“Marry you?” repeated Emma, blankly, as if she didn’t understand the words at all. She was so caught off guard by Sam’s spontaneous question that she looked completely bewildered.
“Well, not right away, of course,” explained Sam, rapidly. “I mean, we still need to get to know each other. And I know I need to prove myself to your parents . . . and to you. But I just want you to know that if we spend any more time together from now on, it’s because I intend to marry you someday. If you want to, of course.”
Emma continued to stare at him with a blank and unbelieving expression. Her mouth was even hanging open a little. Sam didn’t have any experience with marriage proposals, but he felt pretty sure that shocked silence wasn’t a good sign.
“Emma? Are you okay?”
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She blinked. “Um . . . I think so?” She managed a weak laugh. “Wow, Sam, I didn’t see that coming at all.”
“I know it came out all wrong . . . ” Sam started to defend himself.
“No, no. It was lovely. I mean, your intentions are lovely. I just wasn’t prepared for all this. I had planned on apologizing to you! I thought you’d be so disgusted with my dad, putting you on the spot like that over the weekend.” She stopped, and her eyes widened in fear. “Wait,” she said, as a horrible thought occurred to her, “You don’t feel like you have to propose to me now, do you? Did my dad make you feel like that?”
“No, no, Emma,” he soothed. “Your dad didn’t force me into anything. He made me think, that’s all. I told him that you’re exactly the kind of woman I want to marry someday. Then I realized, when I thought about it, that you are THE woman I want to marry.”
“Oh, Sam. Gosh. I don’t know what to say,” fretted Emma. “I do care about you, a lot. From the first time I met you, I felt a connection with you. But this is such a surprise. Can you give me some time to think about it? I mean . . . if I say yes . . . does that mean we’re engaged?”
“Yes, I guess it does,” said Sam. He smacked himself on the forehead. “I didn’t even think to buy you a ring. I’m really messing this up.”
“No, no. It’s not about the ring. . . or the lack of a ring. It’s just that I need to wrap my head around this.” She paused for a while, deep in thought. “If we’re engaged . . . does that mean we can date each other properly?”
“Um, well, probably not what you’d consider ‘properly,'” said Sam with a wry smile. “We can get to know each other better and talk about stuff, but, you know, we should probably have other people around when we’re together.”
“We’d have to have a chaperone?” asked Emma with a grimace.
“Yeah, I guess you could put it that way. Look, I don’t really like the idea any more than you do, but that’s how it’s done. But listen, we can hang out with your parents and talk to each other all the time, and get to know everything about each other.”
“I don’t know how freely we can talk with my parents breathing down our necks,” complained Emma.
“Well, we can talk at work, you know, like we always do.”
“In a crowded lunch room?” Emma’s skepticism was obvious.
“Or over the phone. We can probably do that, I think.”
“Whose rules are these, exactly, Sam?” she demanded, with more than a hint of annoyance. “You’re a grown man. Don’t you think you can decide for yourself whether you can trust yourself alone with me?”
“Emma,” sighed Sam, “This is the first time I’ve asked someone to marry me. I don’t know how to do it right. My parents are dead, so they can’t help me like they helped my older brother and sisters. I’m just trying to do things the right way. I’m trying to be a gentleman . . . and a good Muslim. Do you think this is easy for me? Don’t you think that I would love nothing more than to be alone with you? To jump right into a relationship with you, without all the hassle?”
Before his eyes, Emma visibly softened. Her hands dropped from their defensive stance on her hips, and the frustration vanished from her face.
“Sam,” she sighed, “I don’t know what to do with you. You’re so different from the other guys I’ve known. You’re trying so hard to be noble and self-controlled. You’re determined not to take advantage of me, and here I am arguing with you.” Her eyes filled with tears at the same time that she laughed a bit hysterically, causing Sam’s heart to melt completely. He yearned to hold her close and to wipe her tears away, but he stood in place, watching helplessly as the woman he loved grappled with her emotions.
