ARRANGED MARRIAGE

By the time I was seventeen, my mother had given birth to five children. My sister was three years younger than I. After her, came three brothers, the first two, each three years apart and the last, seven years later. But my grandmother had a voracious de­sire for more. During my childhood and teen years, she was constantly blaming my mother for taking too long to bear another child. She even accused her of becoming hopelessly barren. She often threatened her with ano­ther wife for Father who would bear him more children. Maybe Grandmother expected a child every year and that was not happening.

Finally when she realized that Father would never agree to another marriage, Grandmother turned her at­tention to having me married. I do not know when the idea was introduced to my parents, but it was warmly received as it provided an escape from Grandmother’s constant nagging. No one asked me about it. Of course, I would have said no, for then I was nearing the end of my high school education and had other goals to achieve before any thought of marriage.

The family chose a young girl from our neighborhood, the daughter of our ‘uncle’ from whom we had bought our house some years before. We called him ‘uncle’ because he was a good family friend. He was working for the Government and was a distinguished writer and a leader in the field of journalism. He was rather aloof in his relationship with us children and we had seldom an occasion to talk to him. His daughter was about two years younger than I and, in the family’s eyes, quite ready for matrimony. She had stopped going to school when she was in the third grade, as had my sister, but had had some tutoring at home. I had not seen her for several years for, although I went to her home on occasion, tradition demanded that she absent herself from view during my visits.

That winter my mother and sister went to a village near Jalalabad in the Eastern Province to attend the wedding of uncle’s oldest son. When they returned two months later, my sister’s first words to me were, “Congratulations on your betrothal!” I learned also that it was uncle’s daughter I was betrothed to. This further explained uncle’s unexpected warmth toward me the evening of their return from Jalalabad. I was told the whole story later that night.

My parents had gone to uncle’s home next door almost immediately after deciding my fate with respect to the much-wanted new progeny in our line. They had approached uncle’s wife first who had talked to her husband. The latter had agreed but felt the need for a general family accord prior to saying a final ‘yes.’ For this, the forthcoming wedding of their oldest son was considered an opportune time. Grandmother and my parents were duly informed and it was decided that Mother attend the wedding and bring up the subject again at an appropriate time right there in the vil­lage. This was done and the elders accepted my mother’s proposal. I was forthwith betrothed in absentia.

I objected vehemently, levied criticism at every­body and claimed they had no right to determine my fate without my knowledge and consent. At first no one thought I was serious. They took it lightly and joked about it. But when Father realized that I meant what I was saying, he used his position of authority and gave me a stern warning to stop it right there. He said that this was a done deal. Two families and, by exten­sion, two tribes were now involved. He was not about to bring any kind of shame upon either of them. He said I should know better. It was now a matter of family honor. If I considered myself a son of my father, I should maintain family honor at all cost. But if I still objected, I had no place in my father’s home any more. All he would do then, was to go to court and disclaim me as his son.

That was that. I was to give the family my answer in the morning.

I hardly slept that night. All kinds of fears haunted me. I saw no hope, no way to avert the unexpected happening. I knew Father would go all the way if he had to. Where could I turn to when he threw me out? How would I live? How would I be able to go through the next, the final year of my schooling? Maybe if this had happened after my graduation, I could handle it. But, could I, really? All along I had been planning to go beyond high school. In fact I had thought of becoming a medical doctor some day. To be thrown out of the family also meant that I would lose Father’s moral and material support for my college years. I knew that my education would be free if I got accepted for higher studies. But there undoubtedly would be other expenses which I would have no source to rely on. A young man without a father to turn to or to claim as father! Would anyone even consider me for a job when he learned that I had been thrown out of my parental home? Who would even accept me as a tenant? My entire future looked bleak, even impossible. I knew that most of the marriages in my country were arranged marriages. I knew that families handled it and that the two indivi­duals who were really involved had little, if any, say in the matter. But I thought that families would at least take the matter up with their children and make sure they were ready for marriage before they took the next step. I was not against marriage. It was a natural thing. I simply was not ready for it at the time. To me education was the first objective. My goal was to join the society as a person able to take on the responsibilities of life without being a burden on the family. Father did not see it that way. Grandmother was the main reason for it all. As for Mother, she believed Father always knew what was best. It was thus already an accomplished fact, finished, irrevocable, un-alterable. There was no way out. All I could do was to accept my fate. Hope for the best. The family had assured me, during my first expression of objection that no one would stand in the way of my attaining my goals in education and that I need not worry about financial support for ‘my’ family.

