Part 1

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Part 1
“You got married in Pakistan?!”
“It’s not the craziest thing I’ve ever done…”

I graduated from Columbia University in 2005, which means I was in NYC on 11 September 2001.  Three years later, I accepted Islam in the very same place.  I finished class in December of 2005, and started looking for a job.  On a whim, I applied to be a substitute teacher in the same school district I had been educated in, and fell in love with it.  Later, in the summer, I got a last minute call from the imam of mymasjid, mosque, inviting me to go with him to a conference.  I had nothing to do, so an hour later, we were on our way to Houston.  There I met an older brother who asked me what my job was.  I told him I was looking for a teaching job.  It just so happened he was the founder of a small charter school, and he offered me a job in Weslaco, a small town on the Texas-Mexico border.

But what about the marriage, right?

Well, I ended up renting a house that was next door to its owner, an older brother named Rana from Lahore.  As his renter, we had done business together, and he knew people with whom I had traveled, so he knew me well and trusted me.  Everyone did.  We were a small community in a one-mosque town, all Pakistani except, well, me.  I soon asked him to help me find a wife.  He came back from Pakistan on winter vacation and let me know that there was a family near his home there whose daughter was coming of age.  He asked me if I was interested- I said yes.  Things went back and forth between my future father-in-law and me, via Rana, for a few months.  Finally, he told me that to go further we would all need to meet in person.  He invited me to visit Pakistan with him in the summer of 2006 and I agreed.

Our last conversation in America was that I would either get married right away, engaged for later, or one or both parties would decide they weren’t interested.

I arrived in Pakistan in the middle of a July night.  I walked out of airport to hundreds of pairs of eyes searching for their arriving loved ones, and staring in the meantime at me.  It would be a little easier to stare back at the sun.  Luckily Rana walked up to me out of the crowd.  Allah decreed that me, Rana, his, a driver, and all our suitcases would all fit into a car with no trunk, and there’s no other way we all would have.

Because of the 12-hour time difference, I couldn’t sleep until late morning.  When I finally did, as if on cue, a skinny Pakistani boy woke me up.  It was Fahiim, my future brother-in-law, and he didn’t know a word of English.  I was nearly in a daze, but we managed to communicate by writing because Urdu is written in an adaptation of the Arabic alphabet, which I happened to know.  Between that, hand gestures and a lot of smiles, we both managed to convince the other that we understood what he was saying.

Later, about 6 p.m., I met my future wife’s parents at Rana’s neighbor Saliim’s house.  I thought we were going to do a chit-chat introduction, but it turned out I was already engaged!

Yeah, somewhere between my friend’s departure from Texas and my later arrival in Lahore, they decided that we would get married after all.  Guess that’s how it goes out there.

The only question I was actually asked was, “Is Friday OK for a wedding date?”

Part 2

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After we got married, we met…

I was like “Uh, Friday sounds, uh… wait, let me pray about that.”

Amazingly, that was taken as a yes, and as my heart pounded the meeting continued with a flurry of Urdu and Punjabi, interspersed with a few words of colonial English, and occasional glances in my direction.

Finally, after a few minutes, Rana turned to me and said, “Daniel, we’ll need $1700.”

(That was no problem, except I only had $400 on me.  You see, I was gonna be in Pakistan for 3 weeks, and I didn’t think anything could possibly happen, even if we decided to get married, before the first 2, at which time my next paycheck would be in the bank.  It wasn’t that I had only brought $400- I only had $400 to my name.

But…

…the day I left from Weslaco, the imam of our mosque, who was also from Pakistan, called me to his house.  He gave me $3000 to give to his brother.  You’re probably thinking terrorist funding, right?)

“OK, I’ll be right back.”

I went back to my room in Rana’s house and did what any man in my situation would do (assuming another man has ever been in my situation):  I borrowed $1300 from my friend’s brother’s money and added it to my own.  Hey, I swore to Allah I’d put it all back as soon as I gotmy salary.  What was I gonna do, tell everyone I came all the way to Pakistan to get married with no money?  It would have made a mockery of me and my host.

The wedding was on.

There was a lot of shopping.  From the little anyone decided to translate, I gathered there were going to be several ceremonies.  For some, I was supposed to buy my own outfit, for others my future in-laws were to buy outfits for me.  And vice versa from their side.  And of course, the gold.

If you’re not from Africa or Asia, you’ve probably never seen real gold, or certainly not in any large amount.  Well, the gold bazaar in Lahore is basically a thousand or so shops that don’t sell anything under 22-carat (I’d barely seen 18-carat in the U.S.).  It’s a strange market feature of Pakistan.  Everything is sold in only one place.  Gold is sold in the gold market and nowhere else.  There is no other place in Lahore where gold can be found.  The same goes with books, paper, etc.  Vendors there must have some other way of competing.