“Sam,” she finally said, looking him straight in the eye, “I would be honored to be your fiancée.”
Their first “non-date,” as Emma decided to call their future meetings, was at Emma’s condo on the following Saturday. The fiancées decided to cook lunch together for Hal and Evelyn, with Emma’s housemate Margo acting as both sous chef and chaperone during the meal preparations. The young couple planned to announce their engagement over homemade chicken Parmesan and sparkling cider.
Emma was thrilled to see that Sam and Margo got along well from the beginning. The three chatted amicably and shared funny stories as they cooked the delicious lunch. Even Monty, who could be extremely picky about visitors, warmed up quickly to Sam. The long white hairs all over Sam’s black pants were testament to the cat’s friendly gestures.
By 12:30 the condo’s small dining table was set simply but welcomingly, and the chicken was almost done baking. Hal and Evelyn arrived right on time. They hugged Emma and Margo and greeted Sam warmly, as well.
“It smells delicious!” exclaimed Evelyn. “What’s cooking?”
“Chicken Parmesan,” answered Emma. “Dad’s favorite.”
“Wonderful!” boomed Hal. “Who cooked, you or Margo?”
“Actually, dad,” corrected Emma, “Sam, Margo, and I all cooked together.”
“Well, well, well!” said Hal. “A man who can cook! Better keep hold of this one, Emma.”
“Ha! Yep!” Emma chirped in nervous excitement. She realized she sounded a little worked up, so she tried to calm herself. “Well, the food should be ready in about ten minutes, so why don’t we all sit down? Monty, get off the couch, please.” She waved her hands at the fuzzy, lethargic animal, who didn’t budge.
Evelyn shook her head at the cat in mock sorrow. “Monty, you are a lazy, hairy beast.” Then she noticed Sam’s pants. “Looks like Monty left his mark on you already, Sam,” she said. “He’s such a finicky feline. He either loves you or hates you. Looks like he loves you. Too bad for your pants.”
Sam just laughed. “Next time I’ll wear white, so the hair won’t show,” he said.
After a few minutes of chitchat, the oven timer buzzed, and the three chefs jumped up. Sam carefully brought the large, tantalizing dish of chicken to the table. Emma carried the salad, and Margo presented a bottle of chilled sparkling cider and five wine glasses with a flourish.
“Well look at this!” exclaimed Hal. “Sparkling cider! What’s the occasion?”
“Well,” began Emma, nervously. “Mom, dad. Actually, we do have some news . . . ”
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Evelyn, interrupting her daughter. “You got engaged!”
“How did you know?!” cried Emma with shock.
“Am I right? Oh, I knew it! A mother knows these things! Oh, congratulations! I am so happy for you both!” Evelyn hugged Emma tightly and beamed at her husband with misty eyes. Then she got up and hurried over to Sam to embrace him.
Sam was very moved and relieved by his future mother-in-law’s positive reaction, but his eyes were on Hal. How would Emma’s father react?
The older man cleared his throat. It was impossible to read his expression. Sam felt his heart hammering in his chest, and he could see that Emma was looking at her father with trepidation, too.
“Well, I must say I saw this coming, too,” said Hal, soberly. “I knew Emma was in love and, as wonderful as she is, I knew she would eventually win Sam’s heart. Sam, we don’t know you very well yet, but we think you’re a man who can be worthy of our daughter. Congratulations, you two.”
Emma and Evelyn looked relieved and happy to hear his words. They wore matching, radiant smiles. Margo looked at her best friend with delight. For his part, Sam heard the implicit challenge in the phrase “can be worthy of our daughter.” He decided that it was the best he could hope for, for now. Everyone at the table raised their glasses of cider and toasted, “to Sam and Emma!”
“I won’t let you down,” Sam promised them all. “I’ll make Emma very happy.” Pronouncing those words, he realized that he had never felt so grown up and manly before. He knew he could – and would – give the best of himself to his future wife.