The next day the coward surrendered. The family won.

As for love, it was never in the picture. In Afghanistan one rarely fell in love because one seldom met one’s future spouse unless she was a first cousin. In the remote chance of meeting someone and falling in love, one’s marriage with that person depended on a lot of other conditions to be met and resolved first. More often such unions would not take place. In some instances the couple would elope causing themselves se­rious problems and their families grave and precarious relations for many years.

A few of my teachers came to know, somehow, of my engagement. Our new history teacher, asked me in class if it was true. I said, “Yes.” He forthwith recited an Arabic proverbial expression that said something about marriage really putting an end to further education. I said it would not prove true in my case. He shook his head from side to side and said, “We shall see.” I repeated the same. To me this also became yet another challenge to pay heed to in the years ahead. I also found myself involved in tutoring my oldest future brother-in-law. The scheme was cooked up by both families to facilitate my afternoon visits next door. I would go there after having lunch at home. My fiancee would also be present at these sessions. We just sat politely apart, occasionally smiled at each other and made small conversation when I was not busy with her brother. Later on, he would leave after his lesson and the two of us would stay for an hour or so. But I was warned at the outset not to go beyond hugging and kissing my fiancee because it would simply be unacceptable to both families if they were shamed with a prenuptial pregnancy. I had pro­mised to observe the code but soon found out that we were being watched very closely, nevertheless. A girl friend of hers was introduced as a further element to discourage any attempt that I might make to break my promise. I was not supposed to stay beyond four in the afternoon as I was not to be seen by Uncle when he came home from work.

This went on into midsummer. By then everyone was ready for the wedding. I had just finished my eleventh grade and that Fall I would go to the 12th and last year at Habibia High School.

The wedding turned out to be the first posh affair in my memory in our neighborhood. Our own homes were too small. A neighbor, who had a huge yard and four vast rooms opening to a big yard, was approached. He agreed to move out for a couple of days so that the marriage could be performed there. I found out many years later that the house belonged to a general whose brothers served Bachai Saqaw as his Cabinet Ministers. He was not involved and, therefore, no retribution had fallen upon his household after the downfall of the Saqawi regime. At the time of my marriage, the gene­ral’s family lived there, mostly on a seasonal basis.

The place was lit by hundreds of colored electric lights. Two teams of musicians were hired, one for men and one for women, the latter all female. All male guests were invited for an early evening reception when the official nikah documents were read and signed in the presence of a mula imam, a representative of the Kabul Municipality, elders of the two families and neigh­bors. The imam first recited some passages from the Holy Qur’an and then asked the audience whether the bride’s witnesses were present and, if so, would they come up before him and state their message. Someone said yes. Then two men came forward and swore that they were witnesses before God and the present assembly that they heard the bride say three times that she had accepted (my name) the son of (my father’s name) as her husband. He then bad me forward and asked me three times if I had accepted (her name) the daughter of (her father’s name) as my wife. I said “Yes.” He then read some more passages from the Holy Book and raised his hands in prayer and blessed the union. The audience did the same.

Everyone cheered. Handfuls of candies were showered on top of my head some of which was eagerly gathered by young lads in hopes of early marriages. The municipality clerk, meanwhile had filled out the nikah namah (mar­riage certificate) with the names, lineages and addres­ses of the bride, the groom, their witnesses, and the bride’s godfather. At the end the mula imam asked for the figure of dowry. The brides’ godfather stated a figure in thousands of Afghanis. A discussion ensued which the mula resolved by quoting religious practices in Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammed, suggesting that the same spirit may now be followed. The dowry was finally set at 300 Afghanis, a third of which was to constitute immediate payment and two-thirds delayed payment to the wife in case of a possible future legal separation (divorce). The bride was also given title to a part of my father’s house to do with as she pleased in such a case. The mula then signed the document. The mayoralty clerk and several guests also signed as witnesses. The godfather then took posses­sion of the nikah namah (marriage certificate). Qaimaq chai (a special concoction of cream, black tea, rose water, sugar and milk), cakes, cookies, sweets and candies were served. At the end the mula was given an envelope containing some money for his service. Everyone else received some candies tied in colorful handkerchiefs procured for the purpose to take home as gifts to their families.