But don’t worry about the bazaar:  you have to get there first…

And you will do that by flagging a rickshaw, negotiating the price, not agreeing, waving down the next guy, agreeing,  folding your knees till they almost pop, nearly falling out at a sharp turn because there’s no door, holding something, anything over your face to filter the smog, barely missing other vehicles and pedestrians…  There is nothing like the city streets in Pakistan.  There can’t be.  There are rickshaws which are basically a small carriage strapped to the back of a motorcycle (these used to pulled by a man on foot.)  There are carts which are bigger carriages strapped to a motorcycle, the motorcycle replacing what was previously a horse.  There are people sitting on small wooden platforms on wheels pulled by a donkey or ox.  I don’t know how they don’t fall off ‘cause those things wobble.  There are motorcycles with whole families on them, but the ladies don’t straddle- they sit with both of their legs crossed over one side while holding a baby and balancing a sandal on one toe, while the driver is weaving through traffic.  And forget helmets.  There are people on bicycles.  Wallahi, I swear to God, I even saw a guy running in traffic once.  There are a few cars, too, mostly fueled by CNG, compressed natural gas.

And there are no lanes.  By that I mean that you go into whatever space you can fit in.  When in a hurry you may cross all the way the other side of oncoming traffic to go around.  Near-miss is a way of life.  I know a Pakistani guy whose kids grew up in America.  He took them to visit once and his son, as he was standing by the road said, “Now I believe in Allah, Dad.”

“Only now?  Why?”

“Because only Allah could keep this kind of traffic from having accidents.”

Well the roads of Lahore made a believer out of me too.

I’m a man, and therefore unlikely to have a lot about shopping that I want to talk about, so I’ll fast-forward you to Friday, the day of the wedding, or so I thought.

“Daniel!”

“Huh!”

“Wake up, you missed Jumua.”

Jetlag had gotten the better of me.  It was the day of my wedding, the biggest day of my life, wherein I was to complete half of my religion, and I had slept through Friday prayers.  Not a good sign.

Signing my life away, that’s Rana to my right…

Later that night…  “Brother, get dressed.”

“I am dressed.”

“But where are your new clothes?”

“What new clothes?  I didn’t buy any clothes for today.”

“But brother, this is the nikah, wedding contract ceremony.  You can’t wear that.  You must wear something new.”

“Nobody told me.”

This happened about, I’d say, one hour before I was supposed to get married.  It was true, nobody had told me.  You see, Pakistani families are big.  People have lots of siblings, and lots of cousins, all of whom are like siblings.  When any of them get married, their in-laws become like blood relatives, all of them.  So you grow up attending all of your uncles’, aunts’, cousins’, siblings’, nephews’, nieces’ and all of their in-laws’ weddings.  By that time there’s so much you take for granted that there’s a lot you’d forget to explain in a 3-day Pakistani wedding crash course, which I was currently failing.

Somehow clothes that fit me magically appeared from the Saliim’s wardrobe, though I’m much taller than him.  Still don’t know what he was doing with those.  Alhamdulillah

So the nikah began on my in-laws’ roof.  In the shariiá, a wedding contract consists of the bride’s guardian’s consent, her consent, the groom’s consent, and four witnesses.  All the aforementioned were present, plus a few relatives, but the bride was downstairs.  They signed, I signed, then they took the contract downstairs and she signed.

Mabruuk, congratulations, you’re married, now go home.”

“When do I get to see my wife?”

it’s official! that’s my father-in-law on the left…

“Later, brother.”

“What?  Why?  When?”

“Just wait a few nights.”

That’s right, we got married before we had ever even seen each other.

Well, I had seen her ID photo, but you know how those turn out.  It is allowed and even recommended in Islam for potential spouses to see each other, but not in this branch of Punjabi culture.  I brought it up, and was met with a few blank stares, so I decided to let it go.

Meanwhile, Rana’s family took on the traditional role of my family.  His female relatives would visit my wife and tell me “Oh, she’s beautiful,” or, “Don’t worry, she’s gorgeous.”  That made me nervous.  I mean, why’d they have to keep telling me that?  If she looked good, she looked good, no need to repeat it a thousand times.  And why they keep sayin’ don’t worry?  I never said I was worried.  Was this some psychological trick?  Make me think something ‘til I believe it so much it changes what I see?  Yeah, like Shallow Hal?  But what happens when I snap out of it.

Believe it or not, sending me home alone wasn’t a sick form of torture.  The bride and groom shouldn’t be seen together until a public announcement of their marriage to avoid rumors that they eloped, rumors, apparently, that are hard to avoid…

Two nights later, was the Mehndi Rism, or Henna (handpaint) ceremony.  I bought a few kilos of sweets, came with an entourage, and was sat on a fancy swing on a stage- in front of a crowd of about 200.  By the way, everyone in Pakistan is Pakistani.  Sounds like a no-brainer, right?  Well, if you look at America, everyone’s an American citizen, but we’re all from different places.  In Pakistan, no one comes from any other place.  Everyone in Pakistan is from Pakistan.  Except you.  And you’re sitting on a swing on a platform in front of 200 people.

Zoos really are inhumane.

Later, finally, my mystery bride arrived in a red dress with gold embroidery.  She looked nice, except I couldn’t see her.  The veil was very big and hung over her head.  At least we got to sit together.  Relative after relative came by and put pieces of sweets into our mouths and then much-needed cash into my hand.  At one point, someone brought did 3 circles with a live chicken in front of my face.  Don’t know what that was about, but they left cash, so…

Then, someone took the money from me, told me to get up, and started escorting me home.

“Where am I going?”

“Home, brother.”

“What about yall?”

“We’re gonna stay and party.”