A few days later, it dawned on Sam that all the initial, difficult hurdles were finally – amazingly– over. After dragging Alejandro with him to five different jewelry stores on Sunday, he had finally found the perfect engagement ring, which Emma now wore proudly on her left hand. Alejandro had been a good sport about the ring shopping, overall, and had only said “I told you so” about a dozen times. He warned Sam that he planned to tell everyone at work that he had predicted the couple’s engagement on the very first day that Sam met Emma at the company picnic.
With his fiancée’s and best friend’s enthusiasm and Emma’s parents’ blessing, Sam felt like he could conquer the world. He had never felt so elated and hopeful.
The next several weekends were spent at Hal and Evelyn’s house. Sam wasn’t sure whether Emma explicitly explained to her parents about the need for chaperones, but Hal and Evelyn seemed happy to provide the right environment for the fiancées to get to know each other. Together the two couples barbecued, watched movies, played board games, and went out on the town.
One especially warm day, Emma suggested that they all take a swim in her parents’ heated backyard pool. Sam knew that Emma was an avid swimmer, but he had not swum with her yet. When she first suggested the idea, he initially protested. “I don’t have any swim trunks,” he explained.
“Oh, we have tons of extras, in a few different sizes,” said Emma. “We keep several on hand, for visitors and pool parties.”
So, because he couldn’t think of a decent excuse not to swim with Emma and her parents, Sam agreed. But he knew what his inhibitions were: he would see Emma in a bathing suit. It both excited and worried him. It was alluring enough, seeing her in short skirts and sleeveless blouses. How would he handle the temptation of seeing her wearing next to nothing? Of course he had been exposed to women in bathing suits before, particularly since moving to the U.S. He always did his best to lower his gaze, although it was very difficult. This was different. He felt both protective and possessive at the same time.
When Emma walked unselfconsciously out to the pool and dove into the water, Sam kept his eyes down. But he knew it was only a matter of time before he would have to look up. Fortunately, when he did peel his eyes from the surface of the pool, he saw that she was not wearing a bikini, but rather a sporty one-piece. As a serious swimmer, Emma chose her suit for function, not fashion. Still, he could clearly see her porcelain skin sprinkled with dozens of freckles and her gracefully proportioned figure. He could hardly believe that someday she would be rightfully his wife. But he also knew that all this beauty was not meant for his eyes. Not yet.
This is totally normal for her and for her culture, he kept telling himself. She isn’t really immodest.
“Ahhh, I love the water!” she purred, as she floated on her back. “I’ve been swimming since I was three, and I was on swim teams all through elementary and high school. Plus, I’ve been giving lessons at the Y for the past few years.”
“Swimming lessons?” asked Sam.
“Yep. My favorite students are the preschoolers and toddlers. They’re so sweet and enthusiastic.”
“Do adults also take swimming lessons?” he asked.
“Oh yes! You’d be surprised at how many adults have never learned to swim. Some of them are positively terrified! It’s really rewarding to help an adult overcome a fear of water and learn to love it.”
“My mom didn’t know how to swim,” offered Sam. “Most women of her generation didn’t. But she made sure my sisters learned. It’s actually recommended in Islam to learn to swim. And to ride horses.”
Sam reflected that it was funny how these nuggets of Islamic knowledge were ingrained in his mind. They just came out of his mouth, even when he didn’t plan on saying them. There was so much he didn’t know about his faith, but bits and pieces were clearly imprinted there. His parents had done their best to raise him to be a practicing Muslim. As a young teen, he had found their constant reminders, lectures, and admonitions annoying and tedious. As he grew increasingly lazy and indifferent, he unconsciously decided that Islam was for the old and old-fashioned. But after his parents died, he regretted his behavior. He missed having his father come into his room and gently shake him awake for fajr prayer. He missed his mother’s solemn benedictions as she beseeched Allah to protect and guide her son, kissing him on the forehead with a tender and unconditional love that he would never see the equal of again. It was really the memory of these small, day-to-day gestures from his parents that left Sam empty and aching when they were gone. It was also those memories that made him cling to his faith now, even though he knew his worship was imperfect and splintered.
