A Suitable Match
By Irum Sarfaraz
Meher Afridi was listening very keenly to her husband speak on the phone with the father of the ‘American’ girl. When the conversation was finally over, he didn’t need prompting to tell his wife what he thought about the girl’s father.
“Seems like an educated and simple man,” he told his wife. “His family is also from Karachi. He moved to America for his Master’s and then decided to stay.”
“Did he mention anything about his daughter?” Meher Afridi asked.
“Not in particular. But he did say that it was hard to find matches in the US with families that were intent on preserving Pakistani and Islamic values in their coming generations. He said they were neither very conservative nor overly Westernized.”
“You were saying something about the girl and the boy talking?” Meher Afridi asked curiously.
“Of course. How else can the boy and the girl figure out if their interests and views match?”
“But Afridi sahib, these are very young children. What do they know about making such important decisions? Parents know best what is right for them.” Meher Afridi was reluctant to place such an important decision entirely in the hands of the ‘young children’, as she referred to them.
“Whether we like it or not, Meher Begum, this is how the world works nowadays,” Farid Afridi’s tone was firm. “If we don’t move with it, it’s going to leave us behind and move ahead.” Although Meher Afridi listened quietly, it was obvious that she still had her doubts.
Salman Zia was not a hasty man. When faced with a dilemma, it was his habit to quietly mull over all possible resolutions before coming to a decision. He also trusted his instinct. In the case of this rishta, his instinct was telling him two things; not to reject it or disclose it to Khalida or Saira right away. Being a father, he may not have been as active in the matchmaking task as his wife but nonetheless he was fully aware of the problems people were having. He decided the best thing was to talk to Saira first.
Ibrahim Saeed was looking at Umair’s pictures that Humna had emailed to him along with a page of background information. The boy was attractive with somber expressions and large black eyes that radiated kindness and intelligence. He was dressed simply but appeared to be well groomed. By what Humna had told him, he could read and write English well. This proved that there was some truth to his being well-educated. In Pakistan, one’s ability to read, write, and speak English well was like a litmus test to determine any claims to good schooling. But then, marriages were not a joke and a thorough background search had to be done. He went over Umair’s father’s job information. He worked in a reputed national bank of the country. If Ibrahim remembered correctly, his friend Salman’s father also used to work for the same bank even if not in the same branch. He would call Salman from work. The background check had to be started somewhere.
Humna and Wahida were meeting for lunch again. This was their fourth meeting since Humna had started discussing her issue with her. This time she had news for Wahida; Wahida was very glad to hear that she had pulled her father into the picture.
“Has Umair told his parents too?” she was curious. “I mean, I hope he isn’t expecting your parents to initiate the talking with them?”
“Yes, he has told them. And no, he isn’t expecting that. They are talking to Ahmed and his family now to make sure I’m not some ‘shady character’ out to steal their son for good.” Wahida looked amused.
“I don’t blame them,” she said. “To the families in Pakistan, the girls on the other side of the world are wretched, spoilt, crooks who know nothing about marriage, respect, compromise or patience. They just want to have fun in life.” Humna could barely manage a smile.
“I wonder if I do know anything about marriage,” she said gloomily. “I’ve grown up in a materialistic society where the law of the land is ‘every man for himself’. My parents have taught me differently, of course, but I often wonder if I have it in me to make a marriage work.”
“I had similar doubts before my marriage too,” Wahida patted her arm kindly. “In fact, I used to ask Suhail questions all the time making sure I had everything covered and all issues addressed before we got married. I felt that if I left any question unasked, that would be the question that would create a rift between us. I had become the world’s greatest paranoid.” Humna was very interested.
“That’s exactly what I do with Umair. In fact, I continually search online for pre-marriage screening questionnaires and send them to Umair.” Wahida smiled knowingly. It sounded so familiar.
