Local author Huda Al-Marashi has written a memoir of growing up in a conservative Muslim Iraqi-American family and how that influenced her marriage expectations. “First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story” chronicles her life of dual identities and deciphering religious rules.
Al-Marashi’s autobiography is dedicated to themes of love and sexuality, usually taboo subjects in traditional societies. Al-Marashi, whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Al Jazeera, lives in Encinitas with her husband and three children.
Q: How did you negotiate your dual identities growing up? Does your past influence your writing today?
A: The funny thing is, as a young girl, I didn’t even know I was negotiating a dual identity. I didn’t have the words to describe it in that way. All I knew was that we were different, but I couldn’t tell you precisely what made us different. I knew my parents and grandparents spoke a different language at home and that we belonged to a religion that nobody else in my school belonged to, but I didn’t always know what things went with which culture. I think that’s a fairly common experience for young people. I remember my daughter telling me, once, how she told her classmates at school that she had rice with yogurt for dinner, which is very common in the Middle East — to eat plain yogurt with a savory dish. And how surprised she was when everyone turned up their nose in disgust. She thought that was something everyone did.
But it also came as a great relief to me in high school and college to learn the term dual identity and to know that my experiences as an Arab-American were actually common to anyone straddling two sides of hyphen. In my writing, it was really important to me to acknowledge that there is this tension here, between a sort of seamless existence between two worlds where you exist in both so naturally that you are hardly aware of it. Then at other times, there is this experience of real conflict where that dual identity ‘cleaves the mind,’ as I describe it in my book.
Q: For you, what was the difference between Muslim love and American love? Why?
A: This issue gets to why representation is so important. Growing up, I never encountered a Muslim protagonist in a love story whether that be in print or on film, so I drew this false conclusion that Muslims didn’t have love stories worth telling. I didn’t blame it on immigration or the fact that I was living in the U.S. and not hearing those stories. I just assumed that Muslims only had stories like the relationships I saw around me — these match-made couples — where the hope was to find a good person who checked all the boxes and then you learned to love them. But American love got to be this mysterious, fragile thing that was worthy of celebration in every art form.
And what I realized as I got older is, one, how damaging it is to be excluded from love stories because it suggests that certain groups of people are not capable of this fundamentally human experience, and, two, how false this presumption is. There is no culture that doesn’t experience love. Muslim and Arab poets have been speaking an exquisite language of love for centuries, but growing up in the U.S., I had never been exposed to it.
This is one of the most overlooked but painful by products of immigration — this experience of forming an opinion about your own culture and community in absentia. I wanted this narrative to not only point to the ways we are misinformed about our own cultures as the children of immigrants, but also to contribute to the growing body of literature about the Arab-American or Muslim-American experience.
Q: In what ways was your marriage tied to loss? How was it a new beginning but also an end?
A: All marriages bring about an ending of sorts. You get assigned this new role, wife or husband, that carries with it centuries of convention. Then you take two people who had previously been wholly unique individuals, put them in a house together, and all of sudden they are both reenacting whatever ideas they grew up with regarding those roles and how it applies to their lives. So, there is the loss of who you were as a single person and who you were in your nuclear family. It’s also the birth of this new family dynamic, a household that’s essentially made up of your in-laws married to your parents.
Q: Will your children have arranged marriages when they are ready, too? Why or why not?
A: I think the language surrounding arranged marriage needs to change. It’s a stigmatized term that makes people chafe, especially in Western society, and it’s no longer entirely relevant. For better or worse, the role of the matchmaker has been usurped by dating apps, and I don’t think a lot of people in the West realize that they are also coupling in a way that mimics this very traditional custom — where you are looking at someone’s picture and their information in a profile and then deciding whether you’d like to get to know them more based on the impression you formed from the data in front of you.
What I’d like to pass onto my children, and everyone’s kids, for that matter, is a character-driven focus in marriage. We’ve got to have a greater emphasis on choosing a partner based on who they are as a person. Feelings are great, but I don’t know that how you feel about this person should supersede whether they’d make a good partner long term. The most important questions I think people need to ask about a prospective mate is, does this person build you up or bring you down? Do they have your best interest at heart? What are they like when they are angry? Do they argue kindly?
And I wish it could become less taboo to talk about getting married for these pragmatic reasons. Love is the only right answer to why you are marrying someone in American culture, but we have a very myopic view of love when love can look like a lot of different things. Kindness is the best form of love even if doesn’t come with the sparks and butterflies we’ve been trained to look for.
Q: What two pieces of advice would you give young adults about marriage today that you wish you knew before you married?
