How I Arranged My Arranged Marriage
Posted on May 30, 2017
A few months after I graduated high school, my parents decided it would be a good time to hightail themselves, my five siblings, and me – permanently – from beautiful San Jose, California to Lahore, Pakistan. At the time, I thought it was the worst thing my parents could do to me. I was so bright and hardworking! I was supposed to go to college in the States! Establish my adulthood here! Why was the rug being pulled out from underneath me so viciously and with such contempt? My angst was unbearable, as was the loss of all that I held near and dear over the past eighteen years. As luck would have it, the move to Pakistan would change my life forever, and begin a love story with the country and its people in ways more than one.
Two months into the move, I was at my grandmother’s house sitting on a tattered charpai in a fresh-pressed cotton shalwar kameez, and peeling a tangerine, sadly tossing the peels onto the cement floor in front of me. It was a warm November evening, and in the narrow corridor of the haveli a tall figure appeared wearing a navy blue beanie and fleece vest over gray shalwar kameez. His mustache made him look like a cross between a Pakistani Clark Gable and Richard Marx. In my sea of desolation, a dim glow from a small lighthouse appeared. “Interesting,” I thought.
In exactly five years, I’d be sitting next to this man on a stage in front of hundreds of guests I wouldn’t know at our nikkah. Within thirteen years, we’d have lived in Lahore, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, weathering the losses of a younger brother, grandparents, and our sweet first baby. He’d take ESL classes at Santa Monica Community College and I’d spend six months learning how to cook roti. He’d become a diehard fan of Louis C.K., Pitbull, and the Fox series Empire. Pakistani TV dramas would suddenly become relatable because of the two years I’d spend living and working in Lahore after our wedding. His distaste for cheese, my favorite food in the world, would heartbreakingly grow with time. I’d secure an Urdu Teaching Assistantship at UCLA because of my refined Urdu from having lived with him.
Of course, I had no foretelling of any of this as I sat on my grandmother’s charpai. All I saw was a super-cute Pakistani guy my age coming toward me. He stopped and peered down at me and my tangerine peels amusedly. “Assalamu Alaikum.”
Damn. Of all the places in the world, least of all Dera Ismail Khan, an obscure speck on a map that I struggled to pinpoint to even my Pakistani-American friends back home, I didn’t think I’d come across the most handsome man I’d ever see here. Knee-deep in self-pity at where my parents had brought me, I was already formulating my escape plan. This dashing gentleman might just throw a wrench into it all (as I write this, it is both horrifying and endearing to think I was so unencumbered that I would readily alter my life to whims of such transience and unpredictability. Such is the case when you’re 18 years old, I guess).
I grinned back at him like an idiot, deciding in that moment that I would marry him. I didn’t know much about his personality or his past, but the decision was made. I told my sisters and cousin about this that night.
“You’re insane,” said my sister.
My other sister rolled her eyes.
My cousin waved it off. “Oh, yaar, your little crush isn’t going to last. You’re American. You’ll marry an American. Aren’t you trying to go back home, anyway?”
I shrugged their naysaying off. If there was one thing about me, I could be as stubborn as a mule when I felt like it. As the days, then weeks, then months went by, I was lost in la-la land, foolishly dreaming of a future with this beautiful and elusive man by my side. However, while my head was lost in the clouds, my parents were acting on plans for a different future. Frustrated that Pakistan had not lived up to their romantic expectations, they decided to move us all back home to California. I was simultaneously delighted and saddened by this news. I was going home! But what about the boy?
Three years in California went by, but I couldn’t shake this feeling. My sisters and my friends thought I was crazy. I thought I was crazy. I tried to reason myself out of it to no avail. I’d never dated or had a boyfriend in my life because I was brought up to believe that the only romantic relationship I’d have would be with my husband. This was the only solution to a fledging high that could not be acquiesced; I was drugged on love and nothing and no one was getting in my way.
Except my parents.
“Absolutely not,” my dad deadpanned when he learned of it.
“Why, Baba?” I protested tearfully.
“Not gonna work. You’re not from that culture and you don’t know men from there.”
“You’re from there.”
My dad was about to say something, then stopped. He smiled sheepishly.
My mom cut in, “Beta, your dad and I know about these things more than you. Once the honeymoon part goes away, adjusting won’t be easy. We know it won’t work, just trust us.”
