Moment 1: Hadi was bouncing my Silly Putty around before it turned a corner and dropped into the hall bathroom’s toilet. I was seven, and he was ten. He apologized with a quick, “I’m sorry,” before running off. Four years later, I was sitting on the edge of the bed in Jamila’s room. He came in, handed me a paper bag, and said, “Here. I owe you this.” He left before I opened the bag and found a brand-new Silly Putty inside.
Moment 2: Hadi, Jamila, and Amjad had come to stay with us the summer before I started the eighth grade. They arrived with gifts in hand. We stood around, opening our presents, boys in one corner of the room, girls in another.
As I pulled back the plastic bag, Jamila said, “I don’t know why, but Hadi insisted on paying for this with his own money.”
Inside was an EZ Bake Oven, something I’d told Jamila I’d always wanted but never got.
I looked over at Hadi. Our eyes met, but he quickly looked down.
Moment 3: We were on a family trip to Disneyland later that same year. Hadi pulled a thick, veined leaf off a tree and said, “Keep this. It’s a present for you.”
With exaggerated drama, I took it in my hands and said, “I’ll treasure it always.”
For the remainder of the day, I kept the leaf in my pocket and then later guarded it in my wallet. If we became a couple, I’d want this leaf as a reminder that we’d been brought together by more than our families. Hadi had liked me all along.
I treated these memories as if they were in a savings account—there in case I needed them later—but I hoped I wouldn’t have to make a withdrawal. As kind as Hadi was, I didn’t feel those jumpy feelings that romance novels described when I was around him, no butterflies in my stomach, no inability to eat or sleep. He sported a messy mullet, and while this was a completely fashion-forward move in the 1990s, it did not work for Hadi. Because his hair was curly, the longer hair in the back bunched up into a wild, fuzzy ball reminiscent of an animal tail. He’d gone from chubby to last-notch-on-his-belt skinny, and he dressed like such a schoolboy with his shirt buttoned up all the way to the top and securely tucked into his pants.
I was only thirteen years old, but I understood that our family friendship afforded Hadi and me opportunities to get to know each other that I would not have with another suitor, someone who’d likely appear with his family as nothing more than an evening dinner guest. On some days, this was reason enough to like Hadi. Other days, I wished there was someone else out there for me, someone from within our small community whom my parents approved of, whom I didn’t have to convince myself to like.
One evening Mama asked me to follow her into her walk-in closet while she got ready for bed. Right away, I knew she had something she wanted to discuss with me privately. In a hushed voice, she got straight to telling me that Um Sadek, a close family friend of the Ridhas, had asked Mrs. Ridha about me, and Mrs. Ridha had told her, “Don’t even think about it. She is ours.”
I stood there, holding the back of the chair that my mom usually tossed her clothes on, and tried not to show any reaction.
Mama stepped out of a pair of pants, her voice brimming with pride. “And then Um Sadek told her, ‘Be careful. If you want her, do something about it now. A girl like that won’t stay.’”
I gripped the chair harder.
“So,” Mama asked and pulled a T-shirt and pair of pajama pants out of her dresser drawer, “do you like Hadi?”
My cheeks flushed with a mix of girlish flattery and a hot punch of frustration. Mama was asking me if I liked a boy when she’d always said feelings were irrelevant, that sensible girls put compatibility above all else. And I didn’t know why she was telling me all this now. Had I just been spoken for as an eighth grader?
“I don’t know,” I said.
Mama pulled the shirt over her head and added, “Because if you don’t like the idea, I should hint it to your Khala,” referring to Mrs. Ridha as my aunt, a title of respect Iraqis applied liberally to any woman who was old enough to be their mother. “She is already worried that we will insist on somebody seyyid, and I told her that the Al-Marashis usually marry within the family and we always take an istikhara for this kind of thing.”
