Mom’s Christmas, Our Ramadan

I grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a conservative Pakistani Pathan Muslim and a small-town American Mormon. Theirs was a marriage founded on somewhat foolish optimism.  Both of my parents assumed they would have the other converted to their own faith within months. My childhood memories of mom’s Christmases, our Eids, mom’s Easters and our Ramadans, serve as a testament to the contrary. This recollection comes from the strange serendipitous period where two of those major religious events – the Muslim month of Ramadan and the Christmas season – overlapped.

My mother would start baking Christmas cookies sometime around Thanksgiving and the cookie she’d always start with was gingerbread – cut into small man and woman shapes. There was something about the bite of Chicago’s autumn that would trigger some Midwestern American programming and right away my mother would begin to warm the house with the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and vanilla. The colder it got, the more one needed a strong gingerbreadman to keep them going, so at any given time from November till early January, you could find huge bowls of gingerbread cookie dough in our fridge, ready and waiting to fill the next gingerbreadman-shaped hole in our lives.

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Interfaith Marriage on a String

“All is change with time / the future none can see / the road you leave behind / ahead lies mystery!” – Stevie Wonder, “All in Love is Fair.”

My mother told me the other day, “You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.”

Being single in a time of intense want—for a fulfilling relationship, my own marriage, my own family—has made me hyperaware of other people’s marriages. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many marriages, at one point or another, hang by a string. Sometimes the couple recognizes this fragility and this motivates them to make it work. Sometimes couples don’t even know that they’re there, and it comes and goes without their knowing.

I feel like my parents are there right now.
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Advice: Not everyone has a happy ending

Dear Love InshAllah,

I’m reaching out to you now because no one in my life understands, but you might.

I always felt I never fit in, too “white” or “liberal” for my strict Muslim community in the Midwest, too “conservative”, too Muslim to be with a white guy. I met someone online who changed that, a white guy who understood. He even read ‘Love InshAllah’ because he said he wanted to understand where I was coming from.

We have been together for a year, and now it is falling apart, due to some issues he has in the past with being abandoned by his mother. He says he still loves me.

I thought he was the one for me, I still believe he is. We are on a “break” – the ball is in his court, if he decides he can “learn to be happy and deal with personal issues” we will get back together and “start over.” If not, it is over.

I feel like I will never find happiness. I’m almost 26, I’m no longer in school, I work with people who are all over 50, I don’t mesh well with the “Pakistani community” here, no big group of desi friends. Because I don’t drink, I also don’t have that many non-Muslim friends. Just four good friends from high school and everyone else is an acquaintance.

I see nothing but a life of loneliness ahead of me. No Muslim guy would want me if he knew about relationship history, and I don’t want to keep dating white guys, racking up partners, being heartbroken. I feel like each heartbreak (and this is only heartbreak #2) is taking a piece of my soul with it.

I feel like I have no options at all. I feel broken. I feel like I am going to be alone forever and I don’t know how to be happy with that. I can’t sleep but I don’t want to leave my bed either. My state of being is so painful to my family and the guilt makes it worse.

I keep hearing the “horror stories.” The 40-year-old, never-married girl, everyone trying to figure out what’s wrong with her. I’m afraid of becoming that.

Not Everyone Has a Happy Ending

Shy Desi Boy replies:

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The Five Pillars of My Relationship

R.Karim pic

I’m a community organizer addressing men’s violence against women within the South Asian immigrant community.

“We have to connect with women’s organizations nationwide and learn about what they are doing. How do they speak to men and boys about this issue?” asked my supervisor. As I began to call my colleagues, I kept being directed to the same man who was an advocate on this issue.

We spoke a few times over the phone but our first meeting was at a domestic violence conference where we had both been invited to speak about our respective efforts to engage men. “Hi!” he said, extending his hand confidently to engulf mine in a firm handshake. “We’ll be meeting over at that table to discuss the details for tomorrow’s panel. Would you join us?” I excused myself from a conversation with a colleague to join him at the table.

He spoke of his work at a women’s shelter and how men’s violence against women was, in fact, alienating and destructive to men as well. But, a man at the helm of a shelter’s outreach efforts was unheard of. Many panelists and attendees were vehemently opposed to a man leading any aspect of the women’s movement. I initially concurred, but, over time, I came to realize that men’s role as the primary perpetrators of violence against women necessitated that they become an active part of the dialogue toward change.

There was much learning that came after that panel discussion, particularly as the two of us began to date.

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Mama’s girl

When I did something wrong, I wasn’t grounded or sent to my room. My mother threatened me with becoming a spinster.