“You must miss them a lot,” said Emma gently, breaking into his thoughts. She had realized that he was thinking about his parents.
“Yes, I do,” answered Sam. He could not talk about it anymore. He dove under the rippling turquoise water and swam the length of the pool. When he emerged, Emma was still looking at him.
“Sam,” she continued with her gentle voice, “Who will you want to be at our wedding?”
“Our wedding?” he echoed.
“Yes, silly, our wedding. When we get married, eventually, who will you want to invite? Your brother and sisters? Your friends?”
“Oh. I hadn’t really thought about it much, believe it or not,” said Sam. “Well,” he said, thinking out loud, “My sisters both recently had babies, so I honestly don’t think they could fly here for a wedding, not for quite a while. But I guess my brother Mustafa would want to come.”
“You haven’t told me much about him,” said Emma. “What’s he like?”
“Oh, Mustafa,” chuckled Sam. “I guess he’s a stereotypical big brother. Smart. Bossy. Protective. Over-achiever.”
“Where does he live?”
“Dallas. He’s a pediatric anesthesiologist.”
“Wow. Is he married?”
“Yes, he has a wife and two kids, but in reality he’s married to his job.”
“I guess most doctors have difficult schedules.”
“Yeah. But I think he’d want to come to our wedding, once we set a date, if he can find the time. Other than him . . . I honestly wouldn’t have a big guest list. Alejandro would want to come, I think. What about you? I bet you have tons of family who would want to be there.”
“Actually,” said Emma, “I’ve given it some thought and I’d prefer our wedding to be small, if you don’t mind. As you know, I’m an only child. I’ve got some aunts, uncles, and cousins scattered around the country, but we’re not very close. So I think I’d just want to invite my closest family and friends. My mom and dad, of course, and Margo, and possibly a couple others. Would it be okay with you if we had a small wedding?”
“Absolutely,” answered Sam with a smile. But his smile faded when he realized that planning a wedding – even a small one– would probably take a great deal of work. Sam had no idea how to proceed. And, another thought occurred to him: would they have an Islamic wedding? Could they, since Emma wasn’t a Muslim? And if so, how would he plan it? Sam didn’t even know where the nearest masjid was. As he had done so many times before, Sam desperately wished his parents were still alive.
As it turned out, Evelyn had her own plans for the wedding. “We could have it at our house,” she suggested to Emma one Sunday morning in November as they sipped coffee on the back patio.
Things had been going smoothly for months for the young couple, and Emma felt increasingly sure of her decision to marry Sam. In her mind, it was just a matter of setting the date and having the ceremony. Together she and her mother spent long hours discussing the possible wedding arrangements. They had ruled out a church wedding, since Sam wasn’t Christian.
“He won’t want to be married in a mosque, will he?” asked Evelyn. “I wouldn’t know how to plan that kind of wedding.”
“He hasn’t said anything about it. I’ll have to ask him, mom,” said Emma.
“Well, we could easily arrange a non-religious ceremony right here at home. Reverend Whiston next door already told me he’d be happy to officiate the wedding with very secular wording. And we could have a simple catered reception in the back yard, or indoors, if it’s too cold.”
“That sounds good to me,” replied Emma. “I’ll run it by Sam. And thanks, mom, for offering to do all this.”
“Oh, Emma. It’s been my dream to plan your wedding since you were a little girl.”
“I hope you’re not disappointed that it’s going to be so small, and not in a church,” worried Emma.
“If you are happy, that’s all that matters,” replied Evelyn. Then, with a serious expression, she pressed, “You are happy, aren’t you? Do you think he’s really The One, Emma?”
“I feel it in my heart, mom,” said Emma with certainty. “He’s The One.”
