“Are you married? Engaged?”
They are motioning to my hands. I smile, shake my head, and lift them to show that my fingers are bare. Naked is the word I used once but think of less now.
“But there is someone you love, right?”
None of us are speaking our mother tongue so it takes me a minute to understand what she is asking and then it takes me another minute to figure out how to respond.
“Ah! She does have a love!” The young woman excitedly guesses and looks over to my mother.
I’m sorry to squelch her enthusiasm but I have now understood what she is asking and I smile again and shake my head again and say one of the very few Arabic words I know.
And I feel something like a twinge of betrayal but it is the truest thing I can say with only a few words.
“But how old are you?” they ask.
“30.” I say.
“30!” They all gasp and start saying shocked sounding things to each other that I do not understand but have already heard and understand.
Finally one cheerful young woman pipes up in a language we both speak, “But you are so pretty!”
I smile again and simply say “thank you” understanding that there is so much more heartfelt behind her statement than just an unsolicited appraisal of my looks.
You see, even though this is my first time meeting these women, I have had this conversation many times before. In rooms so much like this one. Sometimes with sofas, sometimes with cushions on the floor, often a mix of both. Cups of piping hot black tea held between our fingertips so we do not burn our hands. Usually a matriarch – grandmother or mother-in-law – sitting contentedly in the corner observing everything with a satisfied look. Resting from a lifetime of hard labor, sometimes she is holding a sleeping baby, sometimes cracking walnuts, and sometimes just holding her hands in her lap. Daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters all arranged around the room in front of her brimming with a youthful feminine enthusiasm. Usually excited that there are guests today. Welcoming the diversion from the mundane.
I think the first time I received this string of questions I was 12 or 13. The first few times it was shocking and a little exciting. I think I was secretly pleased that it was assumed I was old enough to have made adult decisions like love and marriage.
By the time I was 18 or 19, it had become a rather sobering question. I knew that for most of the young women asking me – my peers – these were not decisions they were making but usually their parents or an aunt and uncle. I knew we were secretly curious about what marriage would look like for the other. In all of our hearts was the deeply held wish for romance and a passionate love. But we both knew that does not always happen. Not always for women in arranged marriage cultures and not always for women in love marriage cultures either.
There was a brief time when I answered yes to the questions. And that brought another flurry of questions.
“Do you like him?”
“Is he handsome?”
“Does he love you?”
“What’s his job?”
“Do you have babies?”
“When will you have babies?”
Sometimes I would pull out my phone to show photos. Of our engagement. Of our engagement ceremony. Of our wedding. There were always “oohs and ahs” over the pictures of us with our families. All murmuring approvingly at photos of us with our many siblings.
“So you will have a big family too,” they would say confidently.
Then I would ask to see photos of their engagements and weddings, fiancés, husbands, and babies. Engagement outfits that made them look like princesses standing with sweet shy smiles on their faces next to a nervous looking young man. Wedding outfits that were somehow even more ornate than the engagement outfits with aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters all gathered around. Photos of adorable chubby cheeked babies whose chubby arms and legs were stuffed into several layers of clothing no matter how warm the weather. Sometimes the very baby I was holding on my lap while we had this conversation.
We were finding places of connection, shared human experiences despite our vastly different cultures. But expectations are often an even greater gap to bridge than experiences.
For most of my friends in this part of the world, marriage meant economic stability, children, a new extended family, a house. In at least one of the languages of this region, the word for “married” could be literally translated “with a house”. Of course they were hoping for love and companionship and romance as well.
When I was engaged, the excited women did not ask me about wedding colors or my dress or any other wedding plans. They asked me how I was furnishing my house and what brand of appliances I was choosing. For them, an engagement period was not to get ready for a wedding but to get a new house ready. My friend who got engaged the same time I did would come back to work on Monday morning exhausted from a weekend of traipsing around picking out sofas and dining room sets while I was worn out from addressing envelopes and negotiating venue rentals.
For me, marriage meant a passionate love, a deep personal commitment, a best friend for life, and a new little family. Of course I hoped for children and a house and economic stability also.
It had been so long since I had been asked these questions. Having this conversation with the lovely, joyful women I met yesterday reminded me again that no culture has life all figured out. We all come to it with hopes, expectations, and cultural norms and try to make our ways through it as best we can. We are all met with disappointments, losses, and failed hopes. So few of our dreams actually come through the way we expect.
The women I spoke to yesterday have lost their homes and economic stability. Their extended families are scattered. Many have lost parents or brothers and sisters or cousins to a heartbreaking war. They hold their beautiful children close because they are a bright hope in a life of dashed dreams and broken expectations.
Answering their questions yesterday, I did not have the words to explain divorce. I did not have the words to explain love lost, hopes shattered, and expectations unfulfilled. Also, it seems so very trivial in the face of everything they have lost.
But this morning I am wondering if I had been able to find the words, would we have found new places of connection? Did I miss an opportunity to be vulnerable and reach out across cultures and experiences to reveal weakness? I do not know. It still feels so trivial but it also feels human and that is why I am asking.