October 01, 2008

Motionless Journey II: All The Wrong Reasons

Usually, a person learns more from failure than from success. Without facing any challenges, a person tends to become complacent, and would be poorly prepared when their hopes are dashed and things eventually go awry. Failure is one of the greatest teachers in life, and it is something that we should not be ashamed of if it leads to personal growth.

At least, that's the spiel I gave to a job interviewer when, upon reviewing my university transcript and my disastrous Fall 2003 semester, he exclaimed, "what the hell happened here?!"

That same interviewer is now one of my current managers.

It wasn't just fluff I made up to gloss over one of my most difficult stretches of academia. It was something I always believed, perhaps as a defense mechanism against frustration. When things didn't go my way, I tried to generally find some lesson to derive out of those situations. That particular semester of university was almost a revelation for me, learning that the world doesn't end when things go poorly. Life goes on, and in fact, it almost certainly will get better.

You don't want to set yourself up for failure though just to get the lessons. You need to prepare and equip yourself for success, and take failure in stride. When it came to issues of my life and my future, I was always afraid that I'd have to hit a major emotional setback first in order to achieve my goals, so I always kept my emotions heavily guarded. On matters of such importance, I'd rather not learn things the hard way.

My first home after moving away from my family was a shared house with three other Muslim brothers. One of them, who left shortly after I moved in, became a very close friend very quickly. He had graduated from university a couple of years earlier, and had moved to Ottawa after leaving a great job in the city where he grew up and studied. He was part of a good family, had a good job, and was a hafiz to boot, and his welcoming personality made my own transition much easier. As he explained to me, however, his arrival in Ottawa was under less than ideal circumstances.

A failed marriage venture lead to his leaving his old city. In the past, he had been working with a young Muslim woman who was not particularly practicing, whose parents were vehemently opposed to any trace of religion entering their home. My roommate described her as the most beautiful girl in the office, adding that she was constantly teased by the older male coworkers. He was the only one who would give her due respect, warning her about what others were saying and visualizing behind her back. She was touched by his courtesy, and quickly began changing her life by adopting regular prayer and modesty in dress, much to the chagrin of her parents. The first day she came home from work wearing hijab, my friend narrated, she was subject to much verbal abuse by her father.

But she wanted to find a new home and a new family, and that hafiz at work seemed like the perfect candidate to share her life with. Talks began, and one day, the hafiz agreed to meet her parents at their home.

Upon seeing him, dressed in a black jalabiya and his long beard, the parents slammed the door. No way was this "mullah" going to marry their daughter.

They kept discussing, but her parents would not budge, and urged their daughter to leave that job and never to speak with that hafiz again. He did not want her to leave everything behind and break up her family, so he himself left the job and moved away. He kept in touch with her for some time, introducing her to other Muslim sisters in the area who could help her continue developing in Islam. But he recognized that there was no way he could envision a future with her, with a constant struggle between families and values. He needed to break away completely.

There was no happy ending to this story, per se. I lost touch with that roommate over time, so I don't know what happened to that young woman, though that roommate did eventually marry from back home. But as this story was being narrated to me eight years back, I made a number of mental notes about what to do and what to avoid should I find myself in the same situation. When it came to marriage, I was too afraid to learn from my own failed ventures; I wanted to learn from others instead.

As the years went by and I heard other, similar stories, I noticed a few recurring themes in the failed ventures. Usually, it came down to parents having conflicting values, or the prospective couple themselves being unable to reconcile petty differences. What put them together in the first place was usually quite a lengthy, and often dramatic, story.

And therein lies the rub, I thought. Nearly every failed engagement or failed marriage I have seen began with a long pre-engagement story. Often, people look for a story, because no one likes telling people at work that "my parents met her parents, and we spoke a few times, and decided to get married".

No, people want a story, a romantic adventure, a tale to tell their children about "how we met", perhaps even an entire theme for their blog. And often, it backfires, and the guy ends up marrying from back home to avoid "the hassle" (how offensive is that?) while the girl's parents lose all hope that anyone would ever marry her due to that one broken engagement or divorce. It's a terrible cycle that leaves families broken and divided, and the unfortunate victims in all this usually end up being the girls. They are stigmatized by a culture which fails to recognize their immense talents and capabilities.

On the other hand, most of the successful marriages I see are the result of a very formal and boring process. We even sarcastically call the initial meetings "interviews", likening the spouse search to the post-graduation job search. All the excitement is saved for after marriage, where the young couple learns to adapt to their new life together, building their relationship with exclusive commitment to each other. Of course, exceptions exist where things aren't as smooth, just as exceptions exist in the former case where couples complete their dramatic stories with beautiful marriages and cute children.

As was the case of my former roommate and a number of other stories I heard over the years, things went sour because of parents with all the wrong priorities, seeking marriage for their children for all the wrong reasons. In many of the more recent cases of failed engagements in my community, I was surprised no one else saw it coming; all the warning signs were clearly visible. But for parents who want wealthy husbands for their daughters, or those who want beautiful and fair-skinned wives for their sons, those signs often do not register.

