"It'll just happen, whenever God knows you're ready."
Last November, after 6 1/2 years together, Hagir Elawad's boyfriend finally proposed.
It was what she'd been so badly wanting, she says -- "until it happened."
Soon after, Elawad, a "U.N. brat" who serves as director of government relations for the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, traveled to the U.A.E. for work. Before returning home, she flew to Sudan to visit her paternal grandfather. In his presence -- surrounded by the Arab culture in which both her parents had been raised -- Elawad began to have doubts.
She returned to the United States and on New Year's Eve, after a series of wrenching discussions, told her fiance she'd made up her mind: It wasn't going to work.
"I think just the cultural and religious aspects of what I wanted for my future all came to a head," says Elawad, 29, whose former fiance wasn't Arab or Muslim. "I could only show 45 percent of my personality or myself with him, and that was really hard to come to terms with."
That April, Elawad's mother, Sarah Kamal, went to Egypt and reunited with an old friend who'd moved to Montreal but was back for a visit with his grown children. Among them was 28-year-old Medhat Ismail, the eldest son who had spurned overtures from one woman after another.
"We don't know what to do with him anymore. We want him to get married, but he's just so picky," Moheub Ismail complained to Kamal. "Don't you have anybody for him?"
He begged Kamal to send along pictures of her daughter -- the younger one, who wasn't engaged. (Kamal and her husband hadn't dared to announce Elawad's broken engagement.)
Kamal kept her promise and sent photos of Elawad's sister. Then, without telling either daughter, she sent a follow-up note with "more pictures of the family," including five of Elawad. Those were the ones Ismail, who works in his family's construction business, hung on his mirror. "Every time I looked at her I thought, 'She means something to me,' " he recalls. "I felt like I'd known her all my life."
Meanwhile, Elawad was agonizing over her decision to throw out the relationship in which she'd invested so much. Memorial Day weekend she called and asked for a second chance. Two weeks later, she decided again that it wouldn't work. Elawad, who had never been religious, turned inward. "I went through this spiritual journey," she explains, "where I felt like I was allowing God to take the fear of leaving that comfort zone away."
She was excited when her mother proposed a family trip to Montreal to reconnect with the Ismails for Fourth of July weekend, if only as an excuse to get away. When her sister bailed and her father got stuck working, it became a mother-daughter trip.
Settled at the house with Ismail's sisters and mother, Elawad found herself anxious for the arrival of the man her mother had raved about, saying, "You know, he reminds me so much of you," and recalling that they'd once played together as preschoolers. Elawad, though, had felt no reaction to seeing photos of him. ("He looked like a little thug to me," she says, "because the pictures were old.")