“Stop putting the poor guy through such a test of nerves,” she said amusedly. “Before I got married, I used to talk to an aunt of mine like you’re talking to me. It was her advice on boy selection and the dilemma of yes and no that finally set my mind at ease. About selection she said that when we’re buying fruit, we pick up apples because we like apples. We leave the green ones because we know they’re tart, we leave the semi-red ones because they could either be tart or sweet, but we definitely want the reds. Why? We like their taste and we’re pretty confident that Allah willing, the reds will be as sweet as they always are. We then bring the apples home. However, we have to keep in mind that whether or not the red apples turn out entirely sour or entirely sweet is what Allah has willed for us. If they turn out sour, we should just add sugar to make pies out of them and be happy. If they are all sweet, we should just cut them up and enjoy them fresh. Either way, we should be happy. The fact that we don’t throw out the sour batch is called compromise and no marriage in this world is without compromise of some sort. If everything in our life is perfect, then we’re probably not alive but dead and in Jannah. Because that is the only place that is supposed to be perfect.”
“What an artful way of putting things in perspective! What else did she tell you?” Humna was enamored.
“Yes, she was very articulate with words. Talking about marriage, she told me that if I’ve ever knitted, I must have noticed that the knots in the wool get tighter and worse the more I struggle to untangle them. The best way to untangle a knot is to first examine it carefully to see how exactly the yarn is tangled. Then I should use very gentle and soft fingers to pry it open. Done right, with a little love and care, there will hardly be a knot that would defy untangling. That’s exactly what marriage is all about: care, love and understanding.” Humna was silent for a long moment.
“That’s something I could tell my own daughter and still the significance of it will never change,” she told Wahida. “Just like it hasn’t changed so many years after your own marriage.”
“Though it doesn’t apply to you so much,” said Wahida, “she also told me something about intercultural marriage since this was a huge issue with me.”
“I think that would apply to me too,” Humna replied. “My mother makes it seem a boy from Pakistan is someone from a whole different planet.”
“That kind of surprises me. I’ve seen people in our Bengali community, and I’m sure Pakistani families are no different, who think they are a completely different ‘breed’ of people than the ones back home. It’s like they are in two boats at the same time; they refuse to abandon their Islamic background entirely but are also weary of being referred to as entirely Bengali. So, they juggle two identities simultaneously; one that leans towards the Western notion of modernization while the other is tethered to the values they brought back from their country. It’s no wonder they view Bangladesh, or Pakistan in your case, to be a different ‘planet’.”
“But why don’t they understand that we are a product of this society,” argued Humna. “We’ve never been in two boats but a single one from the start. We refuse to judge people like they do…,” Wahida shrugged her shoulders.
“I hear what you’re saying but that will remain your wish,” she replied. “People like your mothers, a first-generation immigrant, live in a bubble of idealism that a boy or a girl directly from Pakistan threatens to shatter. They want to associate with people like themselves. This makes them feel like they’re moving forward. Whereas, getting us married to a boy from Dhaka or Karachi pulls them backward.”
“But my father is a first-generation immigrant too,” said Humna. “In fact, he came here even before my mother but he doesn’t think like her.”
“Men think with their heads and know the reality. To the contrary, women are notorious for being emotional and competitive in all respects.”
Humna knew Wahida was right. The Pakistani society in which she had been raised was focused on class and status. It was this rigid focus that made it impossible for people like her mother and her friends to even consider ‘importing’ a son-in-law from Pakistan. For them, this would be the height of embarrassment in the community.
“Tell me what your aunt said about intercultural marriages,” Humna asked. It was time for them to return to work.
“She said that the compatibility between two people, the love and respect that they have for each other and their commitment to the sanctity of the institution of marriage, is what makes a marriage succeed. If all these qualities are present, the couple can conquer all odds, cultural ones being very minor. I've seen marriages fail disastrously and with harrowing consequences for both the spouses as well their children even within similar cultures. So, cultural difference is a very, very poor barometer for measuring or predicting the potential success of any marriage.”
Humna sighed. Who could make her mother see reason?
Ibrahim Saeed called Salman Zia on his way home from work. The two had met in grad college in the US. Later, coincidentally, their wives also got along well together. Over time, Haider Imam, Tahira’s husband, and Ali Naeem, Jabeen’s husband, also became part of this regular group of Pakistani families that socialized regularly. Ibrahim remembered that Salman’s father also used to work for a bank in Karachi. He was hoping it was the same one as Akram Ali. Salman was still at work. His answer was a pleasant surprise.
