Written In The Stars Explores Modern-Day Arranged Marriages

Photo: Courtesy of Yen M. Tang and Cylinda Parga.
Imagine being a teenage girl, acclimating to your new body post-puberty, your hormones amped up to the max, and the excitement that comes with dating someone you really like for the first time. For most of us, feelings of nostalgia immediately come to mind. But, what if it was around this time that you were forced into an arranged marriage by your parents? Fear, terror, hopelessness — those all sound about right.

While the concept of arranged marriages may seem outdated and foreign to most of us, it's a practice that is still very much alive right here in the United States. Pakistani-American author Aisha Saeed, in her forthcoming YA novel Written in the Stars, tells the story of Naila, a teenager who travels to Pakistan with her parents, only to discover this "family trip" was organized to find Naila a husband.

Saeed knows a thing about arranged marriages herself — when she was 21 years old, she agreed to one. She only met her husband once before agreeing to marry him. Lucky for Saeed, she ended up happily married with two sons. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Saeed's childhood friends who have gone through the same thing.

To get a real-life dose of what a modern-day arranged marriage looks like we asked Saeed to dispel a common misconception of the practice. Then, read on for an excerpt from her forthcoming debut novel. Written in the Stars is out March 24, 2015.
Why did you feel like this was an important story to tell?
"While [the main character] Naila's story is entirely fictional, her struggles were inspired by real-life events from situations my own childhood friend went through, and from stories I saw in the news about girls from all over the world forced into marriages they didn't want. It felt important for me to share this story in the United States, because it is an issue that happens here and one that needs more attention and conversation. Only by talking about it can the problem be fixed. Thinking of my childhood friends and all the women [and sometimes men] who find themselves in this situation inspired me and motivated me to share this story."

You're in a happily arranged marriage, but what about those who are not?
"There is a huge difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage. Forced marriage is when one or both people involved do not consent to the marriage. Forced marriage is universally condemned by every religion and nation. Arranged marriages on the other hand, involve parental guidance, but contain the consent of the couple in question. Consent is the key word. While I can't imagine any forced marriage in which one can ever truly be happy, arranged marriages are another matter entirely. They are entered into by choice. If I had not wanted to marry my husband, I simply had to say no."

What are some misconceptions of arranged marriages?
"Many people assume that an arranged marriage means that the couple entering into the union had no say or that they met each other on their wedding night sight, unseen. While this can happen, it is increasingly in the minority of how arranged marriages happen today, particularly in the United States. In most arranged marriages, including many of my friends, the potential bride and groom are introduced to each other through their parents, but they make the choice to marry on their own after meeting and talking in depth about their plans for the future. While it is definitely a different path from dating in the traditional sense, it's a path many happily embark on."
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The following is excerpted from the book Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed. Copyright © 2015 by Aisha Saeed. Reprinted by permission of Nancy Paulsen Books. All rights reserved. 
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.
The pungent aroma of seven different spices wafts through the house. I hear the sizzling of onions and the patting of dough as I make my way to the kitchen.

I stand at the oval kitchen entrance, watching the women at work. Selma opens the fridge and reaches inside for vegetables. Khala Simki, her back to me, stands by the stove, where she stirs the simmering stew with a wooden spoon.

My mother is at the edge of the counter. I watch her take a ball of dough between her fingers and roll it under her palms until it’s thin and round.

“Ami?”

The sounds of the kitchen absorb the word. Clearing my throat, I try again.

“Ami.”

My mother looks up. She motions me over with one powdery hand. “I was wondering when you were going to join us! Selma is chopping the vegetables. I could use your help with the tomatoes and onions here.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Sure. What is it?”

“I need to talk to you in private.”

“I’m in the middle of making roti for dinner.”

“This can’t wait.”

My aunts and Selma look up. My mother gazes at me, apparently cool and calm, though I know she is anything but. One does not speak out of turn, particularly under the watchful eyes of those who will surely dissect your behavior afterward. Ami, I think, meeting her gaze, you must have known I could not stay silent forever.

“Where is my passport?”

Her eyes widen, but in the next instant, she smiles. “Your passport is with me, of course.”

