her eyebrow and said, “So you’re almost thirty and you have a doctorate. Who’s going to marry you now?” Just in case I didn’t understand, she pointedly looked at my dark skin, reminding me of one less feature in my favor.
An Aunt, who had lived in America longer than I’d been alive, called my mother, not to offer congratulations, but to offer her matchmaking services.
To be fair, these were not the only reactions I got to my success. The majority of my relatives were supportive, and even proud. Still, no matter how ridiculous I found the discouraging marriage-related commentary, I couldn’t quite let it go.
Because the truth was that even though I was truly happy with my life, I did want a committed relationship with a man. Even though I basked in the glow of a year of unusual successes, knowing that I didn’t have a romantic partner made me feel like a failure. At the same time, wanting what everyone said I was supposed to want made me feel like a sell-out.
There was no way to predict what my romantic future held. But of one thing I was sure: whatever decision I made about marriage, it was guaranteed to be fraught, and, because of this, was not at all guaranteed to make me happy.
For women born into cultures like mine, marriage defines us, whether we want it to or not. Will we defy our family’s expectations by marrying someone they don’t want us to marry, or by avoiding marriage all together? Will we spend our lives with a cis-gender man from our community, pleasing the parents and relatives we adore, but not necessarily ourselves? Will we fight for our friends and siblings and cousins who may not make the same choices we do?
Most importantly, will we have the clarity to realize what we – and only we – want? And, once we know, will we have the strength to follow our hearts?
In her memoir First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story, Iraqi-American author Huda Al-Marashi addresses all of these questions with honesty and humor.
Al-Marashi writes about her family with a clear-eyed affection rarely seen in books about gender-based cultural conflicts, particularly those concerning Muslim families. Her loving but firm tone allows for both nuance and grace, and ensures that none of the characters are villains or heroes, but always somewhere in between. Her mother is a nurse who “considered anything biological — pees and poops,…menstruation and sex — to be healthy topics of conversation,” but also takes careful steps to cover up the liberties she allows her daughter – like, for example, encouraging her to go to prom. Al-Marashi’s father is a book smart, well-meaning but awkward presence in her life, a man who is equally desperate to protect his daughter and allow her some measure of freedom, a balance he never fully strikes.
While she doesn’t excuse her parents from the pressure they put on her, she also doesn’t blame them, perhaps because she writes so openly about the pressure she puts on herself. During her girlhood, Al-Marashi and her friends fantasize about going to top tier colleges and pursuing high-powered careers. From an early age, the narrator plans on getting a doctorate, like her mother and her brother Ibrahim.
Al-Marashi does not see marriage as an obstacle to this ambition, but a part of it: having an accomplished husband is a key element of the perfect life that she envisions. After she and Hadi, her future husband, are officially engaged, Al-Marashi finds out that Hadi’s grades are not high enough for him to get admissions into medical school. She treats this development the same way she would treat a challenge in her academic life, working with Hadi’s parents to come up with a strategy to smooth his path to becoming a doctor.
While she finds her future husband’s lack of academic achievement – something that she has always achieved – frustrating, she also sees it as something that she can control. Al-Marashi describes this and other attempts to correct her husbands’ perceived flaws as a result of her eagerness and naivete, her drive to have a picture perfect life. At times, Al-Marashi is almost apologetic about these particular memories, portraying her tendency to see Hadi as a project rather than a partner as a symptom of her overeager youth. In truth, though, her struggle to mold Hadi into the husband she wants are some of the story’s most relatable moments. Whether they are arranged or chosen, marriages are messy, and the family relationships surrounding them only complicate them further. Al-Marashi may have had an arranged marriage, something many western readers find foreign and unfamiliar. But the struggles she has to build a life with her spouse feel universal and authentic.
Just as Al-Marashi adores her family, she adores her geographical and religious roots. When she describes the process of balancing her Iraqi Muslim heritage with American culture, she is circumspect, treating her journey as a series of choices between equally viable options. For example, while she craves the passion and theatricality of American romance, she is equally drawn to the comforting stability of “Muslim love.” Watching her non-Muslim friends date makes her feel that “Muslim love was secure and uncomplicated, a decision entirely under a person’s control, but American love was almost frighteningly fragile and mysterious (21).” This is a theme that recurs throughout her relationship with Hadi, whose lack of ambition disappoints her, but also grants her a sense of control she may not have had in a different relationship.
Al-Marashi writes vividly and humorously about how her Hollywood-inspired hopes for romance battle with the low expectations she has for any partnership brokered by her family. When describing the first time that Hadi kisses her, she writes, “A lips soft touch was so surprising, so tender, so natural – so not disgusting (110).” Al-Marashi’s entire courtship is similar to this, a push and pull of expectations versus reality, the result of which settles into reward, punishment, or something in between.
Al-Marashi’s sense of agency and purpose, as well as her consciously muted romantic expectations and idealized professional expectations for her husband, are qualities and behaviors with which I am intimately familiar, having grown up around arranged marriages. But it isn’t something that I see much in literature. Al-Marashi’s book is one of the first time I’ve seen these experiences accurately reflected on the page.
Al-Marashi’s urgent, confessional tone throughout the book lends her words a kind of intimacy that made me feel as though she had written the story just for me. The text reads as though the words are escaping her all in one breath, rendering her narrative tender and brave.
In the context of my own experience, Al-Marashi’s story felt like a particular gift. A few months after I was granted my doctorate, I met my husband. He and I are from the same community and region in India, something that pleased our families, but made us feel simultaneously comfortable with each other, guilty, and confused. In our families, we were the cousins or siblings or children expected to take the risks, to pave the way for others to marry outside of our communities. And yet, here we were, doing exactly what society told us to do, loving exactly who our families expected us to love.
This burden aside, the truth is, we are happiest with each other. We chose each other. We can’t imagine choosing anyone else.
Like me, Al-Marashi chose her husband, no matter what American society says that she should do. I know so few friends outside of my own community who struggled with the implications of their marriage, who felt that what they were doing carried a symbolism that extended beyond their own lives, and into the lives of the people they loved.
Al-Marashi’s story reminds us that there are so many ways to be a girlfriend, a fiancée, a mother, a sister, a wife, and a bride. Her book artfully upturns the colonial assumptions that so often govern stories about love and marriage, while also exposing the tensions inherent in building a life and a family while balancing conflicting cultural expectations derived from not one, but two well-loved homelands.
Al-Marashi’s marriage is not a perfect one, but it is a satisfying one. With her husband, she builds a life that she defines on her own terms, and by governs by her own rules. By telling her story, she not only asserts her agency over her own life, but makes space of the agency of others. The book’s power lies in the fact that it is not just a love story not just between two people, but also between two families, cultures, and places. Like Al-Marashi’s marriage, her story is not a perfect one, but it is deeply satisfying, and therefore it feels like a triumph.
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