First comes marriage
Huda Al-Mashari’s memoir First Comes Marriage is an unconventional love story which has just been released – a memoir of an arranged marriage. sister-hood asked Huda some questions about her work, her life – and her marriage.
The title of your book suggests a love story told in an unusual order. Is that an accurate description?
It’s accurate in that marriage was a pre-requisite to my husband and I having a relationship and that we understood that whatever time we spent talking to one another on the phone or in person was with the intention of marriage.
However, what I was really hoping to show in this book is the grey area here: how the larger discourse surrounding ‘arranged marriages’ and the very limited definition of love in Western society kept me from seeing the love that was there before marriage. Because my love story didn’t look like anything I’d encountered in books, television and movies, I struggled to believe it could be called love, too.
Why was it important for you to tell your story?
I think representation, especially in entertainment culture, matters. There are not enough stories with Muslim protagonists. When we do see Muslim characters, all too often, it’s the story of the kid from the immigrant family who wants to rebel against tradition in order to fit in with mainstream society. Or, it’s the Muslim narrator, speaking to the post 9/11 experience. Although they are complicating that discourse, simply engaging with it, especially in a memoir, reinforces the idea that we all have something to say about this particular tragedy, or that we don’t have any experiences or stories that do not include a response to this one event. But, I have yet to see a white, American author taking up space in their memoir—this very personal retelling of their life—to set aside a chapter to say how horrified they were by any atrocity committed by another white, American.
Also, I wanted to break up the Muslim monolith a bit, too. Yes, we are a part of a larger community, but at the same time, there is so much variation among Muslims. And, while unity is great, there is also real harm in lumping us all together in one group. We all come from different cultures, sects, socio-economic classes, and just like anyone else, our families have their own idiosyncrasies, too. I wanted to tell a very specific story here, one that acknowledges every component of my identity in order to really drive home that impression.
Can you tell us how your relationship with ‘Hadi’ developed after the end of the story?
It has always been important to me to relay the story of a real marriage, and I never wanted to imply that the end of this book was when we had arrived at some sort of happily ever after. All relationships have their complexities. The beauty of a long term relationship is in the security and comfort to work things out: to know another person so intimately that you have the context to understand what’s behind your disagreements; and the confidence that whatever issue you are quibbling about will not break you as a couple. Twenty-one years later, ‘Hadi’ and I are still firmly committed to each other, grateful to be together, and working out our issues as they arise.
Typically, creative writing isn’t encouraged or perceived to be a respectable profession. Has this caused you any problems?
Within myself, yes! I think I experienced more angst about pursuing writing as a Muslim woman, than anything anyone ever tried to actually impose on me. I kept my writing hidden from my family for years. Beyond my spouse and my siblings, I didn’t talk about what I was writing. Even when I started publishing smaller pieces, I didn’t discuss my book with my extended family members until I’d signed with an agent. In some ways, maybe it was a protective mechanism because I knew I needed the space to work on my book without judgment. But, I will say that now that my book is a reality, it seems that I was the one who was doing all the judging! For the most part, my family and my husband’s family have been overwhelmingly supportive.
Within a lot of Muslim cultures, there’s a sense that family matters have to be kept private, especially those about intimate matters. This book shares your feelings and experiences very frankly and honestly. Was that difficult for you?
Of course. I still struggle with making parts of my life so public, but even as I was writing, I kept circling back to my purpose and intention. It would have meant the world to me to have a story in which I could have seen myself as a young Muslim bride—a story that could have shown me how this ambivalence toward my partner, that felt like the end of the world to me at the time, could turn out okay. Books had always been my biggest source of comfort, but there was no book out there in which I could see myself, a twenty-something bride, who’d never had a boyfriend, and was trying to find her place in a marriage after hearing so many mixed messages about what it means to be in love. And, if I can offer that kind of story to someone, and they then feel validated and seen, that’s worth more to me than my privacy. Because privacy is a tricky thing—there’s a very fine line where keeping things private crosses over into keeping things secret and by extension, shameful. And, as a writer, I knew that it was disingenuous to write the story of a newlywed couple and not address physical intimacy.
You’ve been exposed to your own Iraqi Shi’a culture, growing up in South California and in life in Mexico. How have all these diverse influences affected you?
These perspectives have been one of my life’s greatest gifts. Other languages and other cultures offer us different lenses with which to see the world. For example, when I was a young mom, we lived in Queens, New York, and all my neighbours on our floor were from Colombia. Because I had spent those few years in Mexico, I was able to not only communicate with these amazingly kind families, but it was also of tremendous benefit to me to able to step outside the very intense parenting culture online and in books and at mommy groups, and just be a part of a group of moms that was not worried about how much juice their kid drank or signing them up for early music lessons. Being a part of other cultures keeps us from seeing our experiences in terms of absolutes.
