Today’s issue of The Sunday Telegraph’s Sunday Magazine features a first person story on my relationship with my husband – from the time that I met him until our first wedding anniversary. It was a difficult story to write, and as it was stripped of its original length, I felt that it lost much of its beauty. Granted, and even if I do say so myself, my husband and I have had a love story for the ages, but it’s not just mine to tell. One of the hardest things about being a writer is that you’re not just sharing your own life, but inevitably, you’re putting others in the spotlight too. I’ve dreaded the inevitable fall-out that would come of publishing a story such as this, but based on the comments I’ve received so far, it’s a story people can identify with.
I think my parents now love my husband more than they love me, now that they’ve gotten to know him beyond the facade of him being an ajnabi (foreigner), but I still feel compelled to publish my original piece to give more background and context on a tough issue. As I write this post, I’m reflecting on a feature article I once wrote for Yen on this very topic, about five years ago. Even though my love story has moved on, some people are still fighting these very battles, and I hope that no matter where they are in their relationships, they find empathy in my words. Here goes:
“When I was a little girl, my mother’s teenage sister eloped with a man that her parents had forbid her to marry. In the furore that erupted afterwards, when I briefly learnt what the word elope meant and figured that, in my community at least, it was one of the worst things a girl could do, I promised my daddy that I would never do the same terrible thing and marry someone my family didn’t approve of. That memory came back to haunt me when I was 19, new to love and its complexities, and naive enough to think I could work them all out.
I had first met the centre of this complexity when we were both working at a telecommunications store while putting ourselves through uni. James was 20 years old, arrogant, and the store manager, and I was the nerdy 19 year old ethnic girl who arrived earlier to work than he did and quickly became the darling of our employers. Our mutual loathing for one another was only intensified by the fact that we quietly thought the other was hot. By the time our friendship blossomed, my friends had already known that I’d felt a little more for him, and advised me to go in with my head and not my heart. It was a warning for what was to come.
When he finally asked me out, almost eight months after we’d met, I politely declined even though I was more than a little interested. He couldn’t understand why – our chemistry was electric, we got along like the best of friends and our colleagues had bets on when we’d finally realise that our mild flirtations were indicative of something more.
I couldn’t explain the reasons. He was a WASP and I was the daughter of conservative Lebanese Catholic migrants who believed it wasn’t right for me to go out too much, have more than one boyfriend (ever, and that relationship would have to be cemented into marriage ASAP), or have sleepovers with even my grandmother out of fear it would damage my marriage prospects. As far as they were concerned, I belonged at home, where I would earn respect and become a lady.
He pestered me for one date before I finally agreed to accompany him to the movies, but by the time I’d convinced myself a date was ok I was already trying to get out of it. James wouldn’t take no for an answer, but couldn’t understand my reasoning either. It took a lot to explain that I was not like the Aussie girls he’d dated before, he couldn’t just pick me up from home. He offered to ask my dad if he could take me out, and when I’d asked if it was his death wish, he looked at me blankly.
I don’t know how he convinced me, but we ended up dating. The entire time I was haunted by my parents’ reaction, and dreamt of scenarios where it would all be ok in my head. I doubt he understood the gravity of the situation until my mother found out, fainted and demanded I explain my actions.
She did all the talking. How could her perfect Lebanese daughter, the apple of her father’s eye, the smart, cultured young woman who never got into trouble and who could recite her prayers in Arabic and sing Fairuz songs like a natural, be in love with an Aussie guy? How could she tell my father, or her father, or worse, the rest of the village?
After she threatened to drink poison in a rather dramatic fashion (because summoning the doctor with symptoms of disobedience by daughter was not dramatic enough), she finally got through to me: inter-racial marriages would never work out. If I married the Aussie guy I’d wind up divorced like the people on Home & Away and Neighbours (which to her may have been representative of all that was wrong with society).
I called and broke up a relationship that wasn’t even real to begin with. He hated it, I hated it, my parents hated it. But despite the icky outcome, my parents got what they wanted, and so did we. Our relationship was no longer a burdening secret, and for my parents, well, there was no longer a relationship. I took to my room, and for the first time in 19 years, started sleeping with the door closed. It was real and metaphorical; I had cut myself off from the world. I stopped eating and dropped about six kilos in a week, my eyes looked drawn and my personality sunk deep into my body. The girl that laughed everyday wouldn’t even greet the day anymore.
