A SuShi marriage is not where we serve our guests with an array of raw fish with wasabi on the side – delicious as that would be. In fact, this co-opted term refers to something nearly as seemingly impossible: an intersect marriage with a mix of Sunni and Shia backgrounds. Haven’t heard of it before? Trust us, they exist. Even though they’re sparse, only talked about in hushed voices, have a tonne of emotional baggage in tow and leave both parties ready to combust at the slightest excuse.
I’m in one.
For the most part both communities prefer their offspring to marry within the same sect. Every once in a while though, the stars align and a crazy love-story transpires into a Laila Mujno-esque drama which one assumes can end one of two ways; a happily ever after or star-crossed lovers living out the rest of their lives yearning for their one true love.
Ok, maybe I’m being a little overly dramatic, but that’s exactly how it felt, ten years ago, when my Sunni heart fell for a Shia boy.
Zamin’s tall physique, copper hair which glistened gold in the sunlight, and green eyes that seemed like they held the universe took me by complete and utter surprise. I wasn’t looking for love, nor a relationship, but it seemed as if God had other plans in store for me. I came from a liberal family with an open mind. We had plenty of mixed-marriages and it wasn’t a big deal to marry someone with a different religious background – or so I thought.
When I mentioned this exotic creature to my mother, her eyes widened and she immediately asked me his full name. On hearing, ‘Hussain’, her expression contorted to one of worry and concern as she half proclaimed, half questioned, “Shia hai?!”
The thought had never entered my mind – and I didn’t think it mattered.
Boy, was I wrong!
She warned me of the potential differences in opinion and told me to be weary, suggesting I be nothing more than friends with this boy to avoid any complications later. But the heart wants what the heart wants.
Fast-forward to a year later and we were full on dating. At 23 we had decided that this was it! We wanted to spend eternity together, and in our naive minds, that was enough. Reality came as a slap in our faces as Zamin’s parents, who were very religiously inclined, were strongly opposed to their only son marrying outside of the community.
His mother used all manner of emotional blackmail to get him to reconsider. Meanwhile, my mom always shook her head at me with pity, hoping this would be something I would snap out of soon. I went in and out of depression, questioning why God was doing this to me, to us. For four years we dated in secret, obviously against the wishes of our families, and pestered them once a year to reassess and give us their blessing.
Then one year was different. I told Zamin that I could no longer take the heartache. Living in the same city, it still felt like a long-distance relationship and having to lay low and keep secrets was becoming more stressful than I could bear. This was my ultimatum.
“Marry me,” I said, “or let me go, so I can find something worthwhile with someone else.” We sat across from each other at a coffee shop as I saw the expression on his face go from soft and sweet to concerned and almost sad. If there’s one good thing that comes from being stubborn, it’s self-control and an unshakeable will. I promised myself that I would not communicate with this boy till he convinced his parents.
About a week or so later, he called me. I was reluctant to take the call. He told me he missed me, and I told him nothing had changed on my part. Then he said he’d like to have me over for dinner. I told him I wasn’t interested. “At home,” he said quietly, “with amma abu.”
Everything started spinning as I lay in my bed, his words ringing in my head. I told him that wasn’t funny and that he shouldn’t play such cruel tricks on me, but he was being totally serious. To this day, he hasn’t told me how exactly he convinced them – and I’m not sure I want to know.
Before I could go over I had to get my family on board, but I didn’t know how. The uncanniness of how it all happened still boggles my mind. It’s as if my mother knew all along, and our ‘secret’ dating wasn’t in fact so secret!
I still remember the cool wintery Sunday afternoon… I’d said no to yet another aunty’s son because, “we didn’t click” that my mother in an absolute huff said, “theek hai, karlo jiss se karni hai shaadi!” (fine, marry whoever you want to marry!). My jaw hit the floor as I tried to hide the palpitations and sudden surge of adrenaline within me. I ran down to my bedroom and called Zamin.
We were on for dinner! I could tell his mom didn’t like that this was happening, but she tried very really hard to make me feel welcome in their home. We broke bread over awkward small talk and I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I looked around at the place I would soon call home feeling a weird sense of victory. I had done it. After losing countless battles, I had won the war!
I met and said no to half a dozen rishta boys in those five years and finally at 28, with a lot of awkwardness between the two families, we were engaged in a small gathering at home. It seemed the two of us were the only ones smiling and ecstatic, as the elders didn’t make much effort to conceal their displeasure.
We decided to have the wedding before either party had time to change their minds; and so it was that we were united in wedlock on a hot summer’s day in Karachi six months later. The tension in the hall was palpable and as the nikkah took place both mothers shifted uneasily in their seats; my family barely making eye contact with his. I don’t think I’ve ever been as relieved as I was when the handsome moulana dressed in regal black attire pronounced us man and wife.
One would think that was it. The hardest part of the battle was over, and now we could live forever in marital bliss. That, my friends, was just the beginning.
Five years down the line I can surely say, that intersect marriage is no walk in the park. Not even, I’m guessing, when you marry someone like-minded and from a similar upbringing and background. Instead, it is a (sometimes a very steep) hike up a slippery mountain slope. The only way you keep going is if you have a partner to push you on and be there with you and for you along the way.
When Muharram came around, I had my first rude awakening. I felt as if I was married to a man I didn’t know or recognise. I found the whole concept of attending majlises and the extended rituals of mourning, bizzare. In my haste to get married, and blinded by the love-hormone, I had made promises that I was now finding myself unable to want to keep. I didn’t want to blend in with these people, and I didn’t want to spend two and a half months grieving! The first year of marriage was hard. Zamin and I were constantly getting into fights and having arguments. There were times when I thought that I’d made a terrible mistake and it was time to call it quits. At the same time I wondered how I would walk out on something I fought so hard to make mine and what people would say.
Luckily, Zamin was as invested in this relationship as I was and after some bouts of anger and frustration, we had open and candid conversations about how we (mostly I) was feeling in this marriage. With some effort on both our parts and many more conversations year after year, we worked to build something stable that brings us immense happiness on a daily basis. Five years and two kids later, we are still working on our relationship, not because it’s broken, but because we recognise that when two people from such different and sometimes opposing views come together, there is bound to be friction. Instead of letting that corrode our bond we decided to take it head on by discussing our feelings, setting boundaries and giving each other space to practice their religion however they want.
So far our biggest challenge has been raising our kids in the Shia faith as we had agreed to before marriage. As a mother, it’s hard to see your child deviate from what you knowYear after year, I don my black attire and head on out to the Imambargah, my kids on either side of me. An onlooker probably can’t tell that I’m an outsider, and though it gets easier with each passing day, I still feel out of place amongst the sea of wailing women beating their chests with blatant fervour, but at the end of the day the realization that despite this practice, their dad and I both agree that above everything else, we want to raise good people and kind human beings and that makes every strange unfamiliar feeling go away.
Title image courtesy Haseeb Amjad, Lighthouse