“No one will want to marry you if you behave like that,” she’d call out.

I heard a longer version of that refrain once, and it affected me so deeply I vowed never to behave in a way that would warrant hearing it again. I was ten years old, and I had disobeyed my grandfather. He had asked me to apologize to my mother after a fight we’d had, and I’d refused.

As soon as I heard the door knob to my bedroom turn, I knew I was in serious trouble. Mama wasn’t one of those sitcom parents who followed their crying children into their room to see what was wrong. If she came after me, that meant she had something to say.

“You’re getting too old for this kind of behavior,” she said, standing in my doorway in an over-sized sweatshirt, her hands resting on the waistband of her leggings. “When I was your age, I had no mother, and I was taking care of the house and all my brothers and sisters. In Iraq, girls your age are already grown-up women. Soon people are going to start looking at you for marriage. Don’t you want them to have heard how there is a mature, respectful girl in this house who takes care of her family? Don’t you want people to beat up our doors and pray to be so lucky to have a girl like you?”

She told me to kiss my grandfather’s hand, and when I came out of his room, she motioned me over to her, kissed my cheek, and whispered hababa. Good girl.

Her approval washed me clean. I wanted to be the kind of daughter I imagined my mother had been—quiet, helpful, responsible.

When I got engaged at eighteen, it had less to do with the person I was marrying than it did with succeeding in being desired, in being chosen, in being good. I had just finished high school, and this too was a graduation of sorts. Being picked by a boy and his family was a diploma that marked the end of my childhood, that declared my virtue to our immigrant community. I didn’t question the reasoning behind this because I was not alone. So many of my Muslim friends were getting engaged and married, and although we were all too dedicated to our college course work to say as much, we were proud of our coupling. Not only were we good students, but we were wanted.

But marriage, I would soon discover, was not a reward. It was not diploma that I could hang on the wall and admire because marriage is not passive in any way. It is the constant negotiation of your changing self with the changing self of your partner. Realizing this was a rude awakening. I had chased an accomplishment that felt like a burden, that made achieving other milestones in my education and career more complicated. For the first time, I looked at the Muslim girls who were not married, who’d gone to graduate school, medical school, and law school and wondered why I had volunteered to live my life with another before I’d lived it for myself. It couldn’t have been for the sake of Islam because these women were Muslim as well. It couldn’t have been because of Arab culture because many of these women were Arabs too.

I was twenty-five when I had my first child. Holding this fragile life in my arms made me think of my mother constantly. What would she do, I’d ask myself. What did she do, I’d try and remember. This imitation was so active, so deliberate, so conscious that the mental knot I’d been carrying with me for years unraveled. There was more to my engagement than a desire to be good, to follow the rules, or to be chosen. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be good in her eyes. I still do.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir are forthcoming in the anthologies Becoming and In Her Place. Her poem, TV Terror, is a part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She holds a B.A. from Santa Clara University and a M.Ed. from Framingham State College. She is a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellow, and she lives in Ohio with her husband and three children.

Interfaith Marriage on a String

“All is change with time / the future none can see / the road you leave behind / ahead lies mystery!” – Stevie Wonder, “All in Love is Fair.”

My mother told me the other day, “You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.”

Being single in a time of intense want—for a fulfilling relationship, my own marriage, my own family—has made me hyperaware of other people’s marriages. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many marriages, at one point or another, hang by a string. Sometimes the couple recognizes this fragility and this motivates them to make it work. Sometimes couples don’t even know that they’re there, and it comes and goes without their knowing.

I feel like my parents are there right now.

My mother is Muslim, my father is Christian. They met as part of a blind date, became friends who discovered they loved each other. My father’s visa expiration and a youth service obligation led him back to Nigeria, leaving my mother in the United States to pine over him and wait with bated breath for his letters for the next three years. And they married upon his return to the United States. They were Muslim, several years converted from the Nation of Islam, and Christian, the son of Nigeria’s head of the Faith Tabernacle Church, but love conquered all and brought them together.

My mother later told me that their shared values and their conviction against the need to attend a “religious sanctuary” were some of the key practical elements that made the interfaith aspect of their marriage work early on. This was less romantic to me, but it seemed to work out.

Growing up, my parents never argued, at least not to our hearing. My mother sometimes lamented not going out as much as they used to, and my father sometimes complained when his food wasn’t ready when he came home from a long day of work, but that was it. My mother prayed and read her Qur’an daily and my father watched his favorite televangelist, and everything was fine.

They maintained this balance in our home until the summer in 2005. I was 20 when I came home from college and decided, in the worst of ways, to tell my father that I was Muslim. I told him, between tears and snot, that “I will never be Christian.”

