Being vulnerable and honest about your feelings is one of the most difficult things you can do. Telling someone you want them opens up a barrage of emotions, but imagine how it feels to hear in response, “It will never work because of cultural and racial differences.” These are things you cannot control. And then, the most dangerous thing you can do to yourself is continue to love someone who doesn’t love you.
“O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.”[49:13]
We hear and read this verse A LOT. It’s on every wedding invitation; but that card will only be printed if your community and parents approve of the marriage. And unfortunately, more often than not, what they want is for you to marry someone who is exactly like you.
Most of us are familiar with a “norm” in which our parents and communities limit us to our own ethnicities, cultures, and even social classes. A prospect’s character, personality, and compatibility level are rarely taken into consideration. Many individuals begin to believe they are dishonoring and shaming their family name if they marry outside of their own culture.
We let others put us in boxes and confine ourselves and our hearts to them, and we let our communities and social circles throw narratives at us. We become forced to wear these labels.
As millennial activists, we discuss racism all the time in our communities via Facebook statuses, keeping it under 140 characters, but we rarely discuss the realm of relationships and the impact race and discrimination have on our present and future — not just on two individuals, but on our communities at large.
I have tried to distance myself from racism, bigotry, and the like from a young age, because I could see the harmful effects it had within my community. I made a conscious effort to separate myself from it. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an area that was home to many diverse backgrounds and different levels of religiosity.
Interestingly enough, my parents frowned upon my becoming friends with fellow Desis, so I found myself separating from my own culture. I think my father was afraid that I would fall in love with a “brown man” on my own and marry him, thusly, he was comfortable letting me befriend other cultures. If I had to guess, in his mind, he justified it with, “ Why would she ever want to marry someone outside my own culture?” That is why my first set of Muslim friends were actually Arab; I was the only non-Arabic speaker in my entire class. I was with friends that I related to, who were Muslim and spoke fluent English. They understood the struggles of wanting to go to prom or a friend’s birthday party where everyone would probably be drinking. We wanted to have fun, but without participating in everything, and we all sympathized with one another about how our mothers would kill us if we stayed out “after Maghrib.”
I had the unique opportunity to shape my identity and connection to Islam during those prime years in Sunday school, and my views continued to evolve with the more diverse experiences and interactions I had growing up. I was so fascinated with the Arab culture and wanted to know more. I went through a phase where I listened to only Arabic music, starting with Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram, of course. I was more obsessed with learning Dabke than Bhangara. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my culture and still do, but imagine how beautiful it would be to have both? In college, I decided to study international affairs with a concentration in the Middle East, enjoying my Arabic classes the most.
When Worlds Collide
When it came to finding love in a hopeless place, I fell in love with someone who came from a culture I was never truly a part of but loved with all of my soul. You’ve probably heard of the failed sagas of an Arab-Desi love story.
For the first time, I had found someone who knew me. The real me. He understood my unique sense of sarcasm. I was always 100% with him; we were so open and honest with each other. We thrived on our differences and were always wanting to learn more about one another. “Teach me how to say this in Arabic.” ”What does this mean in the Three Idiots movie?””You’re more excited about going to the Middle East than me!””What is your favorite Arab food?” “When we get married can you make me ‘real’ chai?” I told him once we should adopt children from our different parts of the world so that we could show our communities that we’re all one and the same, but, in the end, that idea remained a dream for the both of us.
I think we were so comfortable with ourselves and each other that we forgot about the differences. But, it wasn’t the same story when his family found out. “What language would she speak?” asked his family. “Um… English,” I would say to him bluntly, thinking to myself, “Aren’t we millennials?” I remember texting him so many times, “We’re Muslim Americans — what is important is our religion and the culture WE have created for ourselves.”
But, realistically, what was I thinking? I had believed that I could change centuries of conflict with these words and with this one person, forgetting how easily influenced he is by his family. “Should I take the easy route and follow cultural norms?” he questioned. He was confused and I was too optimistic, living in a Disney world I had created inside my head. I believed that Love truly would conquer all. I didn’t understand why he was so worried. He talked about being progressive, but I know now there is a difference between talking about it and actually acting on it.
Everyday of that Ramadan, I had one prayer: to make us successful in our relationship. And, on Eid, the relationship ended over text message. Of course, there were a lot of questions going back and forth. I still ask myself today why I was so heated and what I could have done differently. Maybe there were several reasons for its failure, but what sticks to my mind is the fact that what we once thought to be superficial differences came to light once his family became involved. “You bring color to my life,” he used to say. “I love our differences,” he would write in texts. But when those colors and differences became a challenge to his family, he didn’t see them on the canvas of his life. They weren’t the colors that matched with the narrative his family had written for him.
A friend reminded me that these differences of race and culture wouldn’t be accepted, at least in our generation. I hoped we may initiate them and have discussions, and he responded, “Maybe with our kids.” He asked me if I was friends with interracial couples because he didn’t know any and wanted to talk to them. I was actually well acquainted with several because of my social groups, so I was surprised when he said he didn’t know a single one. That made me wonder, “Where are they? Do our communities shun them? Are they not accepted into any group because they tried to bring two groups together? Do we really try to learn about one another like the verse in the Quran says?”
Cultural, differences, diverse backgrounds, differing expectations — these will never go away. But, as a dear friend had said to me, “If God wrote your rizq [provisions/livelihood/God’s bounty] together, then nothing will prevent two souls from coming together.”
And so, have hope. Always. and pray that the soul we are searching for in this world finds us and God makes it easy on us both. Ameen.
Image taken from Creative Commons