“I need it.”

Ami stares at me. Her eyes speak to me much as they have all of my life. “Stop it right now,” they say. But today, I simply stare back at her.

She wipes her hands against her apron and walks up to me. Grabbing my elbow, she pulls me toward the empty drawing room. “What was that scene about back there? Have you lost your mind?”

“I need my passport. My visa. My money. They were all in my suitcase. Now they’re gone.” I refuse to look at her.

“I put all our passports together, for safekeeping. Why the sudden need for it?”

“I’m leaving.”

“Leaving?” She crosses her arms. “How interesting. And where, pray tell, are you leaving to?”

“I’m going back home.” I push down the lump growing thick in my throat. “You both said no, but I have to go. I have things to do at home.”

“Is this not a home to you too? Haven’t your aunts and uncles treated you like a daughter? Your younger cousins absolutely adore you. Selma is like your sister. Yet you want so badly to leave.”

“I appreciate everything everyone has done for me, but it’s time for me to go. I need my passport, my wallet, my visa.”

“I could tell you were beginning to get unstable.” My mother wipes her forehead with her shawl. “But I never thought you would consider bringing this much shame on us.”

“This has nothing to do with shame, Ami. I need to go home, that’s all.”

“Who are you, Naila? I raised you from a baby, but I don’t recognize you anymore. It’s him, isn’t it? You want to go back to him, right?”

“No. My passport.” My voice cracks. “I just want my passport.”

“You’re not getting it. It’s safe with us. Please.” She meets my gaze. “Please trust us.”

I watch her leave and press a trembling hand against the wall.

How can I explain any of this to Saif, I wonder, when I can’t make sense of it myself? 
The sun has barely risen when Khala Simki taps on my door and pops her head inside. “When Nasim comes for lunch today, please wear the green salwar kamiz I bought for you.” Before I can respond, she’s gone.

Selma is already sitting up in her bed, watching me.

“Is this the one they’re serious about?” I ask her.

“Yes. Remember the woman with the peacock pendant? It’s her family.”

“I can’t do it, Selma.” My heart hammers in my chest. “I can’t sit there and pretend I don’t know.”

“Do they know yet that I told you?”

“Selma, I will never tell them you told me, I swear.”

“I want to help you.” Her eyes well with tears. “I should have told you from the beginning, but I’ll help you. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“I don’t need help.”

“But you do. Let’s go for a walk today, talk about things. I have some ideas, but I don’t want to talk about anything in the house.”

“Maybe later.” I open the armoire. I know I’m hurting her by shutting her out, but I know it’s for her own good. The more Selma knows, the more trouble she will be in later. I yank the green outfit from the armoire, snapping the hanger in two with my force. The thought of sitting down for this meeting makes me sick, but until I know what to do, I must pretend I know nothing.
There is a knock on the front door. My mother grips me by the wrist, leading me into the drawing room. “Sit with me. Selma will make chai today.”

I take a seat next to her on the white sofa. The guests walk in. Their footsteps echo off the walls. I keep my gaze fixed on my coral bangles, twisting the thin scarf resting in my lap with my fingers. I wind it so tight, my fingertips turn pink, then white.

I don’t want to marry you. I want to scream this as I hear them settle in on the sofa across from me. For a moment I’m struck by the impulse to do just this. To stand up and scream at everyone in this room, to humiliate my parents as they are humiliating me—but what good will it do? All of these people gathered in this room are coconspirators against me. Why would any of them care if I disagreed? I squeeze my hands until they go numb.

I try to focus on other things. The sugar-coated biscuits on the coffee table. The glow of the sun filtering through the translucent red curtains. But I can’t forget he’s here. I can’t forget he’s watching me.

It takes everything in me to fight the urge to run out of the room, the desire growing stronger with each passing moment I spend sitting under his stare. I know what he is doing. I can tell in the way he shifts his weight and clears his throat. He wants me to look at him. Though curiosity pokes its head and nudges me to meet his gaze, I refuse. I will not give him the satisfaction.