A: Number one is take care of yourself. Our spouses are such easy targets. In our current soul-mate culture, it’s all on your spouse to fulfill you, to complete you, to make you happy. However, when you start to chafe in an otherwise healthy relationship, more often than not, something in you has gone unfulfilled, and it’s a restlessness from within, from your own unrealized dreams and passions for yourself. The best thing for my marriage is my writing because it keeps me from taking out my creative frustrations on my spouse. I think all humans are creative beings and most of us are cut off from meaningful creative pursuits. But finding time to produce something you find meaningful can align so many other areas of your life.
And, two, keep up healthy, strong relationships with your friends. It’s great when your spouse is your best friend, but it’s equally important to have other friends that you can lean on for different kinds of emotional support.
Q: After your first year of marriage, you and your husband moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, so he could attend medical school. Did the new surroundings raise questions about your own culture and community?
A: At the time, I had been wrestling to define my bicultural identity, and entering this third space made me question that tight binary of Arab and American to see that these descriptors really were quite relative. Yes, certainly there are things that divide American and Middle Eastern cultures, but to a certain extent the behaviors and attitudes I was pigeonholing into those categories are present in all communities. And, it taught me to see my own identity in a more forgiving way. I wasn’t a ‘bad’ kid because I didn’t speak Arabic better. My family just landed in a town in California where there were not many other Arab families, and I’d never been afforded the opportunity to learn Arabic better. All those very family-focused cultural practices that I thought were so uniquely Arab, like the big family dinners and the multigenerational homes, were part of Mexican culture, too. All of these discoveries helped me to come to terms with my own story — to realize that immigration invariably changes people. Where you land also influences the way you change and how much. Mexico is where I realized how little control we have over the way we assimilate and that it really wasn’t something worth assigning so much emotion and value to. We are all a part of this grand movement of people that has been going on since the beginning of time. We just don’t all have memories of our ancestors’ migrations.
Q: Did marriage and life in Mexico feel like a tragic Shakespearean misunderstanding? Please explain.
A: Absolutely, but thankfully without any tragic consequences. The early years of my marriage were based on so much misunderstanding. As a young girl, I tried to intuit too much of what my culture and religion expected of me, but I was basing my entire concept of my community on this micro society made up of my parents and their friends. I conjured up this airtight story that I was expected to marry this boy, that it would have been devastating if I didn’t, and that it would have ended years of family friendship, when in reality, it wasn’t my culture producing those expectations as much as it was me — this child observing a world that had no outside influence to contradict the views being expressed inside our home. This was long before the age of satellite television or the internet, so anything I heard from my parents about what was acceptable or allowed in Iraqi culture, I believed.
Q: What did teaching at the girls’ Catholic orphanage do for you while you were in Mexico?
A: Those girls gave me a family to dote on. Coming out of a big extended family, it was unmooring to have no one who needed me to care for them, and those girls irreversibly shaped me as a mother. I arrived in Mexico in my early 20s when I still thought kids were something to check off a list: husband, career and kids. Spending time with those girls, before I became a parent, made the gravity of bringing a human life into this world very real to me. I swore that if I ever brought kids into the world that they would have to be my first priority, and although that frame of mind has probably made me lean toward over-parenting my own children, I think that awareness was really important for me as a young woman who had grown up thinking kids were something you could just squeeze into your career.
Q: Why were you a contradiction of helpfulness and a hurt to your husband?
A: I think we all have incredible power in a relationship, to build up but also to take down our partners. I gave my husband my time and support when it came to his education and his career, but then I was also very quick to remind him how much I had helped him. Now, I tell my children if you can’t give something without feeling resentful about it later, don’t do it because you are essentially punishing the other person with your helpfulness.
Q: What is the power of storytelling?
A: Storytelling is the ultimate form of communication. I could write articles all day long that are chock-full of stereotype-busting facts, and maybe it’ll have an impact on a reader on an intellectual level, but storytelling changes hearts. It makes you walk in someone else’s shoes and live their life alongside them. It creates a bond between readers and characters, and knowing that was one of my primary motivations to write this book. I remember thinking if I could soften the way one person feels toward Muslims, Arabs, or Iraqis, then this all worthwhile. And I still feel that way.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: My never-ending gratitude that there are readers in this world that make space in their minds and hearts for stories about people that are from different cultures and communities. A writer can have all sort of grandiose ideas about what storytelling can do to bring about change, but none of that impact is possible without readers.
For more information, visit hudaalmarashi.com
— Denise Davidson is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune