Monday, May 02, 2005

Arranging marriages

My life has turned into a stage for an absurdly surreal play in which the first two acts have me in utter confusion. Act three, in which the heroine (me) figures out the solution to her situation, remains in the making.

Act I: Growing Pains

This heroine will have successfully made it to smack in the middle of my late 20s in a couple of months. I will turn 28 this July and am relatively content with what I have to show for my years.

However, as the scene unfolds, additional elements make the seemingly appropriate progression of age suddenly inappropriate-—elements rooted in culture and identity.

In itself, reaching 28 would not be an issue...were I not ALSO Libyan, Muslim, and unmarried. While none of these particular facts of my life have alarmed me, they seem to be the source of much nervous tension in my family. While I am concerned with the next step in my career, the voices on the other end of the cursed ‘reach me anytime’ cell phone speak to other issues—-namely, to whether am I open to ‘meeting’ Mr. X and/or Mr. Y and/or Mr. Z for the purpose of determining whether we would like to spend the rest of our lives together. HUH?

Am I what? Speak with whom? And he is relevant to me how????

Act II: Slightly more intense Growing Pains

[The heroine realizes that she no longer has the old faithful excuse of 'finishing school' handy to her. She could use it, but she'd be lying. Then again, perhaps she's been hasty in her rejection of these kinds of arrangements. She's not married afterall. Also, the news that she's actually speaking with someone would be thrilling to her mother back home...and mother always wants what's best for her, doesn't she? It worked for others, why not give it a shot?]

And thus does reality turn surreal brinking on the absurd:

The questions preceding the introduction of this shadow man seem to have been informally standardized. The following is a translation of these questions, roughly in the order I have heard them.

- Is there someone in your life?
- Are you in a relationship?
- Is there someone you have in mind to marry?
- Are you open to the idea of marriage?
- What qualities in a man are you looking for? What conditions do you have?
- There’s this man Mr. X, Y, Z… related to or known by A, B, or C… who is looking to get married. Are you open to speaking with him? (Tada!)

Tweek out a couple of these questions, and you get one of those dating hotline commercials.

Keeping in mind my cultural background, each of these seemingly innocent questions is, in fact, a bit tricky. For example, if I did have someone in my life, could I really be so honest about it with my immediate or distant family without opening the flood gates of hell into my ear or my living room? If I say ‘Well, yes, there is someone in my life’, then I would probably have a lot of explaining to do since relationships outside the family ordained formal ‘engagement’ are still socially unacceptable.

To dig or not to dig… that is the real question here, my friends.

Are you open to the idea of marriage?

Oh boy.

How does one say ‘Well, in theory, yes; but in reality, I'm not done being single quite yet’ and get away with it in the midst of a community that explicitly rejects the idea of a satisfied single woman? There are few ways around this question, folks.

Note the wording of the question itself-—are they asking a broad theoretical question or do they really mean to ask whether one wants to get married at a given particular time—like, namely NOW? I’m pretty sure they don’t want to hear me pontificating on the institution of marriage and how it’s evolved throughout human history, so the latter is more likely the accurate answer.

The phrasing of the question is in fact a trap. If you actually don’t want to be married as soon as possible, you’re either up to no good or are viewed with the same recognition as a space alien landing in one’s back-yard. After all, no decent woman would want to live without a man by her side, right? If the lady in question does in fact state that she's not interested in marriage quite yet, then the logical next question would be roughly along the lines of ‘what exactly are you doing with your life that you can’t get married?’ Essentially, this hints that you better be really committed and/or close to discovering that cure for cancer for this to be acceptable.

Right… cure for cancer coming up, right after I pull off that world peace project I’ve been working on.

What qualities in a man are you looking for? What are your conditions? How to answer these? Is it sufficient to include a credit and a background check along with a brief description of physical traits that I find attractive?

I suppose I could say that I’m looking for a down-to-earth creative intellectual who is willing to move to my city rather than the other way around, but then I’m likely to get that stern look of disapproval. This is no laughing matter. Right…who’s laughing?

It’s not that I’m making fun of anyone or anything so much as it is my naturally sarcastic response to senselessness. I just don’t have a list of conditions prepared. Apparently, the memo to compile one has been misfiled or is buried under the other stacks of paper on my desk.

Or perhaps I was hoping, just hoping, to meet someone with qualities I both like and dislike but am willing to work it out with rather than stating 'conditions'.

And if I were to state a description or conditions that the person in question is unable to live up to, will the proposition be nipped in the butt? Will the family member really cease to ask me whether I would be ‘open to speaking with’ Mr. X, Y, or Z?

I kinda doubt it. They want me married…sooner better than later. After all, they tell me, other girls my age have been popping out babies for years and they just can’t wait to see my non-existent babies.

It’s true—most of my childhood friends and family are in fact married with children. Each time I visit home, I find at least two more babies and a couple more pregnancies in the family…oh yeah, and the five weddings I missed. And, yes, it’s also true that I am not a biologist studying the composition of human blood cells and DNA to find the cure for cancer nor am I doing anything worthy of such world-wide recognition. They win on those counts.

