WHEN I WAS 18, I returned to my native Baghdad for the first time in many years to attend my cousin's wedding. While there, I met a medical student who struggled to speak to me in English. "Cigarette may I have?" he asked. Ten minutes later, he proposed marriage.
He was not nuts, he was Eastern. In fact, his two questions were related. Not that he regarded his cigarette and my hand as interchangeable. Rather, his first question indicated his command, so to speak, of English, showcasing both his education and worldliness. The very fact that he was a medical student indicated his future material prospects. In other words, having told me everything about himself that he supposed a woman in his world needed to know about a man, he quite seriously offered matrimony.
Traditionally, Eastern people of all religions have approached marriage as a practical "match," and many still do. In arranged marriages, a young man tells his parents when he's ready to settle down, and they promptly set up "visits" with families with marriageable daughters. Even educated Easterners agree with the concept of such matches. But having left the East when I was a little girl, I have been subject to different notions of conjugal normalcy, and I turned the medical student down.
But these days the West seems filled with Eastern men who have brought their notions of marriage and womanhood with them. And the more they observe Western women, it seems, the more women like me are treated to unexpected proposals of marriage. As one Syrian engineer told me in mid-proposal, he was proud of Arab women, especially our ability to keep our knees covered despite Western pressure to wear exiguous clothing. As the pool of Eastern women living in the West is relatively small, we get a lot of proposals, adding a certain cultural schizophrenia to the lives of Eastern women living here. These proposals come up like summer storms: sudden, threatening and frequent. When I was in graduate school, an Iraqi dentist who had lived in the United States for 10 years told me that he had a big house in a nice neighborhood and, in the same breath, suggested we get married. Trying to be romantic, the dentist, may God always think well of him, brought me a box of dental floss. Yes, the small sample size that you get after a cleaning, filled with mint-flavored, cinnamon, extra fine, waxed and unwaxed strands of floss. "What a practical gift," I said. "Thank you." Inevitably, he asked me about my cooking.
When I finally turned him down, he called me a socialist.
You can take a man out of the East, but not the other way around. Some Eastern men try to appear modern on the surface, but something always gives them away. I learned this from a Syrian pediatrician who had lived in the United States for seven years. Over dinner he asked if I played tennis. Not being the sporty type, I told him I had gotten the ball over the net once or twice in my life. He then asked if I could swim, and I innocently said yes. He asked if I wore a swimsuit when I swam. I told him I did. He asked if that swimsuit was a bikini. Now, I actually did not then and do not now own a bikini, but I knew what he was thinking. "In fact," I answered, "I wear nothing but bikinis." That ended that.
Not everyone is traumatized by such situations, of course. A friend who got married this way a few years ago to a wonderful man is quite content with the outcome, and says her happiest friends were introduced to their husbands the traditional way. "There are no illusions with this kind of marriage," she says. "Both walk into the relationship knowing that they must work very hard to make it work. And the result is you are perfect companions."
So it's not impossible, and Eastern men know that most Eastern women prefer to marry fellow Easterners too. That explains their attitude of "Why would anyone turn me down? I have a huge house, car and lots of money." That's why telling them over the phone (yes, strangers call on the phone) that I am not interested in marrying someone I don't know doesn't work. They tell their mothers and sisters and themselves that I am shy.This "shyness" of mine is costing me. These days, I am described in the international Eastern marriage network as "over 25." My family keeps saying, "Honey, you're not so pretty and you're too educated. Soon, no one will marry you." My aunt says, "Make the men happy: Pretend to be stupid." My mother says other women are grateful to have such proposals and soon men my age will no longer propose. I will get the widowers and the divorced men with grown children.
Perhaps they are right. For one thing, I have now had enough experience at this sort of thing that I feel I can offer advice to the men. For example, a nice Iraqi called from California the other day to propose. I told him that I did not like the idea of traditional marriage, so don't come to Washington to meet me. A few days later, he showed up. He explained over dinner that he wanted an Iraqi bride because, unlike Western women, we are not promiscuous. From the minute we sat down in the restaurant until the minute I went home, I assumed the role not of his potential bride, but his marriage adviser.
The next time you propose, I told him, don't say that you want an Arab bride because she is a virgin and knows how to cook. Rather, emphasize cultural similarities, such as language and music, and gosh, do you remember how pleasant it was to dine in the open air on the banks of the Tigris?
He was stunned. After all, he was doing what he believed to be the right, manly thing. As far as he was concerned, I was the one acting crazy.
I had just gotten out of that one when my friend Mona called to say she had a friend who wanted to "meet" me. I screamed. What was I? A car dealership? Were these guys calling around to see about ordering a model? Then I calmed down. This friend of hers, I wondered, he's not too educated, is he? Can he make good baba ghanouj?
Yasmine Bahrani is a news aide with The Post's foreign desk.