I nodded at the unpleasant reminder. Even in the impossibly small world of boys I might be allowed to marry, there were obstacles to marrying an Iraqi, Shia like Hadi. My family belonged to a clan that claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad, earning us the honorific title of seyyid. A man could marry a non-seyyid woman and still pass the title on to her children, but a woman could not. Since Hadi’s family was not seyyid, our future children would lose their right to this distinction. Then, there was the custom of marrying cousins, both first and distant, or, at the very least, taking the permission of an aunt or an uncle before accepting a marriage offer from outside the family. And finally, there was the istikhara, the consultation of the Quran under the guidance of someone trained in the practice of interpreting its verses. According to my mother, no marriage in our family had taken place without one.
“His mom may say all that to you,” I said, “but he actually has to like me, too.”
“Hudie, the boy likes you. His eyes go wherever you go. And don’t dismiss a mom liking you. A mom is more important than the boy.”
It meant something to Mama that of all the girls Mrs. Ridha knew, she wanted me for her son. Mrs. Ridha was the closest thing the Southern California Iraqi community had to a matchmaker. She kept track of all the unmarried girls in our community, their ages, and what they were studying so she could make recommendations when asked.
Mrs. Ridha’s approval didn’t carry the same weight with me, but at the same time, I didn’t want Mama to discourage Mrs. Ridha’s interest. Hadi wasn’t just another Iraqi Shia; he was someone born in America, someone raised on the same movies and television shows, someone who likely shared the same romantic notions about love.
“Do you have to tell them anything now?” I asked. “Can’t we just wait and see what happens?”
“That’s what I’ve been doing. I say, ‘They’re both young. Let’s see how they feel when they get older.’ You never know. The boy could change his mind about you, too.”
Mama’s words tugged at me. As much as I wanted the space to consider other people, I took comfort in the idea that Hadi would be there, liking me. For as long as I could remember, I’d heard stories about our community’s risky marriage market where the freshest, sweetest girls never sat on the shelf. Mrs. Ridha always had a cautionary tale about a girl whose shelf life was expiring. “You know, it’s nice to want to go to school and study,” she’d say, “but a girl becomes twenty-four, twenty-five, and that’s it. The only people who come for her are older, or they have been married before. Like this girl, I don’t want to mention her name, but she was so pretty. Everyone asked about her, but she insisted she wanted to be a dentist. In the end, she became a dentist, but she married someone fifteen years older than her who had two kids from his first marriage. See how the qisma is.”
Almost every marriage story I’d overheard Mrs. Ridha telling Mama ended with qisma, destiny. It never occurred to me to question how the poor girl in the story could be blamed for insisting on school if this relationship had been her fate, or to wonder if the girl might have actually liked the man with the two children. All I heard then was the tone of pity in which her story was retold, and that pity settled into my mind as a series of warnings—don’t be too picky; our community is too small for you to hold out for the one; be the best girl so someone picks you first.
When Mama entered the conversation, it was often to add this much-repeated piece of wisdom: “School will always be there, but the time for marriage won’t.”
Coming from grade-obsessed Mama, a woman who fell asleep surrounded by her textbooks and piles of flash cards, a woman who made everything wait until after finals, this notion that a good suitor was a gift of fate carried the weight of an irrefutable truth.
“If you are motivated enough, you can do anything,” Mama would say. “I used to bring you to class with me. Sit you down with a little coloring book. It was fun.”
Mama made it seem like a challenge—if you worked hard enough, there was no reason you couldn’t get married young and have a family and go to school and have a career. “A woman should always have a way to support herself,” she’d tell me. “You never know what can happen.”
Our community of brain-drain Iraqis was filled with women just like Mama. Women who were doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and engineers: they got married young, had their children, and worked. Even the women who stayed at home with their children still whispered to their daughters, “Study. Study. Become something.” In our Iraqi American community, mothers did not offer their daughters one path over the other—marriage, school, and careers were all tied together in a tight, little knot of what it meant to be successful. For the most part, this resonated with every definition of American success I’d grown up hearing, except for one important difference— love. In America, you had to fall in love.
Huda Al-Marashi’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Times, Al Jazeera, the VIDA Review, the Offing, and elsewhere. First Comes Marriage is her first book.
Excerpted from First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story by Huda Al-Marashi (Prometheus Books, 2018). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.