On the days I wandered our home, a ghost of my own making, I could see my mother’s worry and my father’s confusion. I’d hear them talking in hushed tones, pain in their voices, wondering if I had just fallen for the first guy that came along because I was never allowed to go anywhere or do anything. I was allowed to go out more then, but by then it was too late.
The years that followed are a blur of romantic gestures at his end, strenuous arguments at my mothers, and feeling as though I would never again find a place in my father’s heart. I had never before been so torn in my life, and unfortunately, some of the friends I expected to count on didn’t understand either. We all went to a Lebanese school, and were expected to marry Lebanese guys who spoke our parents’ language and knew what it was like to follow rules that were a forgotten remnant of the 60’s in Lebanon but were very much alive by its expats in South-Western Sydney.
Suddenly, I was a rebellious girl, even though my relationship had been confined to a phone for so long. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him, and the only photo I had of him was from the driver’s licence I had to photocopy when I made his mobile phone contract. I was Juliet, but I had two Romeos: my family, with my past, my heritage and my soul wrapped up in it, and my beau: the first guy to notice that I had spark even though I was the plainest girl in the room. He found me when no one else had looked and of course I was going to love him for it.
I know my parents thought they were doing the right thing, but despite their relief at the break-up, they realised begrudgingly that James never went away. Worse – they never had cause to hate him. He did everything by the book, even turning up to my father’s work and asking his permission to come to the airport (“just to see that she is safe”) after I’d been evacuated from Lebanon during the July 2006 war.
I think they wished he were at least a bit of an asshole so they could have something against him, but he was always the perfect gentleman. And to their credit, they respected that, allowing him his requests perhaps because of his patience, or perhaps because they eventually came to realise the power of his love. And thus finally relented.
The rest was a happy ever after of sorts and by the time I had their blessing, I could oblige his wish and marry him, which I did on Dec 5th 2010 – walking out my father’s house with my parents on both arms, happy for me – sort of the biggest point in a Lebanese wedding.
These days, I often wonder what would have happened if my parents never found out. Would James and I still be together? I wonder if it was the thrill of the chase that kept us going, because sometimes I look over at him and think about how we have nothing in common. What the hell sustained us for five years?
Our married life has so far been a tumultuous year reflective of a tumultuous relationship, and on my rare moments of insecurity, I wonder if he looks at me and wonders if I am worth it. I often find myself fretting about what he’d do when he wakes up a man and realises that the girl he fought for as a boy does not meet his standards as an adult. I am no longer the unattainable enigma; instead I’m the woman who tells him to put his dirty clothes in the hamper and the dishes in the sink.
The differences between us are stark and poignant. I wonder why there’s never enough food when we’re inviting in or invited out (Lebanese people are notorious over-servers) or why he never sees his relatives; he can’t fathom why I have to see a cousin every three days, or why weddings and baptisms have to be huge, costly affairs with so much food, pomp and people. They’re the kinds of issues we’re yet to navigate perfectly, and when I storm out of the house to ‘be alone with my thoughts’, I wonder what he’s thinking. Did we fight for something because we were on the same side, or because we really believed in the cause?
As I write this piece a few days before deadline, James and I have just celebrated our first wedding anniversary. In between our screaming matches and heated debates, we’re just a couple of adults trying to catch up on a relationship that had to grow up before it was ready.
Meanwhile, the aunty that eloped amidst the scandal of my childhood enjoys a very happy marriage about twenty years later. I hope I am at least half as lucky, but I know I am because my father had the night of his life at my wedding, giving my husband the thumbs up when he promised to raise kids who know how to speak Lebanese, do the dabke (Lebanese folk dance) and drink their granddad’s Arak.
There is such thing as a good fight. I started fighting at 19 and I don’t know if I’ve really stopped, but in the process I gained my independence, battled some cultural and social stereotypes, and discovered that there really is a love that’s worth fighting for.”
First published (as an edited version) in Sunday Magazine, 29th January 2012