We have been taught to judge compatibility based on a person's piety. But what does this actually mean? "Well, Allah has ordered men to provide for their families, so our future son-in-law must be a doctor, because he can provide the best, therefore he is the best in piety!" Or, "the Quran describes the women of Paradise as beautiful, and so beauty is part of deen! Beautiful and fair skinned and I never read anything in the Quran commanding hijab, why I know this one hijabi girl who you wouldn't believe the stories i heard blah blah blah ..." Um, not quite.

I never had much tolerance for that. If someone was inquiring about me, I wanted it to be for the right reasons. I remember being in Vancouver one day, receiving a phone call from some uncle in Toronto who clearly failed to recognize that there is a three hour time difference. A father to a daughter in her early 20s, he had spoken to my parents about my availability. But before properly introducing himself or even telling me so much as his daughter's name (which I never found out), he asked:

"So, what is your salary?"

I could have told him. Alhamdulillah, I do okay, but he had already turned me off. I sarcastically replied, "oh, it's somewhere in the five-figure range". He pressed further, but I had lost interest. He also encouraged me to pursue a Master's degree, because clearly I wasn't earning enough if I was not ready to divulge that information. I told him I was happy with the way my life is going, and don't see any need to change things considerably, particularly on the advice of someone who had never met me. It wasn't my best of moments, as I wasn't particularly polite, though perhaps the time of day affected my tone of voice. I never heard from him again, but he had already lost me long before I even said a word.

In retrospect, it didn't bother me much. I had been through much worse, and he certainly made my life easier by establishing his priorities from the outset. I should have thanked him for being so blunt.

A few weeks ago, I spent two hours driving between cities with one relative that I had never really spoken to very deeply before. He migrated to Canada from Pakistan in the early seventies, and married from Pakistan shortly thereafter. He told me the stories of his own marriage search, and it surprised me how similar his stories were to those I hear about here in Canada. I thought issues of marriage were so simple back then, but he taught me that it has always been this way, and perhaps it always will be. Now happily married for over thirty years with very cute grandchildren, he showed that things work out eventually if one goes in with the right intentions.

The right intentions. The right intentions are to obey the order of Allah and the tradition of the Prophet, peace be upon him, by choosing a companion to share one's life and afterlife with. So simple in concept, but in practice, we have introduced so many unnecessary complications that have made it one of most hotly-debated topics of our generation.

I touched on this topic before, when writing of Goldilocks last year. It was a direct response to incidents from only days before, and I still look upon it as one of my personal favourites from this blog. Unfortunately, Goldilocks did not fare too well, a fate I wrote as something of a personal warning. I learn more from failures than from success, so I figured I can just fictionalize the failures so I don't need to experience them myself. It turned out to be a good move.

I'll try to finish this sometime early next week, insha-Allah. Eid Mubarak, everyone!


  1. For some reason this blog post comes across to me as a bit self-righteous. No offense meant.

    But I I feel it's presumptuous to believe that the way in which you've met someone is the only good way. There isn't ever only "one good way" to do something. There's always context, culture, and religious conviction to consider.

    Just because you've met someone through work, through your university, through a friend, etc., doesn't mean that this relationship is bound to end negatively. As long as you pursue a proper course once you've found yourself interested in someone, I'd say there is no way you could rank the "rishta" system above this other “random encounters” system. Though escapism is fun at times, this is the real world, with real human beings in it. Things happen. And it doesn't make us worse people to have had affection or admiration prior to being married.

    I'm sure many if not most of our parents wish to believe otherwise. Some of them still believe in the back home mentality of seeing a potential spouse in her home, pouring tea and blushing. And this is magically the solution to the marriage crisis. We were born and raised here. Like it or not, we are NOT the same as people are back home, back in the days that our parents were growing up. That's a real and present reality.

    I’ve seen enough failed marriages to last me a lifetime. Marriages don’t fail because one or both spouses are “bad” people. I think one of the major reasons they fail is a conflict of roles. A man may expect his wife to act in a certain way that a “good, Islamic” spouse would act, but she, having been brought up here, cannot quite fulfill those roles. Her role has changed and evolved simply due to her experiences and environment growing up in North America. The same applies for the roles of men, when misunderstood by women.

    So, Suddenly it's more pious for a religious man to venture back to the motherland to get married so his wife can be obedient and subservient? That’s silly. What are the “leftover” women in North America supposed to do when the men have this mentality? It’s actually pretty distressing.

    I also think this notion of learning from the mistakes of others is only applicable to a certain degree. One can never tangibly and concretely "learn" about life, unless one goes through difficulties and trials. Otherwise, it’s simply a superficial learning. So, it's not a fair presumption that you're in a better state than others because you haven't made mistakes in one particular aspect of life.