I hear his mother, her voice a low soprano in the quiet room. I close my eyes. I think of Saif. His smile, his dimple, the way he holds my hand before kissing me. He is the only thing keeping me from what I fear would otherwise be the slow onset of insanity.

“We must be on our way,” the woman finally says. I hear the creaks of the sofa as people move to stand, murmurs of thanks and good-bye. I look up just then to see my father laughing, patting my chacha’s shoulder. He walks down the hall in his favorite salwar kamiz and the dark vest he wears every day without fail, despite the heat and humidity. My eyes widen. I press a hand against my purse. Just as I refuse to part with my purse, he refuses to part with his vest.

I know exactly what I need to do.
Night passes slowly as I wait for everyone to fall asleep. Finally, I slip out of the bedroom and make my way down the hall. My bare feet feel cool against the floor. I pause at my parents’ shut bedroom door and press my ear against it. Silence. Turning the knob, I open it a crack before slipping in. The moonlight casts a gentle glow on my mother’s sleeping figure, tucked under the white sheet. Her eyes are closed, her lips parted. My father, too, is sound asleep, exhaling deep, guttural snores.

I searched this room just hours ago, every suitcase flap, beneath every pillow and mattress. I have to find his vest; there’s no other place my passport could possibly be.I drop to my hands and knees and crawl to the closet. I press my hands to the cold metal surface and push the accordion door with my finger, trying to nudge it open. It doesn’t budge. I tug again and cringe. This time it groans loudly, and then, a thud. An avalanche of books come tumbling down.

“Naila?”

My father sits up in bed, rubbing his eyes. I stay still, half crouched on the floor. It’s a bad dream, I think frantically. Please go to sleep.

A click, and suddenly the room fills with yellow artificial light.

“What is it? Is everything okay?! Is someone hurt?” My mother is sitting bolt upright, her hair matted against her face. She looks down at me and puts a hand to her chest. “What’s wrong?”

I look at my father’s confused expression. I watch my mother tie her hair up in a haphazard bun. I can’t breathe. Who are these parents? Why are their expressions unreadable despite a lifetime of presumed literacy? No matter how much they disapprove of Saif, no matter how angry they are, I do not deserve this.

“What am I doing? What are you doing?” My voice pierces the quiet room. “Why are you doing this?”

In an instant, my father is in front of me, his hand pressed against my mouth. “Enough,” he says into my ear. “No tamasha here. Not in the middle of the night.”

I try to wrench his hands away, but he holds me tightly. “I know what you’re trying to do!” I scream through the palm he has pressed against my face. “I know everything!”

My mother stands up and looks out the window. Her body trembles. I watch her contorted face; she’s crying.

I stop struggling. My father releases his grip. I press my hands against my eyes. “Ami. Please. Please. Don’t do this to me.”

“No,” my mother says softly. “We would never want to hurt you. We don’t have a choice, though. We’ve lost you.”

“You’re gone, beta.” My father’s face is no longer stern—he looks familiar again, like the father I had before my life shattered. “We have to help bring you back. We’re your parents. It’s our responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bring me back. I’m not gone. Just look at me. I’m right here, I’m your daughter.”

“But you are gone, and it breaks our heart that you can’t see it.”

“Ami, I know I’ve made mistakes. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. But I’ve done nothing to deserve this.”

Ami clutches a gray chador tight around her shoulders. “When you were little, we could just hide the cookies you wanted. We could send you to your room to consider what you did. We did what we thought was right. We tried to raise you well.”

“You did raise me well.” Fat tears roll down my face in a steady torrent.

“We raised you well?” My mother laughs. “We can see for ourselves what a job we did. We are your parents. We love you. We want what’s best for you. If we see you doing wrong, we have to stop you. Even if you hate us, and I know you do right now, one day, you will see we did what was best for you. That is what we have always tried to do.”

I look at my parents. I can try all I want to, I realize. But I will never convince them.I make my way back to my room. My body feels numb. I walk inside and shut the door behind me, trying to still my trembling frame.

“Selma, wake up.”

She wakes with a start. “What’s wrong?”

“Selma, I need your help.” Tears slip down my face. “I need to tell you everything.”       
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