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Love in a Headscarfby Shelina Janmohamed
From chapter one, "Good Headscarf Day"
Samosas are frying in the kitchen, teetering between perfect bronze and cinder black. My mother is concentrating on the huge pan of bubbling oil, her hair wrapped up in an old towel, her mind focused on those who are about to arrive. They are important guests, perhaps the most important ones yet.
The doorbell rings. I am flicked upstairs with a tea towel. There is panicked scuttling around the house. Cushions are plumped. Curtains are adjusted. The kitchen door slams shut and my father is assailed by a cacophony of shrieking voices: “They’re here! They’re here! Open the door!” The house becomes acutely still. The lilies in the living room stand poised. My father, unflustered, strolls toward the front door and swings it open to face the man who might be his future son-in-law.
This is the first time that my family and I are to be formally introduced to a suitor. Choosing what to wear has been a struggle. I have to be attractive enough for the man in question, yet modest and demure enough for his family. The contents of my headscarf drawer are strewn colorfully across my bedroom floor in molehills of pink, purple, blue, and green. Each scarf has been carefully draped and pinned in turn, and then analyzed for aesthetics and impact. I choose one in dusky pink silk. The color is soft and welcoming, feminine but not girly. I fold the square silk in half and place the triangle over my hair, pinning it invisibly under my chin and throwing the ends loosely in opposite directions. The fabric delicately swathes itself over my hair and shoulders. Fortunately, I am having a Good Headscarf Day.
My blouse, in the same shade of pink, long-sleeved with ruffles on the cuffs, contrasts with my sweeping cream skirt with frills that trails gently on the floor. The whole family is fussing about what to wear. The first meeting is a compulsory rite of passage. It might be my only meeting. I listen in vain for a deep booming voice to announce: “Now you are a woman.” Nobody says: “Good luck.” Nor does anyone glance proudly and parentally at me, recording my transition from child to adult. I am no different from thousands, millions of young women on the threshold of marriage around the world.
I stand in front of the mirror, staring nervously into my own eyes, trying hard to control my torrential pulse. I inhale then exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. What will he be like? What will I say to him?
I am nineteen and about to step into a world that I have been prepared for since I was a young girl. The weight of tradition, which has rested so pleasantly on my South Asian Muslim shoulders since my birth, has been no less powerful than the innocent delicious wait for Love. Hollywood rom-coms, children’s fairy tales, and Islamic teachings too talk of passion, partnership, and completion, all of them with love at the very center.
The fact that I am meeting my suitor to see if we like each other is considered by some to be unspeakably modern. I always knew that I would meet my husband-to-be this way. Why, then, does my heart pound so violently? The man and his chaperones are coming to Check Me Out, and I, of course, am going to Check Him Out. The balance of Checking Out does nothing to ease my nerves. This is not just Blind Date, but Family Blind Date.
Cilla Black, the longstanding host of the popular show Blind Date, which sets up dates for hundreds of hapless singles, smirks back at me from my bedroom mirror. “Will you go for Family Number One, the accountants from London? Or Family Number Two, the clan of doctors from Gloucester? Or will it be Family Number Three, the import-exporters from Birmingham?”
He might be the only Prince Charming I will ever meet, will ever need to meet. And what is wrong with that? I long for my own prince and dream of being part of a loving, “in love” couple. In reality I will most likely meet him through the formal introduction process.
On his visit to our home, he will be accompanied by at least one, if not more, “grown-ups.” Getting to know his family and understanding his background is just as critical as assessing his ratings on the tall, dark, and handsome scales. He and his family will be evaluating me in the same way: a communal date hinging on communal decision-making, and he and I will be the focus of attention.
I look at myself again in the mirror and practice my smile. Mona Lisa or Julia Roberts? I squirt myself with perfume and then collapse in a nervous puff on the floor. I recite some verses from the Qur’an, which will help to steel my nerves and restore me to normal working order. The rhythmic melody and the wisdom of the words make me feel calm. I put a few coins in a special charity box we keep at home, called sadaqa, and then straighten my clothes. Putting money toward those who need it is like chaos theory: a small flutter grows and magnifies until the positive energy comes back around to you. I need the good karma at this moment.
The front door opens; my breathing stops. Mr. Right has arrived.
I scamper to the front bedroom to watch the entourage from the window as they park their car. I kneel down so I can peer through the gap between the curtain and the windowsill. I note a grayish-brown Toyota. Or is it a Honda? Does the exact badge on a typical, reliable Asian family car matter? My eyes scan to the couple clip-clopping up our path. The Boy, Ali, walks quietly behind them.
The guests trip merrily through our front door, pretending there is nothing unusual about their visit. Even in the introduction meeting itself, the purpose of the visit remains discreet and unspoken. The house tinkles with small talk. The guests look too innocent, too nice to be coming to turn my life upside down. Are they here to extract me from the bosom of my family? I like my family, I am happy here. Why do I have to leave? Their arrival has made me apprehensive. I flap my hands, panic-stricken, abandoned alone upstairs to pace soundlessly while I wait until the appropriate moment to descend into the lair. A girl on a date has to make an entrance. Everyone knows that.
I stop abruptly and berate myself. Don’t I want to fall in love and live happily ever after? This man might be my Prince Charming. He might sweep me into a world of roses and Cinderella ball gowns. Will I feel tingles and fall in love with him at first sight?
I know four facts, which I have categorized into “important” and “uninteresting.” That he is an accountant and twenty-three years old is important to know. That he is a “nice” boy and from a “good” family I find uninteresting. At nineteen these facts are irrelevant to my simple desire to fall in love.
I hear scuffling in the living room as everyone settles in. I creep quietly down the stairs and sit hidden so I can hear what is being said. They spend a few minutes discussing family ties and origins and assessing if we have any relatives in common. Asians talking about families is like English people talking about the weather: a safe preamble that can be pursued endlessly. Beneath the pleasantries it also provides critical clues about your conversation partner. What is their background, their history, their reputation?
The two parties converse until they find a mutual relative. Asian languages are well-suited for this purpose, having specific names for complex relations, making it quick to identify an obscure relative. I can identify my mother’s sister’s husband’s sister in two moves rather than the four required in English, or my father’s brother’s wife’s mother’s sister’s mother-in-law’s sister’s husband in three moves. Both sides are earnest in their desire to find a relative or friend that links them. A buzzer then sounds and a voice calls out, “Bingo! You have a match.”
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