    In short, nothing in life is as cut and dry as you wish it was.

  2. Eeek... apparently I wasn't the only one with that reaction eh... either ways I have a feeling Faraz meant it more as an observation than a anchored belief. :).

  3. Saira: Yep! Looks like you're right. Will you excuse me a moment, I have to pat my own back.

    Asmaa: This is just a series of observations. I basically have six or seven stories that I was / am deeply familiar with and that have shaped my understanding, and they all shared some common aspects. That's not that many stories, definitely not enough to "last me a lifetime" - so perhaps it's not a representative sample.

    I don't know where I gave the notion that it's more "pious" for a religious man to venture back to the motherland. I told a true story as best as I remember it, but I didn't say that I agreed with everything that happened. And I did mention that the girl is the one who gets shafted in this situation. So I think we're agreeing with each other here.

    I'm sure it's in there somewhere since Saira said the same thing, but I'm trying to figure out where I talk about myself and how I did things "better" than others. The only story I've mentioned here about myself was that one phone call, which definitely wasn't something I am proud of. And it certainly doesn't sound to me like I'm supporting the traditional rishta process (over four years of that nonsense and it never worked for me either). Not to mention that my first experience through that process was probably one of the worst experiences of my life, where I was being lied to by everyone I thought I could trust.

    Perhaps I could tell that story now. It certainly was among the most important learning experiences I had.

    Anyway, Saira is right that these are just my own observations. They are the experiences that paved my own journey, which is far from over. I don't know if things will work out for me either, but it would be irresponsible for me to ignore everything I've seen over the years.

  4. In my old age, I'm starting to lose the ability to maintain attention to long posts. I liked this post for the half that I managed to read... some good points.

  5. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatuLlah brother

    Interesting post. I agree with what you say about failure... masha'Allah, well said. At least 8 years ago, I once connected the concept of "divorce" with "failure" and someone challenged me for doing so. I've since learnt that those two words have serious conditions to meet should they exist together.

    I think I know why you write this post as you do, and with that in mind, I'll only say to you that come what may insha'Allah all will be well if you trust and submit entirely to His plan for you with gratitude, and depend solely on Him, the Almighty.

    For those who may take your words at face value, I think most of what is said will have little benefit as these concepts can be/and are easily challenged. Rather, the jewel (that Nauman probably missed), I think, lies here:

    "The right intentions. The right intentions are to obey the order of Allah and the tradition of the Prophet, peace be upon him, by choosing a companion to share one's life and afterlife with. So simple in concept, but in practice, we have introduced so many unnecessary complications..."

    I quite like your Goldilocks piece too... masha'Allah. And perhaps internally that should read: "Fortunately, Golidlocks didn't end too well." AlhamduliLlah 'ala kulli haal :)

  6. I had a very long pre-engagement and now this weekend my husband and I will be celebrating our one year wedding anniversary, alhumdulillah :) I understand that not many couples can even make it this far, I've seen my fair share fall through and it isn't pretty. But who are we really to judge what someone's intentions are? To us, the reasons for divorce or breaking it up prior to marriage can seem like "petty differences," but unless you're one of the two involved in the relationship, it's hard to be the judge of what the real reason is behind another couple calling it quits.

    We'll always think that the way we found our own spouses is best because it worked for us. I've seen plenty of marriages arranged by parents last, but also plenty that have failed and this is similar to couples who met on their own and have a "romantic" story to share... there's nothing wrong with either way providing both parties involved work hard to make it work, and that's key, neither way is easier or the right way because there's positive and negative aspects to both. We have to recognize that everyone is different and that's why there are so many diverse ways of meeting someone and having a successful marriage.

    - my 2 cents anyway!

  7. Just as a general comment - this series of posts is called a "journey" because it reflects how my own thoughts changed over time, as I learned more and gained more experience. Even I don't see things the same way anymore, and disagree with what I wrote here as it captures myself at an earlier stage in life. I'm really just trying to document how my own feelings where challenged over time.

    Nauman: Sorry for the length.

    Farzeen: In the case of Goldilocks, I will still contend that I wasn't writing about myself; I was reacting to a sequence of events, and that's what came out.

    'Liya: I'm not promoting any particular way to find a spouse, and as I am not married myself yet, I can't possibly say that "my way" is better than any other way.

    As far as divorce is concerned, you're right that we might not see the internal details of each issue. Again, I am writing based entirely on my own personal experience, the handful of incidents I have drawn on to shape my own plans moving forward. In a couple of those cases, I was very informed about the details, and "petty" is a fairly appropriate word. I don't blame them for things not working out, but I don't know how no one else saw it coming well beforehand.

  8. As an aside, I probably won't have time to finish up the last chapter of this anymore. Not anytime soon, anyway.

  9. I still don't agree with you, fundamentally. And think that it's probably a wise idea not to continue to write a "last chapter" :)