In the early stages of your marriage, you seem to be disappointed with the reality of marriage compared to your expectations and frustrated that you were expected to delay your academic career. How have you resolved those issues?
This is a great question because the answer is embedded right inside of it! Expectations are a road to unhappiness, and growing-up, everything I was told about marriage built up my expectations—when you get married, you can travel; when you get married, you can go off to school wherever you want—and so there was so much anticipation around the things that marriage would make possible that I was doomed to be disappointed when marriage started to look more and more like an everyday life. Which of course, now seems like such an obvious statement, but expectations are bullishly persistent. And even when we realign them in one area of our lives, they crop up in another, in parenting or in our careers. It’s one of those things that I try to keep in constant awareness. Whenever I feel disappointment now, I ask myself if my expectations are in check.
While this book focuses on specific cultural expectations around marriage, would you say that in some ways it speaks to experiences of marital relationships more generally?
Absolutely. Regardless of which cultural norms shaped your ideas about marriage, we all have to contend with societal influences on our relationships. In my book, I call marriage a great equalizer. No matter how we met our spouses, we all have to figure out how to make our committed relationships work.
You describe a sense of inhibition around sex that caused problems in your relationship, which you believe stems from the double standard around female sexuality in many families, but particularly in your own, Muslim background. How can women reclaim a healthy sexuality under these circumstances?
It’s critical that we stop idealizing innocence, or more accurately, an ignorance about our bodies. Part of the problem, for my generation, was that we didn’t have any resources within the American Muslim community that were teaching sexuality awareness, and so it was too easy to make the leap that it was somehow an American or Western way of thinking to have these conversations. But now we have organizations like HEART Women and Girls trying to fill that void, and last year, I was very impressed by one of their presentations at our local masjid. Not only was it such a powerful way to impart the message that, yes, it’s okay for Muslims to talk about our sexuality because we are literally talking about it at the masjid, but it was also a good reminder that Islam has always been a sex-positive religion and that it is a part of our own religious tradition to encourage healthy attitudes and ideas about sex.
You describe marriage as if it were considered in your community to be an essential part of adulthood. How does this shape young people’s experiences of growing up, and their expectations of their future?
In my case, I idealized marriage. I wanted to get married far younger than I would have done if I had thought it was possible to achieve some kind of independent adulthood as a single woman. But what that mind-set does is reinforce the idea of this great, big divide. There’s before marriage and then there’s after marriage, where your life really starts. But this outlook is only setting young people up for the kind of detrimental expectations we talked about earlier. I think we’d do much better to emphasize that you are you, whether you are married or unmarried, and that marriage is not the way to grow-up. It’s a way to share your life with another person.
What do you think marriage will look like for the next generation of Arab-Americans?
I think it already looks different, and that was another reason why I wanted to record this story. Immigration is never going to look like it did for my generation and for generations before me—where contact with your family abroad was so sporadic and there was such little access to any kind of news from your country of origin. But with the internet and mobile phones, this generation of Arab-Americans is not living in the kind of vacuum that my generation grew up in. That same technology has made it possible for couples to meet and get to know one another without it becoming a family affair, too. However, I think many of the ideals surrounding marriage—such as getting married at a young age to someone from within your own community and to not have dated before getting married—have persisted and will continue to persist across generations.
What has the reaction been to the book so far?
We’re still pre-release so I don’t have real sense of the reaction yet, but one of my pre-readers, who is not Muslim, shared with me that she saw the book as being about a particular girl in a particular family, navigating unique circumstances, and that response really excited me. I want us to get to the place where Muslim characters can be seen as wholly unique, complex individuals and where our stories are not expected to represent the entire community.
Do you have a message for our readers?
One thing I also wanted to convey with this book was the ways in which I’d internalized certain prejudices and stereotypes about myself and my own family. Not only was I trying to live down the image of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman,’ but I also made a lot of assumptions about how my parents and my in-laws felt about my impending marriage without ever taking the time to discuss these ideas with any of them. And, I see this in first and second generation kids all the time, this habit of not asking for certain things, or even hiding certain choices they’ve made from their families, because they are anticipating a negative reaction from their parents. However, as much as I understand the unique challenges to communication in bi-cultural families, I also think there’s so much more to be gained from trying to share your life with your parents.