And things were never the same in my parents’ house.

During the worst of times, when I was home for New Years’ that same year, my father blamed my mother for my brother’s autism. “If the family had been united in faith and prayer, he could have been healed.” It was surreal to watch my mother run up to their room, weeping. My father seemed unrepentant.  He returned to his office in the basement without a word to me. My parents never argued like this. My father had never said such mean things. I had never seen my mother cry. What was happening?

What did I do?

I initiated the stringing of my parents’ relationship. My being Muslim is unacceptable to my father. He’s embarrassed by it. When he goes to church these days and they ask where his family is, he gives an elaborate excuse and tells them that I am Christian when they ask.

I’m sorry he feels that way. I find God best in Islam. This is how he allowed my mother to raise me. This was the way my extended family practiced. I wish my father would accept me.

He loves and accepts my mother. He reflects with sadness that there were some churches he couldn’t attend because some would not consider him Christian because he had a Muslim wife. And I told him that there are Muslims who would most certainly question my mother’s Islam in the same way. But my father loves my mother, and my mother loves my father, and they are dedicated to each other and to their family, both my brother and me.

He loves me, but he does not love my Islam.

My father was so upset to tell his elder brother, my uncle in Nigeria, that I was “leaning toward Islam.” He told him two weeks ago. He can’t bring himself to ever call me Muslim.

“This is huge!” my father told me. “You don’t understand…Nigeria is a big country but mine is a small community. What would people think? They would think this isn’t me. They would think that this can’t have come from the son raised by his father, the son who sat at his feet for every sermon.  After the way that I was raised…”

It’s also that I’m Muslim, as were the people who killed my people just prior to the civil war in my country.  My father doesn’t understand how I can be Muslim when “The Igbo and the Hausa do not see eye to eye.”

I try to fix it sometimes. Maybe I shouldn’t be so loud about being Muslim. I told my father, “I’m sorry. If I had known it was such a big deal…”

“It’s not a big deal.”

But Daddy, it is a big deal. All you described to me are big deal things….

It’s my fault. Sometimes I feel like my brother really is the unifying factor. My parents may argue sometimes, but if my brother misses his medication and has a seizure, my parents will run to the scene, catch him as he falls and pray over him for the duration of his tonic-clonic convulsions and post-ictal state as he struggles through slurred speech to tell them that he’s okay.

My Islam reminds them of their difference, the very real theological difference between Jesus as personal savior and Prophet Jesus, between God in three persons and God, the one, the only.

“You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.” my mother told me last week. She then explained that the social isolation from the Nigerian network in our state probably kept her from having uncomfortable run-ins with Christians who would disapprove of her Islam. It probably saved her from arguments with them that may have jeopardized her relationship with Daddy. But she can’t know that…

…and I actually don’t believe that to be true. Their love has always been more than shared aversion of religious sanctuaries held together by my brother’s autism and epilepsy. They are each other’s best friend. They don’t pray the same but they do pray together. They have similar dreams and goals for their children and they love us more than they are able to express. They came together in strength following a diagnosis that was all the more devastating in the 1980s when professionals knew so much less about autism. They’ve stayed together in a marriage unmarred by infidelity and separations, physical or emotional violence or any real discord. They did it! They are achieving interfaith marriage!

It wasn’t just autism. I realize my mother just said that because their marriage is hanging by a string right now, and they don’t know it. It’ll pass. I don’t know how or when, but inshAllah it will. Both love and are dedicated to this family too much, to my brother too much. Maybe one day inshAllah I’ll get married and leave my father’s figurative house and my father won’t feel so responsible for my being Muslim anymore. He can concentrate on loving his Muslim wife instead of trying to convert his Muslim daughter.

Marriage is hard, and interfaith marriage is just one type of hard that a couple can face, that I may face one day, whoever my husband may be. There is no one way to do things, so there is no how-to. This is just one way. It may hurt to tell it sometimes, but this is actually a story of success. Success…on a string.

Chinyere Obimba is in her final year at Harvard Medical school and will begin residency in Family Medicine this summer. She hopes to work with underserved populations, practice obstetrics and participate in intervention planning for health promotion programs. Among her role models she counts her parents, Enyichukwu and Khalilah, who continue to show her what love and marriage is all about. She considers her younger brother Chukwuemeka, who has autism, to be one of her life’s inspirations. When she’s not being a medical student, she enjoys dancing samba, listening to and singing Brazilian music and writing. She also aspires someday to be a wife, mother, and a proud owner of a talking bird.