the negotiations…

One of our contract furniture suppliers is Yemeni Hasidic. Over the years we’ve established an interesting working relationship. When he comes to my office we both get an opportunity to talk about common, shared experiences.

This man with 10 children, so far his youngest is about a year old, looks and is most definitely a grandfather. His long beard is almost white and he has a big warm smile. His face lights up when he talks of his children, and their spouses and their children.

Our conversations started with his remark on the ‘Shalom’ I always give him and my hijab. He said, after the fourth or fifth meeting, he could sense my mood depending on colors and design, much like his wife’s head covers. I also warmed up to him because I had grown up around the Yeshiva in upper Manhattan and many of my childhood friends were Jews. We both had a thing about Yemen. He because of birth and me because of marriage.

He would get red-eyed when I’d share photos from home. He had not been there for even a visit since before 2001, and it was painful to know it was so far off his reach, probably forever . The closest he would ever get would be those digital pictures I would later email him to collect.

In the last few months our conversations have centered around his 19 year old son who is making preparations to be wed. We dubbed it ‘the negotiations’. His son has matured during all this, his father’s comments attest to it. Even though he’s now going to college- his ways were more of the teen than the college-bound young man when all this started- the tide had turned.

His father commented the other day that while he also married as young as his son- the dynamics of his family were harsher. There was little room or time for the ‘slow’ rate this negotiation was progressing. Too much is spent on conversation. ‘But’, he said, ‘my wife says its like calling with the dream of honey- better that way. He and his future bride would not want to marry if all they are assured were lemons’. She has a valid point.

Marriage negotiations on the muslim Yemeni side are not so sweet. More commonly than not the argumentative side rears its head and few have both bride and groom going into the union with bright smiles. Don’t understand what it is with this need to make everything taste a bit sour. Stuff will happen no matter what, why start off with the bag more than half full?

Our supplier said that was how his family did things as well when he was young. But after being in America so long they’d mellowed more because the life was less harsher than in Yemen and it ‘allowed’ for more dreaming. The customs are still there: The inquiries, the rules and rituals, and the parental discussions remain pivotal. Nowadays the added pieces are the schooling, jobs, or professions of the couple. The girls I’m told may or not have a variety of prospective grooms presented to them- that really depends on the family and the match-maker.

I shared with him the story of one of my younger brother in laws and his journey to the marriage sphere. On the Muslim Yemeni side it seems men do the talking as if only the groom counts- then all hell breaks loose when the bride is not a good match-well what’d you expect!? When one of my younger brother-in-laws suggested he wanted to get married, we had not known if he’d gotten all worked up about getting married because his friends were egging him on, the reasons being used were sounding more like ‘I’ll marry your sister so we can hang out more’.

My husband was dead set against him marrying at that time. His brother still had a low rank in the army, he had little money, he hadn’t built the suite of rooms on the family compound that were necessary for him and his bride if they were to live there, and honestly ‘you don’t even know why you want to marry nor WHO you want to marry!’

The eldest brother, all mouth no brains, kept insisting that they would borrow the money for the dowry, they could take OUR rooms, and what was the big deal?! My husband was, ‘what, you’ve forgotten so quickly why you don’t live on the family compound? You expect everyone to do whatever comes into that thick head, sitting like a pasha not caring how that will affect anyone- not! He is not starting a married life based on debts and rooming in on other people’s property! Its bank account, rooms built and furnished, jeep, bought gold from his pocket, or the deal doesn’t even begin! And what of this girl? The women of our house have to make sure she’s a match. She’ll be part of the household- not apart from it. Just because his best friend has a sister doesn’t mean he will even like her when he marries her. Who ever heard of marrying your friend’s sister just so you can be better friends!?’

At the time, my husband was unaware that it was a growing trend there. Marrying for other reasons that had little to do with the union of two people wanting to be together and have a family had a new twist. The ‘work-round’ in their new definition of marriage was based more on ties between the men that had no ties to the women. The women would have to make or not the ties on their own. So it was becoming more common for two best friends to agree to one of them marrying the other’s sister. The son marrying his aunt’s daughter, since she was already part of the tribe, had always been the ‘best’ option. The father marrying off the daughter to pay a debt or plain get rid of her was the darkest and inhumane.

On further private conversations with the ‘intended groom’, my husband found out that the man didn’t really want to get married. His friend’s family didn’t want the daughter to sit in their home and were pushing to get her out before she made her eighteenth birthday (an old maid by their standards). It was as if he was agreeing to do his friend a favor. Some favor!

Later he would not even chance the arrangement, he would be transferred to the southern sea-side city of Muhkalla, another world for these mountain men. When he arrived it was to a different set of customs, and a less stringent society that afforded him a space to understand what family, marriage, rearing and living was in comparison to the vague, shadowy, and harsh world the mountains provided. About four years later he asked my husband to come home with me so we could help him decide if he was truly prepared for marriage. His condition was to not include his other older brothers. He wanted some semblance of peace during the process.

We did go to Muhkalla, and have to say it was better that time around. I was able to meet the girl’s family and find out how she was thought of and acted in her home. What her family expected of the groom. Their lives were not bound by the north’s customs, so the daughters had much more autonomy and they wanted to keep it that way. My brother-in-law, now much more freer from the Yemeni-group think of the north, liked the idea of having his own home with rules set by the wedded couple. He had always liked our own version of marriage better anyway. This was his chance for the same and he took it gladly.

They were married, yes with both families present in the festivities but without some of his family’s interference. They would later build a suite of rooms on our family compound to use for those occasional visits- but would never live there permanently. He was happy where he was. Like us, he enjoyed more the extended-stay ‘visitor status’ than the live in.

My father and mother in law would literally warm up to the idea of visiting them, like they had done for us: Coming to NY or going south every few years or so for a month or two stay. ‘I could get use to this’, I would hear my father in law say, ‘What better excuse for peace while better enjoying my sons and daughters this way’.

The eldest son, well he is still being a bully no one listens to. Times are changing, slowly yes, and that may mean that in the not so distant future all my younger in laws will follow suit. The rest of Yemeni society might not catch up in time, if ever. However, our family is seeing the benefits of changing, ‘mellowing’, and ‘allowing’ themselves to dream with more honey.


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