Arranged marriages "alive" in Brooklyn

Arabs mirror Mideast culture in US


Arab-Americans are said to be keen on the tradition of arranged marriages as much as they value other religious duties such as the daily prayers. But in the midst of a Western society, keeping a custom like arranged marriages is definitely a challenge the community has tried to adapt to.

Just a few subway stops from Manhattan, a mix of Arabs from different countries (Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and others) defies the Western world of this Brooklyn neighborhood by sticking to the habits of a lifestyle they left back home long ago.

They live in America, but they are still Arab, and they have brought back customs like arranged marriages from across the world.

"Every year, we see more than a hundred arranged marriages in our community alone," said Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian who was born and raised in Bay Ridge --where her parents settled over 30 years ago, and where she is now raising her three children.

Like most girls in her community, Linda always knew her husband would be chosen for her, and she accepted it because it is the norm.

"They don't really force you into it," she said. "They convince you. And for me, it was normal. I expected it to happen that way."

Following the tradition

Her husband spotted her at a wedding ceremony when she was 16. And in that community, this is how most find their spouses. They come from all over the United States to attend weddings and engagements, and meet single girls who they could potentially marry. Then, the traditional steps are taken.

"First, the guy sees the girl. It is physical attraction that draws them," she said. "Then, he tells his parents about it." And the process is launched.

If the man enjoys a good reputation, comes from a good family, and seems like he has a solid foundation, then the girl's father will invite him and his parents to their home.

"In our community," Linda explained, "you not only have to find a spouse who is Arab and Muslim; that person also needs to be Palestinian and from the same village as you." She and her husband are both from Al Birre.

Another Palestinian woman, Arwa Aziz, randomly met her husband at a convention for Arab-American students where they exchanged contact numbers. She eventually found out that he was her step-father's nephew who had recently immigrated to the United States, and whom she had never met before. The family instantly embraced their union.

Twisting customs

Still not every woman in this community is fully traditional. Some find clever ways to satisfy their parents while still marrying the man of their choice; others accept being set-up, but assert themselves as independent, self-sufficient women – and what may look like a mirror image of the Middle-East is actually a marriage of cultures with the West.

Linda's sister met her husband on the Internet, the more "modern" way. "They were both online in a Palestinian chat-room and they spoke for six months before they met at an engagement party," she said.

Once her sister's mind was made up, they started plotting to make her parents accept him. He followed the traditional route, pretending to have seen her at the party for the first time and telling his parents about her.

Their families never found out that they knew each other beforehand. "My sister thought, if I can make it seem normal, no one will have a problem with it," said Linda. "And many women have done that."

Women like Linda accept being set-up because they don't really believe in "love story weddings". Also, she said, "If I fight with my husband, I can always run to my father because he is the one who chose him for me."

In the United Sates, most people marry for love. But both Arwa and Linda both believe that marriages based on love are the ones that usually end up in divorce.

The two women work at the Arab American Association, which is a center-point for every Arab in Brooklyn who needs assistance in all sorts of matters. They meet many couples going through divorces who need help with paperwork.

"When it is an arranged marriage," said Linda, "I think you develop a tolerance. You are patient with your spouse because you are still getting to know them. Other couples have already been together for three, four, seven years…"

When Linda got engaged, her husband lived in a different state. They spoke on the phone twice a week and only saw each other twice during the year they were engaged, until the week of their wedding.

"'Al hob byijeh min baad al jizeh, love comes after the wedding'," said Linda, quoting her mother.

"Traditionally, the man's family comes to the girl's home to drink shay, a cup of hot tea" Linda said. "The girl comes out with the tray and the man gets a closer look at her. Then, the parents let the two of them speak alone.

They expect you to negotiate your entire life in a 30 minute conversation."
Linda made herself clear: she wanted to go to college, get a job, and have enough independence to feel like her own person. And when he agreed to her terms, she asked to get it in writing.

"These customs help our community feel like we still belong to al balad, (our country of origin)," Linda said. "My parents aren't even that religious at all. It's mostly about the culture, the reputation, you know, what people will say."

She, however, will not ask her own daughters to go through an arranged marriage, Linda said. All she wants is for them to choose someone who is Muslim and Arab, and that will be traditional enough.