But I wasn’t giving up that easily. A plan began to hatch in my mind. I knew the most likely way he’d get married was through an arranged marriage. His culture was conservative in every sense of the word, and his family honored tradition. I knew better than to challenge it; I’d play by their rules. Without my parents knowing, I enlisted the help of a mutual relative. “I’m interested in marrying your nephew. Can you help me?” I asked him.
The pieces from that point began to fall into place with rapid succession. He called him a few days later and asked him if he was single (He was. YES!) and if he was with anyone else currently (He wasn’t. YES AGAIN!). He then posited me as a potential rishta, making no mention that I was behind the proposal. He was interested and agreed to call me to get the ball rolling. Our first conversation was not remarkable, except for one question that came out of my mouth before I could stop myself from asking it: “You’re not marrying me for a visa, are you?” I’m not sure who was more shocked at my bluntness, him or me.
“No! I’m not even sure I want to move the States. Would you move here?”
I was not expecting to consider moving to Pakistan – again. “That’s a tough call,” I replied. “I’m pretty happy here, and I think you and I could live a good life here, what do you think?”
Over the course of the next few weeks, our conversations would oscillate between fun and charming, and serious and awkward. There were two other big questions I made sure to ask, and didn’t worry about what he’d think if I posed them to him – the first being about finances and the second about polygamy. His answers were mature and to my liking. With my deal breakers squared away, I felt much better about moving forward and asking my parents for their blessing for a second time.
Initially, my father was not happy that I went behind his back and initiated the marriage talk with a person he explicitly expressed concerns over. And while I appreciated his concern, deep down I knew they were unfounded. My gut was telling me that this man was solid and right for me. Our conversations were effortless, and we shared the same values and outlook At the end of the day, it’s about respect, compassion, and giving the person space to be him or herself in the relationship.on life. I didn’t think his being from “back home” made him backwards, rather more worldly and mature. Even when I asked questions that were seemingly “dumb,” he appreciated why I asked them and was open, honest, and straightforward in his responses. He was refreshingly different from anyone else I had come across before. I told my mom all of this, and as she had visited Pakistan herself a few months before and did her own assessing of him, didn’t need much convincing beyond that. She discussed this with my father and his fears were allayed. We then prayed our istikhara’s, my parents called his parents, and tears of joy were shed.
Over time, our marriage has evolved through its share of growing pains, learned lessons, and simple joys. Nine years doesn’t make us rookies like some other couples, and I’m sure many of you have equally compelling and successful stories to share, as well. I feel fortunate that my naïve teenage crush was able to blossom into a relationship built on a strong foundation of maturity, trust, and compassion. I can’t say there’s a surefire formula to success, and every person’s situation is different. What worked for me may not work for others. But the key here is that I knew myself and what I wanted from a spouse. While I was initially captivated by what I saw on the outside, I knew that things like looks, money, and even health are transient. The core of who a person is what is most important. Even when you’re getting to know someone, it’s still a gamble. What you see may not always be what you get; someone could be a total Prince Charming in the courtship process, but the day after the wedding, turn into someone horrifyingly different. For those just getting to know someone, my advice is try your hardest to get to know him or her at the deepest level. Meet his family, understand their dynamics and if they mesh with you. Observe him during times of stress; how does he treat people who wouldn’t otherwise benefit him? Ask tough questions! If he disappears when you show too much of who you are and it scares him, you’ve gotten your answer. Most importantly, listen to your gut. Don’t ignore red flags.
Nine years on, I’ve come to the conclusion that arranged marriages aren't any different from other marriages. At the end of the day, it’s about respect, compassion, and giving the person space to be him or herself in the relationship. It’s about honoring who he is and loving him for it, even if it’s new or a little uncomfortable. It’s about listening to him, but also valuing what’s important to me. Admitting my mistakes and being vulnerable. Being nice to his parents and family. Paying attention and knowing what means a lot to him and acting on it. Going to therapy when necessary. Most of all, it’s about putting my relationship and husband first. We figure out what works for us and stick to it. This journey is well worth the effort and I pray that God always keeps our relationships and family secure and in the best of health – Ameen!
Do you have an interesting marriage story? What insights did you love from Alina's story? Share in the comments below!