I now pronounce you arranged

Stale Off the Boat

Imagine an interrogation room — cold, dark, fraught with fear. There’s nothing but a dim light, a steel table and the world’s most uncomfortable chair. There sits a beautiful bride to be, fully adorned and anxiously staring at a two-way mirror, waiting for others to decide her fate. Behind the mirror is a row of broad-shouldered interrogators — the fiance’s family — carefully stationed to judge every one of her fidgety moves.

That is how I used to imagine arranged marriages.

I used to think of the tradition as an awkward meeting between two strangers with the added pressure of permanently intertwining their lives, regardless of natural passion. I thought of it as an oppressive lifestyle forced onto young men and even younger women.

But I’m starting to come around.

Arranged marriages have always been the norm in my life. Whenever a family announces an engagement, the question is always: “Where is he from?” — not “How did they meet?” Parents scan the skies and seas, hunting for the perfect religious, wealthy, amicable, intelligent partner for their child. Finally, a situation where your resume will take you further than your connections.

So long as the candidate has a good reputation and occupation, he or she is in the running (religion and wealth are mandatory criteria that go without saying). But these conservative, traditional parents often make two grave mistakes: They fail to consider emotion and forget how easy it is to play pretend.

For Sri Lankan Muslims, “love” is a concept as rare as unicorns. We see it on the screens, we hear it exists, but no one ever acts on it. Even those lucky enough to understand the tumultuous emotion never fess up out of fear. Those who marry out of love and shy away from the tradition of arrangement might as well wear a scarlet letter.

Relationships — if they even exist — have always been kept well under the radar. Dates involve secret locations, and cryptic letters serve as communication. The cellphone, a concept established well after their introduction to first-world countries, threatens the orthodox system in place. But parents quickly catch on and resume their role of overprotective monitors. Fortunately, my savvy generation found a loophole.

We just have to make it look like an arranged marriage. Teenagers who are lucky enough to skirt around the traditional atmosphere and fall in love are capable of marrying their significant other so long as the parents meet and the wedding functions like an arranged marriage. Because reputation is key in villages, most parents are actually willing to compromise with their children to at least make it seem like they’re following the rules.

This way, families plagued by the heinous crime of falling in love can save face and still produce grandchildren.

But the idea of playing pretend is a double-edged sword.

Despite months of gruesome research into the groom’s family history — from where they borrowed money to what they ate for dinner last night — some parents are duped into thinking that their candidate is a shining trophy, even if that’s not entirely true.

Although, it’s not completely their fault. People lie. Children trick parents into thinking the child is invincible, and sometimes their soon-to-be fiance’s family falls for the same fib.

You can fake it till you make it, because Lord knows that Nintavur, the village my family is from, hates divorces more than it hates women who wear skirts above the ankle. If love marriages are unicorns, divorces are unicorns dressed as Santa Claus.

I explained these fundamental issues to my parents, and thankfully, they understood. They agreed that I could date — under certain conditions.

According to our compromise, my parents will present options, as will I. I will get to know each of these options for a fair period of time upon graduating law school and then decide who will be the father of my children.

It’s a Sri Lankan Muslim version of “The Bachelorette,” only it’s poorly funded and filled with awkward brown men in place of multimillion-dollar models.

I realize that to some, this concept reads like a nail in my coffin, but I disagree. My culture defines me. And though I could combine two different cultures and teach my children two different values, I know how hard that is.

Beyond that, I want my husband to awkwardly talk politics with my grandfather in Tamil and to sit in one of our fields eating homemade chicken biryani with his hands — and most importantly, I want to perform Hajj with my husband. I want to share all the things that define me with the person who completes me.

Maybe my parents did put me in a very small box with this concept of an arranged marriage, but at least they’re willing to compromise. The more I actually come to learn about how my parents plan on incorporating my hyphenated persona into this persistent tradition of arranged marriage, the more comforted I am that I will find a happy middle ground. So, to all the eligible Muslim men out there, feel free to send them your resumes. Apparently the hunt has begun.

Ilaf Esuf writes the Monday column on the challenges of being an immigrant. You can contact her at [email protected].

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