The marriage certificate was later taken by the clerk to be registered in the official municipality Re­cords Book. It would later be returned by the same clerk or a representative of the bride’s family would collect it from the Records Office. This document then became the property of the bride and remained in her posses­sion throughout her married life. (My father later changed the dowry figure to one thousand Afghanis and signed it to placate the anger of my mother-in-law at the low figure quoted and written in the document)

The women’s ceremonies started after dark. A section of the yard was covered with many carpets. Mattresses, about three feet wide and some eight to ten feet long, were arranged around an empty central area. Dozens of pillows and lean-to’s were thrown on the mattresses for guests to lean on.

A lavish feast, prepared by hired cooks, was ser­ved right in front of them, over long dinner cloth spreads on the carpeted floor. Men, mostly family members and very close friends, dined in one of the rooms where the nekah ceremony was held earlier.

Preparations for the actual wedding ceremony (re­ception) started at about ten o’clock, when the dinner was over and the area was cleared and cleaned. A promi­nent section of the yard was set aside for the bride and groom. A sofa, rare at the time, was brought. It was covered with a gold brocaded shawl. A coffee table, also covered with a beautiful cloth, was placed in front of the sofa. It was decorated with a tray of artificial flowers on a base of henna aglitter with colored light bulbs. Another tray contained a heap of maleeda (a powdery delicacy consisting of sweetened bread crushed to very small particles mixed with fat, offered as a special wedding item). A third tray was full of candies and nuql (almonds ever- so-lightly covered with sugar.) There were also several jugs of fruit juice. Yet another low table had dozens of small plates, cups and spoons.

Clad in my new suit, paid for by the bride’s family, I was brought first by some members of my family and made to stand between the coffee table and the sofa to await the arrival of the bride. The sound of several dayeras (a kind of tambourine) and a special Pukhto wedding song announced this stage of the ceremo­ny. A group of girls of both families slowly walked the bride to where I was waiting. The two mothers held her arms while an aunt held a copy of the Holy Qur’an above her head. In front of her, the girls were dan­cing and singing.

Once in view of the guests, the hired musicians picked up the tune and the girls continued to dance ahead of the procession coming toward the sofa. She was guided to my right and asked to stand beside me. The guests cheered and clapped and then there was silence. Someone asked us to sit down. I did, but she did not. I thought I must have missed my cue and began to rise. Someone held me back. Then a murmur was heard among the crowd and someone said the bride should be promised something for the favor of sitting. My mother promised her another piece of jewelry. She then sat down. At that moment, in a whis­per, my sister ordered me to put my foot on top of the bride’s foot. I hesitated and received a painful pinch behind my arm. I obeyed by slightly touching the back of her left foot with my right foot. I later found this was to show who would be in a position of authori­ty in the new household. I was sure nobody noticed and nobody cared either. For my part, my parents were the real authorities. I was only a student who would soon be immersed in my books for yet another year of high school and, who knew, how many years of university education. (Not many days later, I discovered that my wife already knew who the real authority was and to whom her loyalties belonged.)

My father’s uncle performed the henna ceremony. He covered my little finger with henna and bandaged it with a triangular silk cloth with a short length of string attached to it. He put a spoonful of henna in the bride’s palm and used another similar bandage over her palm. The tray was then taken away and the henna was distributed among those guests who wanted some. (In a few hours when the already dried henna was washed out, a bright red dye would appear. The color would remain for a month or so and its existence was a sure sign that a person had recently been married or had attended a wedding.)