“Yes, Abba worked for State Bank too,” he told Ibrahim. “Why the sudden interest in Abba? You looking for a job in Pakistan!?”
“I’m not looking for a job. I’m just trying to find out if a certain person worked with him there,” Ibrahim replied. He was careful not to say much. If the reason why he was asking got out before he had a chance to talk to Zahra, the whole plan could backfire.
“He might know him if that person worked in the same branch. Otherwise it’s a long shot,” Salman replied.
“Yes, I know that,” Ibrahim replied thoughtfully. “But then you never know…”
“Why do you want to know?” Salman was curious. Ibrahim knew he had to whip up a reason.
“Yaar, one of my sisters has sent a proposal for her boy to a girl whose father works in State Bank. You know how people do background checks. So, she was just mentioning this to me and I suddenly remembered that Uncleused to work there too.”
“I see,” Salman said, interested now. No one could deny the importance of background checks. They usually started with the candidate’s family and how respected they were in the neighborhood. “What’s the name of the person?”
“Some Mr. Akram Ali…”
“Akram Ali? Hmm. If he still works there, he must have been Abba’s junior. Do you know his wife’s name?”
“Farida Zaheer.” Salman’s next response astonished Ibrahim. He knew the wife’s name.
“And he still works there?” said Salman. “And has two children? A boy and a girl?”
“Yes,” Ibrahim wondered how he knew. Had Humna told Saira, who, in turn, had given all the details to her parents? His heart sank a little.
“If I’m not mistaken, you’re talking about Akram Bhai!” Salman exclaimed. “What a small world! We actually know them very well! Akram Bhai was Abba’s junior, a junior in the same branch and lived in the neighborhood next to ours. Abba and him carpooled to work together and our families also know each other very well. Farida Bhabi’s family doesn’t live in Karachi so she would often come over to our house to consult Amma on a lot of things.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Ibrahim Saeed was truly astounded.
“Look if your sister is considering Akram Bhai’s daughter for her son, I would say she can go ahead with her eyes closed,” Salman said warmly. “Akram Bhai is a very nice guy and both him and his wife have a reputation for being very helpful in the neighborhood. He’s also very well respected in the local Mosque too. I’ve also met their other relatives on various occasions. I think his son has completed his education. Both of his children are very well mannered.” Ibrahim Saeed felt like a load was miraculously lifted off his shoulders. This was a very good start on getting background information. He asked him some more questions about the family.
“Salman, could you just keep this conversation to yourself?” Ibrahim requested him before ending the call. “I mean, you know how it is with proposals, it’s best to see if things work out before telling the whole world about it.” He didn’t want Khalida relating the story to Zahra who in turn was likely to call Fatima Apa, his sister, and start asking questions about a situation that didn’t exist. Salman laughed.
“Yes, I know,” he replied. “Give these wives a short piece of string and they end up weaving an entire dress out of it. Don’t worry, it’s between you and me. But do keep me posted on what happens.” Ibrahim was relieved.
“Sure I will.”
Humna was talking to Umair who wanted to know how things were progressing at her end.
“Well I’m relieved that you’ve told your father,” he told her. “I didn’t like the idea of talking to you without a reason.”
“What do you mean ‘without a reason’?”
“I mean, this entire communication is happening because we want to find out if we find each other suitable for marriage. I dislike the idea of chatting and talking to girls just for the fun of it.”
“I agree, but he hasn’t told my mother yet. That’s going to be the big test. How is it going in your house?”
“Ammi and Abbu are relaxed after talking to Ahmed and his parents. They seem to be adjusting to the idea because Ahmed’s father was pretty convincing. I think they’re waiting for me to tell them when they should call you parents.”
“I know. But give me a little time. We can’t do that until my mother gets on the boat too. Daddy has told me he’ll figured out how to do it soon.” (Continued next week)