“Man, what?!  I wanna see my wife, maaan…”

“Just a couple more nights, brother.”

They really make you earn it.

The next ceremony was the Bharat, no idea what that translates to.  The day of, I noticed a tent being set up on my way to and from the mosque.  It was taking up Rana’s whole block.  Soon, some huge cooking pots were going.  Without telling, Rana had taken the groom’s father’s role by paying for all of this.  The Bharat consists of eating some food, then the bride and groom sitting on a couch while family after family comes and sits around them for a picture.  Add those flashing lights to the camera lights because the wedding was being videotaped.  If you look at most of my wedding pictures, you can see that we’re squinting, despite our best efforts.

These lights, of course, added to the 120-degree heat, as did my suit jacket.  It’s a nice night for everyone but you.

At the end, an entourage followed my wife and I to our honeymoon nest.

And there, for the first time- finally!– I saw my wife.

She was beautiful…

Part 3

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i come in
  turn on the lights
 and see i’m alone-
i live in a house
but don’t have a home
 
i leave and say “salam”
  but no one replies
 i go earn my pay
   but find not my prize
 
all praise to Allah:
  i haven’t died
   but lived-
long enough to see love in your eyes

Two weeks later and I was back in the U.S.  As a sign of what was to come, I got held up by Homeland Security, missing my connecting flight, for three hours.  It was your good ol’ good cop-bad cop set-up by guys who needed acting classes.

“What do you think about Osama bin Laden?”

“I never met him.”

“Do you plan to commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil?”

“Would I tell you yes even if I did?”

1 is theUS country code, 92 isPakistan’s.  That’s the name because that was the game.  On again, off again calling cards, distant echoes, and fuzz.  On top of that, my wife didn’t speak much English.  Everyone studies English in Pakistan, but they know and use about as much as you use the languages you studied in high school.  So it was very difficult to communicate because so much of communication is body language- gestures, drawing pictures in the air, pointing, facial expressions- which you need all the more when there’s a language barrier.  People ask if I learned Urdu;  I haven’t really, but I cheated and had my wife take an English course.

“As-salamu alaykum.”

“Wa alaykum as-salam.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.  Did you eat?”

She would always ask me this, first thing.  Anyone who knows me knows that’s one question you don’thave to ask.  This question to our first fight:  over cereal.  You see, there’s no breakfast cereal in Pakistan, at least not that I or anyone I know there has ever seen.  So I would keep telling her that I’d had cereal for breakfast (I soon learned not to mention the times I’d had it for lunch or dinner), but she didn’t know what it was.  I was not able to describe it, at least not in a way that put her mind at ease, and I started to sense a growing suspicion and even hostility to my beloved Raisin Bran ©®™ and bananas.  Finally, I convinced her that I didn’t eat it that much and just when she was starting to believe me, she got on the phone with my mom.  She told her “Yeah, he eats it all the time.”  She was referring to the past, of course, as I tried to explain, and I didn’t even live in her house anymore, so she couldn’t possibly know what I ate.  But, in a pattern that would continue, they believe each other more than they believe me, even though they both know me better than they know each other.

“What did you eat?  Cereal?..”  It would hiss off our tongue, like she was spitting out something vile…

By now, we’ve come to a compromise.  She eats cereal some, and I eat it much less than before.

“I need more money.”

“What?  What happened to the money I sent?

“I want to buy some gold.”

“Why do you want gold?”

“Because I need it.”

“How can somebody need gold?”

“I don’t know, but I do.  You don’t understand.”

Sure didn’t.  And let me tell you something:  I didn’t have a job when I got married.  I had resigned from the one I had before I came to Pakistan to move closer to family.  Of course, I didn’t tell nobody in Pakistan this-  would you have?  I figured I’d get a teaching job when I got back, right in time for the next school year.  I did get an offer, but found out that Sociology, my major, is specifically listed as not being a social science according to the State of Texas.  And I didn’t have enough credits in any other subject.  So there I was, jobless with a wife to support, which is a long way of saying desperate.

I finally found a job as a chauffeur.  A cat with an Ivy League degree who didn’t know how to tie a tie driving a limo everyday.  (I got my brother to tie it for me, then only loosened it enough to take it off but not untie the knot- worked for almost a year.)  I lived life one tip from broke, which means I was a slave to the next trip.  I might go to bed at 1 and wake up at 3.  Pressed for time, I only ironed the front of my shirt and the collar.  I had to wear a jacket, so no one was ever

The Ivy-League chauffeur. How’s my tie?

gonna see the rest.  And I can tell you all one thing:  you don’t need to dry clean suits if you know how to use an iron.  I met a few famous people and had some interesting conversations.  Once, while driving a woman and her daughter, the woman blamed me for farting.  She must’ve thought I couldn’t hear her.  I guess the $20 tip she gave me was some kind of compensation.

At any rate, I barely, rarely had enough money.  I could’ve made more, but I refused to take any jobs that in any way involved alcohol, and partiers are bigger tippers.  I didn’t miss that money at all…

“Are you OK?”

Ji.  Nehi.  Buta nehi.

Her answer to my question is translated as “Yes.  No.  I don’t know.”  Only a woman can confuse a man so profoundly.