The next stage of the ceremony was for the two of us to see each other in a mirror and read passages of the Holy Qur’an while we were both covered with a shawl held above our heads. Giggling young girls peeped under the shawl and the others waited anxiously for the shawl to be lifted. In rural Afghan society the bride and groom saw each other for the first time in the mirror during this part of the ceremony. Not so in Kabul. We had already seen each other for some six months as fiance’s. I was then given a wedding ring to place on the bride’s finger. I got no ring. The reason was that, at the time, men were not allowed to wear gold and silver because such forms of decoration were frown­ed upon from a religious viewpoint. The next step was the cutting of the wedding cake which we did jointly. We then fed each other mouthfuls of the cake. Maleeda was served the same way. A few sips of the fruit juice followed. Then a rain of nuql and candies poured down on us and all around us. Young girls and some young boys (mostly close relatives) grabbed some and ate them right away in the hope of being next in line for marriage. Some older women gathered a few to take home to their eligible absent relatives. There followed a few hours of song and dance by the professional female musicians and young girls from among the guests and relatives.

The men’s party was held in another part of the big house where male musicians entertained the guests before and after dinner and that party was over long before midnight.

The main wedding party, however, ended at about three in the morning. We were directed to a small row of cars for a ride of an hour or so on the city streets. The procession was headed by the Kabul Muni­cipality band hired to play while marching at the head of the procession. We thus walked and rode for a couple of hours along the streets of the old city right in front of my father’s uncles’ home where I was born. When we finally got home, it was almost dawn. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we slept, separately, for a couple of hours.

A very elaborate breakfast awaited us later that morning. We were royally treated. All the members of both families had waited for us. We sat around the feast first. The first day of my married life had begun.

There was no honeymoon. The practice did not exist in our society of that time. I found myself back with my books and studies in the living room of our rental apartment which was then vacant. This, by the way, was the very part of Father’s property the title to which was to go over to my wife in case of divorce. The women and children were in the main house having all sorts of fun ignoring that there was a groom somewhere nearby. My father had, of course, gone to work as usual. Perhaps he was figuring just how much it all had cost him and how he was going to pay back what he must have bor­rowed, for I knew he did not have much cash. His salary was barely enough to pay for our daily needs. I was on my summer vacation and would return to school in another six weeks. In those days, the government was the main employer but not of students. So I was nei­ther able to work nor was it expected of me. I just studied and did a little writing.

Our marriage was consummated a week later. The much-awaited news was disseminated and the bride’s family held their heads high that their daughter had arrived at her husbands’ home morally intact.

Much to Grandmother’s dismay, this marriage did not produce an offspring immediately. In fact it took almost five years when our first child, a son, arrived in the “grand matriarch’s” household.

As for our relationship, nothing happened to bring us any closer. In those first few weeks Grandmother had asked my wife to begin lending a hand in the day-to-day household chores. She obliged but, as luck would have it, every time she did the dishes, she broke a piece of china. This did not sit well with Grand­mother who reproached her. Mother did not or could not take her side. Finally my wife tearfully told me about it. I suggested that she excuse herself from household work citing headache or something like that and that, in time, she would feel comfortable enough to do every­thing right. Next day she told both Mother and Grand­mother that I had told her to play a trick on them to avoid work. If that changed things in her favor, I did not see it. But it left an indelible mark on our relationship.

For the rest of that summer I stayed away from everybody as much as I could and only came in at meal­times and to go to bed. Neither of us knew anything about bed manners of couples. What we knew was not of a kind that would make us crave more. Our relation­ship seemed limited to the physical aspects of marriage only. Mentally we gradually drifted further apart and this became the everlasting pattern of our lives toge­ther. I do not blame her for anything in particular. Neither can I take all the blame. Maybe it was the society that was to blame. We thought we were doing what those around us expected of us. What actually transpired between us in private remained private. If either of us had related our situation to our parents, like when she went to mine with the story that I had advised her about how to avoid work around the house, maybe things might have changed. But we did not seek anyone out. Perhaps no one really cared.

All Grandmother wanted out of our marriage was a great-grand child. She was mad that she was not get­ting one. She even started the machinery in motion to have me married to some other, perhaps more productive girl. That time I put my foot down before the matter went too far and was rewarded with the silent accord of my parents, I feel, mainly for financial reasons.

By the time our first son was born, I was in the second year of the Faculty of Letters and Humanities of Kabul University and, even though my home was in the city, I lived in the College dorm with other clas­smates. I was content to be a father. My parents were in charge and I had nothing to worry about. Father had told me that all he wanted was to see my graduation diploma from College and that alone was to be my goal. Nothing else. I found I was destined to oblige.