My introduction to the Muslim culture was not a positive experience. I am reminded of a 13 year old classmate, Amani. I remember her telling my friend Cathy and I that she would be leaving school soon and would not be coming back.
“Where are you going?” Cathy asked.
“I have to go overseas with my family,” Amani explained. “I have an arranged marriage so they are taking me to meet my future husband.”
I misunderstood her intentions. I truly thought she was only meeting him and then coming back home for the courtship process. Just to be clear, I asked, “Are you going to be coming back to America?”
Amani nodded, “Oh yes, but I will not be returning to school.”
Neither Cathy nor I knew what an arranged marriage was at the time. We pretended we did for the moment, though. Later, I sought out the information until I understood it was when two families agreed to betroth their children to one another for purposes of marriage. I remember the two of us (Cathy and I) discussing it and deciding my initial misunderstanding had to be correct: they were only meeting and not marrying. The courtship would be held in America. After all, we were only in the middle of our 8th grade year at Old West End Jr. High. Who got married at that age anymore?
We literally didn’t see Amani as a student again. True to her words, she never returned to school. However, I knew where she lived and sometime in my 9th grade year, I decided to stop by and say hello.
As I walked past her parent's home, I saw some children playing outside in the yard and I asked one of them if Amani were there; she was. She came out to speak to me wearing a scarf over her head. I later learned it was called a Hijab. It was something Muslim women wear to cover their head and neck. She looked so happy to see me, too. Within minutes, I realized it wasn’t just because it was me, but because I was a familiar friendly face.
“Michelle,” Amani exclaimed in her slight Arabic accent. She came to me and hugged me tightly. “It is so nice to see you!”
I noticed a man, whom I took to be her father, stood filling the doorframe. He scowled at the embrace. One of the children came to us and asked a question in Arabic. Amani answered and then explained to me that the child was her stepson whom she inherited in the marriage.
We talked for only a few minutes before the man in the doorframe yelled at her. I didn't understand a word he was saying, but I could tell he was angry and he was berating her. She then explained to me that the much older man yelling at her was not her father, in fact, he was her husband.
With tears in her yes, she begged me never visit her again. “Please go and forget all about me. Your presence here makes my husband very angry. I’m not allowed to have visitors.” With that, Amani turned and went back inside as she was apparently instructed to do.
Amani and her family were Palestinian Muslims. Later, I learned from friends who lived close to her family that Amani’s marriage was so her husband could enter the country by marrying a US citizen. Although her family was immigrants, they became citizens of the United States, thereby giving her citizenship with Palestine roots.
Needless to say, I wasn't very impressed with the situation. I did respect my friend’s wishes, though. Mostly it was because, to be honest, I was afraid of what would happen to her if I ever acknowledged her again. I, too, lived in a violent home in my youth. I assessed and quickly realized that Amani also was living under similar circumstances: me by my father’s rule, she by her husband’s.
Although, she asked that I forget her it was something I could never do. I still remember Amani. I remember her beautiful face with her olive complexion that was surrounded by her long flowing black hair which she now hid under a Hijab. Sadly, I never saw her again after that day of my visit to her home. I still think of her from time to time, and always with fondness.