But they were all true.  She was happy to hear from me.  That, more than even food, was her sustenance.  I’d lived a lot of life before Islam, but this was her first love, her only love, her only contact with an unrelated male.  She didn’t even know what a kiss was before.  It was a total love:  there was nothing in her heart to which she could compare it.

To further illustrate, she stopped eating when I left.  She was hospitalized twice within a few weeks of my departure for low blood pressure.  I’d never heard of it, so I scoured the internet to find a cause.  Finally I correctly guessed that she hadn’t been eating.

She was grieving.

There was nothing even her family could do.  Whenever she was doing anything, she was also waiting for me to call.  Only I could get her to eat, or go to sleep.

So yes, she was OK, because we were together again, even if it was only our voices.

And no, she wasn’t, because sooner or later that call would end, plunging her back into that interminable agony of missing me.

And she didn’t really know what to feel, because this was all too new, and much too much to have to go through alone.

I used to end every call with “I love you” and do you know what she would say back?  “OK.”  She didn’t even know what love was, yet she had fallen hopelessly, mysteriously in it.

___

The outside pressures were enormous, and unfair.

“When’s the last time he sent money?”

“He didn’t call you today, did he?”

Her family’s so-called friends actually asked this.  Some people would say I wasn’t coming back.  It started before the marriage even began.  In the unedited wedding video, before it was dubbed over with music, wedding guests are overheard gossiping about us over the food that we had served them.

“How can she marry him?  He’s too tall for her.”

“He came to Pakistan before and fell in love with her;  that’s how they met.”

Can you believe it?  Why?  All for their sick, sad amusement.  It was like making their own little soap opera, all the more entertaining because the characters were real, life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Even our respective national intelligence agencies got in on the act.  Imagine an undercover agent coming to tell you your son-in-law had been in jail the last 3 days.

“But he’s been calling her 4 or 5 times a day…”

“Maybe they let him call from jail.”

So I get arrested for terrorism charges, and instead of throwing me in a secret prison, they let me make 4 phone calls a day, to Pakistan?  Wow.  Better sign up for script-writing after those acting classes are finished.

Needless to say, as an African-American, a Muslim, and a person with connections to Pakistan, my profile throws up a lot of red flags.  I’m not Homeland Security’s flavor-of-the-month, or maybe the problem is that I am.  It’s not worthwhile to tell you how far they would go- and how they get others, even community leaders to go with them- but it’s pretty far.  It’s also ridiculous.  I guess danger’s part of what makes it an adventure.  I’ve been in trouble my whole life anyway.  At least it’s for something right this time, if you call that a bright side.  I don’t complain.  As was said in ‘The Godfather II’ and ‘The Road to Perdition’:  this is the life I chose.

So why didn’t I just bring her to America?  Well…

…everyone involved thought that after getting married, her entry visa would take the usual 4 months, which would allow us to be together while her residency application processed.  As of now, it’s been more than 15 times that long and still nothing.  Just a bunch of badly-rehearsed excuses and shady 6-foot, 220 characters asking when we can have a “chat”.  Why?  I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count…

First they told me that a delay in processing had begun for applications after a certain date.  I had applied before but that date didn’t seem to matter.  There’s always either an obvious idiot or a cold-hearted bureaucrat on the other end of that call, one unable, the other unwilling, to help.

The Eagles’ song could have been about me if it hadn’t been written before I was born:  I was just a hired hand, working on a dream I planned to try.  I was underemployed and underpaid driving, with a marriage I had no idea how to keep alive.

For her part, a friend of mine always says that ideas have consequences.  Well grief, worry, love, longing, doubt and hope are all ideas.  And they were having consequences.  Her hair was falling out.  She was losing weight and being periodically hospitalized.

Music makes love and suffering seem like something you actually want.  They’re not.  The situation was as unbearable as it was interminable.  We couldn’t take it anymore.

But there was no end in sight…

Part 4

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Patience is the most pain…

My brother forwarded me an email once. Some school in Saudi Arabia was looking for an English teacher. I read it and deleted it.

Meanwhile, things continued as before. I knew that to get my life together I needed a regular schedule and salary. So I signed up for a temp job at Dell. It paid less than driving a limo could, but, at least I knew where I was going to be at a given time of day.

Now when I told my wife that I was going to work in a factory, I made a mistake, and she made a mistake. I told her I was going to work from 4 pm to 1230 am. She started imagining the sweatshop her brother worked in with me in it.

So she was expecting a call at 1230 my time, but I had made a huge mistake. I was working until 230 am. We could not use phones at any time or place in the factory, so I just kept working. When I finally did call, her only words were tears.

“Do they have AC?” she kept asking.

I said, “Yes, they have AC, they give us breaks, everything’s fine.”

She didn’t believe me. She thought I was covering it up just so she wouldn’t worry. Her brother worked long hours at a sewing machine with no ventilation and dim lights, and that was actually pretty good, considering what goes on in other factories.

“Don’t worry. America only allows that outside of our country,” I assured her.

