Huda al-Marashi was 6 when she met Hadi Ridha, the boy her family expected her to marry in their close-knit Iraqi American community in California. Whether to have an arranged marriage or an American love story forms the core of “First Comes Marriage,” her charming, funny, heartbreaking memoir of faith, family and the journey to love.
If Jane Austen had grown up as a first-gen daughter of Iraqi parents in the 1990s, she might have written this. Keenly observed, with indelible characters, al-Marashi portrays the complex mores and manners that govern life and love in the immigrant community of her youth — from the kindly if baffled Baba, her elderly father, to Huda’s formidable mother and the endearingly hapless Hadi, who loves Huda for years, hampered by propriety and his mullet.
Loosely constructed around a series of firsts — first meeting, first kiss — the memoir recounts Huda’s ambivalent exploration of traditional courtship, even as it reveals the appeal of “life made rich by rituals.” Al-Marashi weaves a mesmerizing tale of an American overachiever, whose devotion to excellence extends to the realm of love. “Deep down, I wanted to marry the Iraqi, Shia boy that would make my parents proud,” she writes.
Her journey to marriage is comic but also instructive, correcting stereotypes about devout Muslims. Islam is sex positive; women are encouraged to achieve: “Our community of brain-drain Iraqis was filled with women just like Mama. Women who were doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and engineers: they got married young, had their children, and worked. Even the women who stayed at home . . . still whispered to their daughters, ‘Study. Study. Become something.’ ”
All of it dovetailed with the idea of American success, save one aspect: “In America, you had to fall in love.”
Huda longs for American romance but shows that arranged marriage is rooted in affection, too: in love of family, faith, community.
Love stories typically end with a wedding, but al-Marashi pushes past celebration into tougher terrain. Honeymooning in Spain, the couple argue over whether Huda may wear a bathing suit. She settles for wearing his oversize T-shirt and shorts. “I looked ridiculous, I felt ridiculous, and as we walked along the water, I pointed out every topless woman and every G-string and said, ‘You really think people would’ve been looking at me when there are people here like her?’ ” The marital consummation scene is like an outtake from “Bridesmaids”: “We talked about the best position from which to proceed as if we were two naked co-workers assigned to the same project.”
Independent, educated and ambitious, Huda is a character we root — and fear — for, as she discovers marriage’s restrictions. Forgoing graduate school offers to follow her husband to medical school in Mexico, she meets Muslim American women who have not felt pressed to marry, who have chosen to pursue educations, without fear of losing their shot at love. In her struggle to find a middle path between her American love story and Muslim one, she’s ultimately restored by a love greater than romance.
E.J. Levy is the author of “Love, in Theory,” which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize.
By Huda al-Marashi
Prometheus. 294 pp. $24.