Act III: Slightly Horrifying Growing Pains followed by Reality Check followed by More Growing Pains

So I conceded and gave them all the right answers:

No, I’m not involved with anyone;
No, I have no one in particular in mind;
Yes, I’m open to the idea of marriage;
Sure, I’ll talk to Mr. Random variable…I’m sure he’s a wonderful chap;
I’ll give it a shot.

In the first place, hearing these words come out of my mouth was like experiencing mini-explosions in various parts of my mind and body. Who was this woman that took over my body and made me agree to things I would never agree to??? I should have called it quits when the first panic attack subsided. If it was the right thing to do, it probably shouldn't have felt so wrong.

Instead, I continued to be agreeable and ‘open’ to possibilities. I figured, hey, I can make this fun. I’ll approach it anthropologically. I might as well discover what actually happens in these arrangements before I completely write them off.

Suddenly, I found myself scheduling blocks of time to get to know someone over the phone, answering questions about what I look like, the things I do, when I do them and for how long and why, whether I pray, what I cook or eat, how I dress, and an endless barrage of others. Oh, and some of the questions (e.g. those pertaining to past relationships) are repeated in various ways at different times just to check on the consistency of the responses.

How fun. So much fun that I have begun to question my sanity.

Truth is that when it comes to romantic commitments, I’m flighty. I know this about myself. This natural tendency seems to be aggravated when comic bubbles appear over my head depicting the Libyan version of marriage hell in which I learn to get what I want using devious 'feminine' manipulation in order to NOT insult my imaginary husband’s masculinity. (I kid you not; someone actually told me that this is his preference).

As a result of this flightiness on top of my not knowing how to just call it quits appropriately, I am guilt tripped (by people I haven’t actually met) when I don’t call or when I become busy with what had previously been my real life. Apparently, I’m supposed to be attentive when I thought we were just getting to know each other. Oops.

And in between these periods of completely suspended belief, I receive endless phone calls from at least two members of my family asking for updates. Esh sar, they ask; masar shai, I respond. [What happened; nothing happened] But the same question asked day in and day out takes on a different slightly impatient tone to which I feel ‘masar shai’ becomes inadequate as a response. Am I supposed to be packing my bags and heading over to my new home or what?

I won’t even get into the over 50 phone calls from my sister in the last week—all ‘checking in’ on the latest and last time I am ‘open’ to anything of this sort.

It’s just difficult for me to get excited about vague individuals I’ve never actually encountered, especially when the information given of these individuals is scant. They tell me the bare essentials—age/location/occupation (it would be a/l/o were it used in chat rooms)—as if these should be enticement enough. Personality traits are apparently as unimportant as any realistic notions of compatibility.

For example, anyone that knows me should know that I’m not particularly religious. What leap of faith does it take to try to introduce me to someone who prays in a mosque at least three times a day? I know my family desires that I be more religious, but how far is it likely to go with someone who is actually looking for a nice Muslim girl? Even if on some level I feel guilty for not being her, I’m certainly not interested in justifying myself or my views to someone on the other end of the ideological spectrum and/or the globe, for that matter.

Where is the ‘me’ in all of these set ups?

No more conceding to conversations with faceless figures for the sake of making anyone happy; no more ignoring my instinct and second guessing who I know myself to be; no more Mr. Xs, Ys, or Zs.

No disrespect intended, but I just can’t play this role. God knows I tried.

I’m still unmarried and still am nowhere near a cure for cancer. However, I also haven’t been loafing around my apartment waiting for the phone-call that will guide me to my future-—not that call anyway. Frankly, I just feel awkward mustering up something appropriate to say in conversation with elusive personalities living other lives in other places.

In theory, I’m not against arranged marriages. I understand the logic of ‘arrangements’ in a culture wherein men and women don’t freely mix and therefore have limited opportunities to meet Mister or Misses Apple of My Eye/Vision of My Dreams. I do believe that the butterflies in the stomach are generally temporary, so why not base marriage on the more solid foundation of commitment and understanding? I am my mother’s daughter, and as she always said ‘The person that loves you will marry you,’ thereby emphasizing the merits of commitment and loyalty over romantic renderings of marriage. I get it.

However, as always, there’s a bit of a gap between theory and reality—and the gap sometimes widens as the theory applies to oneself.

In theory, I have no problem with being set up; in reality, I’m not so keen on scheduling time in my day for telephone conversations with faceless figures that seem to think I should be thrilled for the opportunity to speak with them. In theory, I could be set up with the most amazing individual I’ve ever met and would immediately feel in my heart of hearts the overwhelming desire to spend eternity with him.

In reality, the only overwhelmingly discovery I have made is how bizarre the situation in its entirety is in the context of my life and the facade of interest I can muster in a few phone conversations before my flightiness becomes clear to the various Misters.

Now, how I tell this to my family, come out intact, and not bring my mother to tears by single handedly destroying her hopes and dreams for me is a completely different post.