I wasn’t the only over-qualified guy in the factory. I used to meet up for coffee before work with a Tunisian guy who was very intellectual, and working on a Master’s degree. I should say coffees. The guy picked me up for work at 2.15 and we didn’t start until four o’clock. And my house was only 15 minutes away! When he called I was barely awake, which was not a problem because we spent the next hour and 15 minutes exploring the outer reaches of free refills. Once we spent 3 hours at a Starbucks on a night work finished early, which means I kept having to tell my wife I’d call her back. Needless to say, she didn’t approve of this friend. She doesn’t seem to approve of any of the friends I have coffee with, now that I think about it…

Somehow, I started to think about that email my brother had sent me. My first trip abroad ever involved backpacking Europe in a Mercedes, if you can imagine that, and I’d had the “travel bug”- this desire, this need to be other places- ever since. Maybe it started a little before that, but ever since I felt like a fish in a fishbowl that was floating in the ocean. I had to get out. My teaching license petition wasn’t going anywhere either, so maybe that was it, too. I asked my brother to resend it, and alhamdulillah he still had it.

My interview with the school changed my life.

They told me about the job, blah, blah, blah, but when I started asking them about bringing family, they said I would be able to have my wife there within 2 months. Getting that job in Saudi Arabia became my mission in life. Saudi or bust..

I did everything. They told me to get any teaching certificate, so I found the only one that was immediately available, a 20-hour weekend certificate in New Jersey. I missed a flight to New York, got on another one to D.C. and took a train to New York, slept out in Jersey. I needed some, any teaching qualification to be eligible for a visa. I straggled my way back to my D.C., where my brother was working. Then I called them to let them know everything was ready. And you know what they told me?

Nothing.

They played me. They were all off on summer vacation.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this only hardened my resolve. I looked up an old friend, the same one who had invited me to Islam in fact, who I’d heard was teaching in Saudi Arabia. He directed me to some English language teaching websites where job ads were posted. I literally applied for every single job in the Middle East. Unless they said they wanted a Ph.D, they got an application from me that summer.

Saudi Arabia has its particulars. Their work visa requires a medical screening that should be the newest Olympic sport. I took the form from the consulate to ProMed, and they kept looking at it, scratching their heads, going to ask someone in the back, looking at me, and scratching their heads again.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s for a visa to Saudi Arabia.”

“But why do they want all these tests?”

“I guess they don’t want any diseases in their country.”

“Yeah, they probably have enough problems already…”

I had to give a blood test, drug test, urine test, AIDS test, chest x-ray. There was even a stool sample. I didn’t know what a stool sample was, but, now that I do, I can tell you that you do NOT want to know how to “collect” and store one.

Whatever, I was on my plane to Saudi.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw Jeddah for the first time on the highway from the airport, I was shocked. It was just. like. America. The billboards, the cars, the clothes. Everything. OK, well there were about 100 times more people wearing black or white robes, but still. Somewhere, apparently, and without my permission, they’d figured out that AC is much more effective than the shade of a palm tree, and traded in horses for horsepower… It was just- I guess I’d read so much about the first generations of Muslims that I hadn’t imagined what else could have happened in the land they once lived in. It’s not that I expected to go back in time or to be in some kind of holy land. But I was expecting the difference to be greater.

The Bollywood music started and the crowd parted. My wife walked out of the terminal, saw me, started gushing, and in a near run interrupted by bounds of joy, she fell into my outstretched arms and bouquet of roses.

Then I woke up to the fight of my life.

It was Ramadan, which in the Arabian Gulf means shortened work hours, which means that the application for my residency permit, essential to my wife’s visa application, was going nowhere slow. If you ask anybody for anything, they’ll tell you “After Eed.” It’s not a holy month, it’s the perfect excuse…

I had to work on site till about 12 at the outskirts of Jeddah, hop on the first thing smoking back to my office, and start hounding this guy or that guy, whoever the buck was being passed to, about the application. It turned out my boss was giving me the run-around. He kept telling me to have someone else sign something that only he had the authority to sign, and by the way, he always takes Ramadan (and most other months) off, so the only way to get him to sign something was to give it to the guy who drove to his house from the office once a night. I had to figure this all out bit-by-bit while getting over jet lag, fasting, going through a heat wave that makes Texas seem like Switzerland, and some mysterious headaches, probably brought on from the aforementioned three.

I had to get violent on those cats. I went through all this trouble to get the driver guy to get a signature, then get that paper to the stamp guy, who doesn’t give a stamp without a signature, and then give the paper to the PR guy, whose job was to take things to government offices. Do you know what this PR fool did when I finally tracked him down to give him the paper? He picked it up like it was a towel and practically crumpled the whole thing. After all I’d done. I punched him in the chest. I wasn’t angry (that’s what every guy says when he’s angry)- I was just the new guy takin’ the shortcut to a little respect. I hope that didn’t break my fast. astaghfirullah…

Finally it was all done. Me and my wife’s paperwork were ready. According to one veteran ex-pat, it was the Saudi record for getting the family’s paperwork done.

There was just one more thing, to bring her. Normally, people just buy their wife a ticket and meet her at the airport. I, however, was unwilling to break the Prophetic order forbidding a woman to travel long distances without a close relative.

“Brother, honestly, you’re wasting a lot of money.”

“She’s not going to be traveling alone. Her family will bring her there, then she’s on the plane with lots of people, and then you’ll meet her at the airport. Someone will be there the whole time.”

This is what people were telling me, including my boss, who’s money I was borrowing to buy all the tickets, and whose travel agency was booking the ticket, and who’s language center I was going to be absent from for a day. It’s a miracle this even happened now that I think about it. alhamdulillah…

I didn’t care. I was willing to pay for a $100 visa to Pakistan, and a roundtrip ticket, only to stay for a day, on top of her one-way ticket, to follow my religion.

Besides, I wasn’t gonna take no chances wit’ my baby…

Her dad and brother met me at the airport. When I walked into the house, she was helping her mother in the kitchen. The first thing she did was look away, shy…

We didn’t hug- they don’t do that in front of other people in Pakistan. We didn’t even smile. There was too much worry, relief, gladness, and nervousness to know what face to make. We’d been longing for so long we didn’t know how to feel anything else right away…

“as-Salamu álaykum”

“wa álaykum as-Salam”

Those simple words had so many thousand shades of meaning at that moment, and we meant every single one of them.

People had a certain smell when they are sick. She had it. Her skin was sallow, her voluminous hair thinned. They say patience is a virtue. I say that of all verbs, ‘wait’ is the most painful. I don’t know what’s worse, being burned by the fire of the urge of what you think you can do, or the torment of knowing you can do nothing. I’d had a lot of both.

As if on cue, our flight from Abu Dhabi was delayed. Overnight.

You’re a young sheltered Pakistani girl, who’s only seen planes in the sky. Now you’re in the middle of of one of the world’s busiest hubs with all kinds of people flying past- a line of 50 Malaysians with mini-visors sticking out of their hijabs making a beeline at you, a towering, Sudani family wearing miles of cloth taking your breath away, some squawky Brits brushing you aside. Announcements blare in languages you can’t understand. You’re alone and you don’t know where to go, who to ask, or even what to ask.

What would I have done if her flight had been delayed overnight and I was sitting in Jeddah not knowing where she was or how to reach her? What would I have told her family that night at the time they were waiting to hear from her? What would my friends and their advice do for me me then?

I felt vindicated.

As a reward, al-Ittihad Airways sponsored our second honeymoon: a one-night stay with a free breakfast buffet in an Abu Dhabi hotel.

I had rented our apartment the day before I left. I hadn’t even slept there myself, nevermind furnished it. But it was home, our home, at last. Only then could we finally take a breath and get a real look at each other again.

She was still beautiful…
The Bollywood music started and the crowd in the airport parted.  My wife walked out of the terminal, spotted me and her gaze zoomed in on my camera-filtered face.  Her eyes started gushing, and ran to me, leaping in bounds of joy.  She landed in my outstretched arms and a bouquet of roses that appeared from seemingly nowhere.

Then I woke up to the fight of my life.

It was Ramadan, the month of fasting.  In the Arabian Peninsula this means shortened work hours, which means that the application for my residency permit, essential to my wife’s visa application, was going nowhere slow.  In Ramadan, if you ask anybody to do something, they just tell you “After Éed.”  Éed’s the holiday at the end of the month.  ‘After Éed, after Éed, why do today what you can do after Éed?’  Ramadan’s not a holy month, it’s the perfect excuse…

It was ridiculous.  I had to work on site till about 12 at the outskirts of Jeddah, hop on the first thing smoking back to my office, and start hounding this guy or that guy, whoever the buck was being passed to, about the application.  It turned out my boss was giving me the run-around.  He kept telling me to have someone else sign something that only he had the authority to sign, and by the way, he always takes Ramadan (and most other months) off, so the only way to get him to sign something was to give it to the guy who drove to his house from the office once a night.  I had to figure this all out bit-by-bit while getting over jet lag, fasting, going through a heat wave that makes Texas seem like Switzerland, and some mysterious headaches, probably brought on by all of the above.

I had to get violent on those cats.  I went through all this trouble to get the driver guy to get a signature, then get that paper to the stamp guy, who doesn’t give a stamp without a signature, and then give the paper to the PR guy, whose job was to take things to government offices.  Do you know what this PR fool did when I finally tracked him down to give him the paper?  He picked it up like it was a towel and practically crumpled the whole thing.  After all I’d done.  I punched him in the chest.  I wasn’t angry (that’s what every guy says when he’s angry)-  I was just the new guy takin’ the shortcut to a little respect.  I hope that didn’t break my fast.  astaghfirullaah, forgive me, Allaah…

Finally it was all done.  Me and my wife’s paperwork were ready.  According to one veteran ex-pat, it was the Saudi record for getting the family’s paperwork done.

Part 5: The Beginning

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in between

our lies & our illusions

lies reality

By all normal expectations, we shouldn’t have been married.

In Pakistan and South Asia, there is the issue of caste. If anyone from there tells you any different, they’re covering it up to fit in. It is not as all-encompassing in Pakistan as it is in India, but it is very much a part of marriage decisions. I can prove it. Go to any Muslim magazine. Flip to the back. You’ll see matrimonials. Read the ads. You might see, for example, the word “Rajput”. That’s a caste. They want to marry someone from their caste. They only want to marry someone from their caste.

On top of not being in her caste, or any that I know of, I’m a kalloo, a black. Anti-dark skin and anti-African racism has the potential to unite the world. It is one thing that most cultures seem to agree on, including, sickly, dark-skinned people and Africans themselves. If anyone from anywhere tells you this isn’t true, just go to where they’re from and ask any dark-skinned people or Africans about that. Or, when you visit a country, compare how many dark-skinned people you see on the street compared to how many you see on TV. The only ones you’ll see are in the “before” portion of the skin-lightening cream commercials.

