By Ambreen Khan
I sat there on the sofa—heart racing, palms sweating—watching the women in my family leave my grandmother’s bedroom. I had just a few minutes to gather myself as I heard the greetings outside the bedroom door.
I waited for him to enter the room and greet me with a barrage of questions. At 21, I had never been in this situation before. And then, suddenly, he walked in. My eyes scanned him from bottom to top. He was wearing a gray button-down shirt and jeans. Well-dressed, I thought. Medium-length hair, nice. Chiseled beard, very nice.
As I shamelessly looked at him, our eyes met briefly, and time stopped. Nervousness, anxiety, excitement, acknowledgement, all packed into those three seconds before my shyness took over and forced me to look away, but not before seeing the almost unnoticeable smile on his face. He sat down five feet away from me.
“Hi, I’m Nabeel.”
Thus began the process of the traditional arranged marriage.
His proposal came to my family when his mom and sister saw me at a graduation event in our mosque, the Islamic Circle of North America in Jamaica, Queens. We were family friends with the Sheikhs, but we hadn’t seen each other since I was much younger and his family hadn’t seen how grown up I had become. I had told Sabeen, his sister, that my family was looking to get me married and was in search for a good suitor. Of course, I also wanted the same thing, otherwise I wouldn’t be advertising it. Coincidentally, her brother was looking for a special someone, too. Next thing I knew, my grandmother received a call from his mother, and a week later I was sitting face to face with him.
All I could do once he sat down was stare at his feet. White socks. That’s my clearest image of the night other than the part when I openly checked him out. He started with flattery, completely melting me because I’d never been told such things:
“You have a lovely name… You look very pretty today… Your house is very nice.”
He was sweet, yet appropriate. His confidence blew me away, but that was probably because he was seven years older than me—I was 21 years old, he was 28. He was much more comfortable than I was. He read my uneasiness and threw a few jokes in the mix. Thankfully, the lightened mood relieved me of my nervousness—but just a little. Then things got very real.
In today’s day and age, even among traditional Pakistani Muslims, the young generation more often than not pick their own life partners. They take the dating route, against the wishes of their parents who are left with no choice but to give in. Sometimes parents are fine with it. Sometimes parents choose to marry their children at a young age to prevent any religious transgressions. Even as a first-generation Pakistani-American, I chose to follow what I was taught since I was a little girl—stay away from boys.
I lived in my own dream bubble, waiting for my prince charming to come and respectfully ask for my hand in marriage—no strings attached. Boy, did he come knocking.
“So, you’re studying accounting, right?” he questioned, already knowing the answer as we had exchanged biodata before our meeting.
“Yes,” I squealed in a tiny high pitch while twisting my fingers together.
“What made you choose that field?” he asked.
I mustered up all my courage and answered with what he now tells me was a very impressive answer.
“It made the most sense to me,” I began. “It has a good job market and I’ll be done within a year, so that, if things work out with us, we can live a comfortable life with both of us working,” I told him.
He had an amazing poker face. I couldn’t tell how he was taking any of my answers. He then went on to tell me about his job as a civil engineer and his role in the construction industry. I was very impressed, to say the least.
We had talked about potential living situations, whether I would like to live separately or with his parents, a cultural norm in Pakistani society. We talked about how many kids we wanted, if any. We discussed our expectations from a spouse. In the blink of an eye, half an hour had passed, and the nervous moms pacing outside the door interrupted us. Before I knew it, he headed back to where the men were sitting.
“Bye, it was nice meeting you.”
I wanted to stop him and talk some more, because I was simply floored with his overall persona, but I didn’t want to seem too desperate.
“Bye,” was all I could say with the sweetest smile I could give.
My answer was an obvious yes. There was nothing I didn’t like. My family was also in accord. It was all up to him and his family now. Traditionally, it’s the man’s side that accepts or rejects the girl after the meeting, if the girl is happy with the proposal. So we waited. We waited one day, two days, three days, and nothing. I thought it was over. My heart was broken, even though I knew it was a 50-50 chance. I had fallen in love.
My self-esteem took a huge hit, thinking that maybe I’m not good enough. I had been rejected before, but from people who had only seen my picture. They were all fictitious to me. But him. He was real. I saw him. I talked to him. I liked him. Then the phone rang, with the caller I.D. under his family name.
My heart skipped a beat. I stayed downstairs, trying not to eavesdrop so that my family wouldn’t see the emotional turmoil I was in.
“Your grandma is calling you upstairs,” my aunt said, trying not to give anything away.
I went upstairs with every step heavier than the other, not knowing what to expect. I saw my grandmother sitting there with tears in her eyes. Were they tears of joy or sadness? Oh, God.
“They said yes,” was all she said to me before I attacked her with my bear hug, tears running down my cheeks and my heart pounding. He’s mine, he’s actually mine, and I’m his.
Fast forward two years, Nabeel and I are happily Mr. and Mrs. Sheikh. We have a cozy home in Forest Hills, where we live with our beautiful baby daughter, Maryam.
The whole idea of arranged marriage is a mystery in American society. It may be recognized that it usually works but people don’t really understand how. I’ve often been asked, “How does it feel to be married to a stranger?,” “are you happy?” or “do you love each other?” While the answers may be obvious to me, the people asking are genuinely clueless.
The word stranger was no longer valid once we had accepted each other as husband and wife. Marriage is a social contract. But love is something more. We fell in love—by chance or by fate, that is up for debate—but it happened. Happiness is not something that you are gifted. It must be worked for—and it is different for everyone. My husband and I conquer all our ups and downs with the strength of our love and passion for one another, without paying any heed to societal pressures.