A good arrangement

I wish I had been — or had been able to be — more assertive years ago when others were busy dissecting my life, explaining my decisions based on mere assumptions and prejudice. It’s my fault in some sense for merely taking everything for granted. If something seems bloody obvious to me, I’m not going to bother articulating counter arguments to all that has been said.

A lot of those assumptions came to a head in 2001 when I met my beloved and we decided to get married; then it was open season. It’s true that we married quickly, both upsetting and alarming my entire family; looking back twenty years on, I accept we could have done things differently had we given it more thought. If we made any major mistake, that was it: our haste.

But to others, there were other more pressing problems. In their mind’s eye — despite neither of us ever claiming this — we were having an arranged marriage, and having our marriage arranged for us. This, of course, was complete nonsense. Nobody chose a spouse for either of us. What did happen: two people looking for a soulmate, hoping to marry, were brought together by mutual friends.

Nothing had been decided before we met. Nothing was being arranged for us, or forced upon us. The only unusual aspect was that our introductions were framed by the notion that I was seeking a wife, not a girlfriend. Why beat about the bush? I was seeking a companion with whom to spend my life, to share affection, mutual care and respect. It began with a prayer, involved conversations with friends, and culminated in an introduction.

If you think about it, there was really nothing extraordinary here. Friends often introduce friends to friends. Blind dates are common. Nowadays, many people use dating apps in which they tell a database all that they’re looking for in a companion, and then an algorithm does its thing to bring two people together. How many relationships actually begin with a pickup line in a bar or nightclub, as popular culture suggests is the norm? Few, I’d suggest.

My family seemed to have imagined that we were introduced by a couple much older than us — substitute parents, I suppose — forcing us to conform to their South Asian culture. The reality? We were simply introduced by mutual friends. On my side, by a friend I knew from West Ealing mosque, probably only a decade older than me. On my wife’s side, by a chain of friends, reaching out to offer support to an isolated new Muslim in need of companionship.

My social sphere was limited when I settled in Hanwell in the year 2000. On my return from work in Maidenhead, I would be found in one of two places: a kebab shop on the corner of Boston Road and at West Ealing mosque on Brownlow Road. During the month of Ramadan, which fell in December that year, I would walk the one mile route to my local mosque each evening for tarawih prayers. Thus did the congregation get used to my face, greeting me fondly with smiles and salams.

A couple of families then reached out to me, inviting me to their homes for tea. It was a lovely community in those days, so very friendly and kind. So it was that in March 2001, that friend of mine — who until then I had erroneously believed to have been an English Muslim like me — invited me to his home in Southall. It seemed to be a spontaneous invitation, and with little to do that day, I likewise spontaneously accepted it.

Soon afterwards we were seated on a bus carrying us west along the Uxbridge Road, engaged in conversation. By the time we disembarked at Southall Park, we had exhausted all possible topics of conversation — the weather, work, politics, life in general — and he was now quizzing me on what kind of person I one day hoped to marry. By then I had decided that she would have to be a convert like me, by which I really meant an English or Irish girl, but I didn’t expressly state that. In any case, these were just conversations; I never imagined they would actually lead anywhere.

But lead they did. Not long afterwards, I was invited over to their flat again for dinner. They wanted me to meet someone. A convert sister, they said. Of course, a convert could have meant anything, for my host’s own older brother had married a Sikh convert — and I myself had friends from virtually every background: Jewish converts, Christians, black and white. Even so, I had never imagined that I might meet a convert from a Muslim-majority state, who had arrived in Britain a staunch left-leaning secular feminist, only to embrace the faith the same year as me.

But that was how we were introduced: at a dinner party, in the company of good friends. Nothing was a given. It was a first meeting. We liked one another and instantly got on, striking up conversation on all manner of things. Afterwards, my friend asked if I would like to meet her again. I said I would. His wife asked her the same question; she said I seemed like a nice man and was happy for there to be a follow up. We met a few more times after that, until we both finally decided to make a go of it.

We were hasty, for sure. We didn’t go on dates as would be understood in my culture. We just met in public places, like parks around Ealing and Central London. We got to know each other in a restrained fashion and then we decided we wanted to get married. The idea that we were having our marriage arranged for us was preposterous. We arranged our marriage. We took ourselves off to Ealing registry office to book our civil ceremony. We travelled to the Suleymaniye mosque in East London to arrange our religious nikah. All our mutual friends did was facilitate everything for us.

But back then, none of that could be appreciated, because assumption and prejudice clouded everybody’s judgement. Had I not been Muslim, people would just have said we were introduced by mutual friends at a dinner party. Instead, the spectre of an arranged — or even forced — marriage was invoked, as if that was something sinister and untoward. Behind the scenes there had to be an Asian couple, pulling the strings, pushing two vulnerable strangers together.

No, but rather there was a very shy young man seeking a soulmate with whom to spend his life, who had said a sincere prayer and was letting divine intervention run its course. Nowadays, of course, we would just say to the objecting parties, “It’s none of your business.” But back then we let assumptions run wild, unchallenged, causing ill-feeling on all sides. If only I had been more articulate then, and simply said, “Look, I’ve met someone I really like, and that’s the end of it.”

But no matter, we went ahead with it anyway. We did our own thing. We chose to place our trust in the One. We chose to believe that our Lord would put affection and mercy between us, and so it came to be. Just because you don’t understand something, it doesn’t make it wrong. How much easier life would be if we set aside our assumptions and prejudices. The way we approached our union might not suit everyone, but it suited us. It took a few years for our families to come around to that realisation. Time, as they say, is the great healer. To each their own.

I think about our union a lot these days. Perhaps that’s because we’ve just passed our twentieth anniversary. Perhaps because I find I love her more with each passing day. Perhaps because I have been reflecting on where I was in the years leading up that auspicious introduction. Perhaps because I just feel so blessed that someone like me could end up with somebody like her. Perhaps because I know I was and am so undeserving of God’s great generosity and mercy.

So thank goodness we arranged to turn up at Ealing town hall that first week in August twenty-one years ago. What a disaster it would have been had we just randomly left everything to chance.

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