And Pakistan is a controversial country to be connected to, to say the least. A lot of people fear it, or outright hate it. I remember driving a newly-wed couple from their wedding to a hotel for their honeymoon.

“Are you married, too?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, really? Where’d you get married?”

“Pakistan.”

Silence…

We really do make an odd-couple. We’re over a foot apart in height. I’m black, she’s white. I’m the far-flung rebel, she’s the goody-goody homebody. I’m extroverted, she’s introverted. And our cultures and languages are vastly different.

“Why did you say yes when they asked if you wanted to marry me?”

“I don’t know.”

That’s the answer I always get when I ask, and I believe it. When she asks me, I can’t come up with anything different.

Life is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Remember those? You read through a situation and it ends with the character facing two choices:

Choose A and turn to page X.

Choose B and turn to page Y.

Your choice, in turn, leads to two more choices. But you didn’t know what they’d be until you’d already turned the page to them.

Except in life, you can’t turn back the page. That choice is never available to you. You don’t come to the options of consequences of your choice, and decide to go back and pick others. You can only continue to choose. And that’s it. There’s no other way to describe it.

It doesn’t matter why I did what I did, because it’s already done; but I’ll still try to tell you. For one, the taste of adventure intrigued me. I’ve always wanted something different. There’s always been something about where I am- wherever I am- and who I am- though the most part I love- that I’ve hated. I’ve always wanted to be different, to do different. Whenever I look at the road that’s paved for me, I step off it and walk on the grass. It’s softer on my feet.

I used to be so filled with rage, and I still am, but no longer consumed by it. I wanted revenge against the society I was born in. You know what I hated the most? Humiliation. I hated the fact that I was in America because my every second there was a reminder that my ancestors had been dominated, ripped from their lands and history, my history, raped and enslaved. I hated my own- the European trophy on the grave of my African and Native American ancestors. I looked around and all I saw was people being abused, and taking it. It was unfathomable. Talk about my mama, and I woulda beat you up, but you know what the real insult was? Telling me what to do. Who did you think you were that I would obey you? Who did you think I was? I will not do what you say, even if it’s what I want to do, for the exact reason that you told me to do it. I will correct you. Further, I will humiliate you for your arrogance against me. I will make you wallow, publicly, in the humiliation you dared to believe I would accept.

I remember once, in 2nd grade, there was an assembly. So the teacher told us to line up and get ready to go. I can’t tell you why, but I refused. She made every threat, but I would not get in line with the rest of the class. Finally, she turned off the lights and led the class out. I called her bluff and stayed right there, until the assembly finished and they came back. Her blunder was that I had no bluff. There was nothing anyone could do to me, no threat that I could even imagine, that was worse than living with humiliation. I could endure anything except shame. Living with the memory of oppression was a worse fate than death.

You know what really used to trip me out? Watching everybody tripping out on me. I’d be looking at them taking orders and conforming and I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t they see they didn’t have to? How could they ever want to? I mean I was there setting the example, fighting for all of us, right in front of their faces. It hurt me to watch them endure what in my eyes could only be suffering, and I was fundamentally, absolutely bewildered that they couldn’t see the point. I was really popular, these were my friends. I was the class clown, class rebel and honor roll student, all at the same time. Everybody liked me and was probably a little leery of me at the same time.

So everything and everyone feels familiar and utterly foreign to me at the same time. There’s no crowd I don’t feel lonely in, no people I can consider wholly mine, none who consider me wholly theirs.

That’s probably why I travel, why I’m free. I have nothing to gain or lose. I feel like I can do anything. There’s nothing to hold me back. I’m always on the outside looking in, and the inside looking out. It’s not so much that I transcend, it’s that everywhere is the same. There are just the obligatory adjustments of language, currency, time zone, etc. Hard times ain’t a hurdle for me.

So that’s why I said yes to the marriage.

Sometimes people say, “I wish I could’ve done that.” Not about this “strange marriage” but other things I’ve done, like transferring to another university, or studying abroad. I’m like “Why couldn’t you have? You could’ve applied as easily as me…” But it wasn’t the practicalities they were talking about. It is only now, and I mean at this exact moment as I am writing to you, that I realize what it was really all about.

You can’t dream.

In Sociology, I learned that institutionalization means taking the present reality for granted to the extent that you can’t imagine anything else, even if you don’t like it, even if it feels wrong.

You can’t even picture yourself even trying.

This isn’t what you want, you’re not who you want, but at least you know what’s on the next page. If you start choosing your own way, you won’t know, and that’s why you don’t choose it. I don’t blame you, because I’m as scared as you. But what I’m scared of is what’s on this page, and what I know is on the next one. What I’m scared of is the way we feel right now. The reason I take the risk isn’t because I’m stronger than you. I have no idea what’s gonna happen next and I swear to God that I’m afraid. But I know it’s our only chance, and that’s why I take it. I’m not brave- I’m just less afraid of change than the misery of things staying the same.

And that’s all this story is really about when you think about: a choice. One simple choice, and all the choices that were opened or closed to me after it. Marry the girl or not. At the same time, so much of that choice was beyond my choosing. Her father chose Islam over culture and that gave his daughter the choice. She, in turn, chose yes, which gave me the choice. There is a verse in the Qur-an which is translated as “and you do not choose except as Allah Chooses”. Before we choose anything, so much has been chosen before it for us to even be able to.

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Now I’m gonna ask you a question, the answer to which is a question, that only I can answer.

Ready?

Do you know what my friend just texted me, tonight, right before I started writing this chapter?

“Based on the story i’m reading on the net. have you been back home with your wife yet?”

The answer’s no and yes: no, I have not taken her to the land of my upbringing; yes, for we are home wherever we are. Wherever we arrive, we project an aura, the same aura, from our hearts, and its beams meet itself right at the top of wherever we are, then we bring it down, then it fills the entire space that we are in. Then we are home, in our love, in our special culture.

Our dream is the only home we have, and by Islam we realize them: that every person was made to live in peace- wholeness within, unity without. Every person has the right to inherit that peace, the duty to uphold it, and the responsibility to pass it . It is only that, truly, that unites my wife and I, across the chasms of culture, background, and personality: we share the same dream.

Don’t underestimate them: dreams are the most powerful things in this world. And the most dangerous. Name anything, and we have more than enough of it. Maybe they’re being squandered or hoarded, but there’s more than enough water, food, land, oil, everything. The one thing there isn’t enough of is room for everyone’s dream to come true. It is for this alone that wars are fought. This, not money, is the root of all evil, for money is only a means to achieve. This is the source of every lie- for at all times, every effort is being made to create your dream for you, because your dreams determine your choices. Everyone wants you to choose as they have chosen, because in life, really, there are only 2 choices: wake up to your dream one day, or somebody else’s.

Choose wisely.

Strange Marriage Comments

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The following are actual comments from readers in response to the original posts of the short story Strange Marriage on my blog qahiri.wordpress.com

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Comments to Part 1

 

1.  Man that was an interesting read. I can’t wait for the next part. I get this question all the time even tho I am pakistani. People find it wierd that I grew up here and went back to marry, especially considering she’s my cousin. But Alhamdulilla its working out great. Quite honestly, when you went back to Pak to get married, you gave me motivation to do the same. I was always a little reluctant cuz my urdu isn’t good and some other little things but I figured if you can manage, then it should be a piece of cake for me. Around the time, I met another brother who was from pak and he married an arab sister who didn’t speak any english, neither of ‘em spoke a mutual language but he too was very happy msA….well anyways, hope you and your family are doing well. are you still in the mid east?…can’t wait for the next part of the story.

 2.  That is a very interesting story Daniel. It as mystique and adventure. That was great. Not many people especially black people get to experience a culture that is so outside of the norm because of fear of the unknown. Mostly because they are afraid to step out of their comfort zone. Very brave thing to do. Loved it.

 3.  Colleague: beautiful story

 4.  you have an amazing talent and intellect that I have never seen in another person I’ve met. Be well. …

 

 

 Comments to Part 2

1.  Keep the story coming. I’m getting interested now. Corey

2.  You are VERRRRY talented, and I read your previous post. Your clarity in writing actually transfixes the reader to another place, and I actually feel like I am at the wedding, and feel the anticipation of seeing your lovely wife for the first time. Keep writing, Daniel; it’s wonderful, and as your sister knows, I love to read about various places.

3.  favorite part: “She was beautiful…”

4.  Columbia Alum: that was a really interesting read bro!

5. I enjoyed your story. Masha’Allah

6.  That was a phenomenal read, really enjoyed it… Had me at the edge through out, wanted to dive into my computer screen to have a peak at the wedding yo! Major skills you have putting it down. Subhan-Allah, look forward to receiving more Insha-Allah

7.  Would love to hear about this from your wife’s perspective.

Comments to Part 3

 

1. This was great!!! I wish i could write like this, it made me laugh,yet it was full of understanding,knowing i live on this side of the world……maybe i didnt see what u saw but i really did get the point of what u went thru..well said brother…

2.  You’re a legend…

3.  Your writing does convey your emotion. your story is fascinating

4.  SaharTV host: Sooooooooooooooooooooooo beautiful Daniel, Thank you

5.  Man your story is unbelievable. I couldn’t help but share with my wife and a couple of friends who need motivation for marriage. very courageous

6.  Your approach to writing captures beautifully the delicacies……… of love first metted. a brain to brain kiss, a word caress, a song of a story. so far i❤ it. thanks for sharing.

7.  i am somewhere between a gasp and and laugh. thoroughly enjoying this.

Comments to Part 4

 

1. There better be a part 5. Now i’m into this. Corey

Comments to Part 5

1.   in a word, inspiration……………………………

2.  you never cease to amaze and inspire

3. Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

4. wow Daniel, this entry was so powerful. I share the feeling of not belonging while simultaneously fitting in most places. I’ve been trying to find a middle-ground recently between having no direction in my life and complete pre-determination of it (well the illusion of it anyway) and I’ve really been struggling. I feel like your words have helped me in a way that I don’t even realize yet, they just helped me feel peaceful.

5.  When you said your father-in-law chose Islam over culture, it gave me goosebumps. Lovely. I really enjoyed reading this! May Allah bless you both. I look forward to reading more!