Emma broached the subject of their wedding over lunch on the following Monday. Sam was pleasantly surprised to have such a simple solution all worked out for him. He would not have to help plan an elaborate ceremony, nor indeed do much at all, other than show up to the house on the given day. He was also relieved that he wouldn’t have to make an appointment with an imam and admit that he had not stepped foot in a masjid for years but was hoping he could marry a non-Muslim in one. It seemed that a legally-binding, secular service was exactly the right path to take. He was grateful to Evelyn for organizing it so efficiently. He felt a little guilty that he wasn’t doing more.
“What about our honeymoon?” he asked Emma. “Where would you like to go?”
“Well, we have to think of practicalities,” said Emma. “Once we confirm the date, we’ll need to request vacation time. You’ve worked here long enough to have accrued one week off, so if we tag that on to a weekend, that’ll give us seven days for our honeymoon.”
“Seven days? Hmmm, that’s not a lot.”
“Not long enough for our big, multi-country backpacking trip,” agreed Emma. “We’ll have to save that adventure for another time, when we have more vacation days saved up. But we could go to Hawaii or Jamaica or the Dominican Republic . . . “
“Or Alaska . . . “ suggested Sam.
“Why not? I hear it’s beautiful.”
“But cold! For our honeymoon, I see us stretched out on a beautiful beach and swimming in the warm water, not bundled up in parkas watching polar bears.”
“Oh? No polar bears on this honeymoon, huh?”
“Nope. Just me and you. No penguins, either.”
“Walruses?” he teased.
“Sam!” she laughed. “Just me and you and the beach . . . and a gorgeous hotel room. . . . ”
Giddy with anticipation, Sam allowed a wonderful picture to form in his mind of him and his beautiful bride, together, at last.
“Emma, will you let me plan the honeymoon trip? I mean, you and your mom have the wedding under control, so I’d be happy to take this on. I promise, no polar bears.”
“Hmmm. . .Will you pick somewhere warm? With beautiful beaches?”
“Yes. And with a gorgeous hotel room,” he promised.
“Okay. I’m trusting you on this,” she said with a smile and also a hint of warning in her voice.
“Leave it to me, my future wife. Insha Allah it will be the first of many amazing trips together.”
“Insha Allah. God willing, right?”
“Right,” said Sam with a contented smile.
Mustafa was thrilled to hear from Sam, when he finally found time to return his younger brother’s phone call.
“Abdul-Samad! It’s been so long! How are you?”
“Good. Great, actually. I’m engaged!”
“Engaged? To be married?”
Sam laughed. “Yes, that kind of engaged. You sound shocked.”
“I am! Well, it’s wonderful news, of course! But I didn’t even know you were thinking of getting married. Wow! What’s her name? Tell me about her.”
“Her name is Emma. I met her at work. She works in Human Resources. She’s lovely and smart and . . . perfect.”
“Emma? An American girl? So . . . she’s not a Muslim, then?”
“No, she was raised Christian. But she doesn’t really practice much now.”
“And she knows you’re a Muslim? And she’s okay with that?”
“Yes. She and her parents have traveled all over the world. They’re very cosmopolitan and open-minded.”
“Well, that’s . . . great. I mean, well . . . are you sure it’ll work out, you two being from different cultures and religions?”
“Is anyone really sure their marriage will work out?” challenged Sam. “We all think it will, and hope it will. There are no guarantees for anyone, even two people from the same exact place.”
“True, true. When did you get so wise, little brother?” laughed Mustafa. “So, when are you getting married, then?”
“We just picked the date. January 15. I’d love it – we’d love it – if you could come. I know you’re busy , but . . . “
“Subhan Allah, Sam! What good timing! Maryem just convinced me that we both needed to take some time off work in mid-January. She says we need a proper vacation with the kids – family time, you know. She got it in her head to take another Caribbean cruise, but I think this would be even better. We could come a couple days before your wedding, spend some time with you and Emma, and then take off to do some sightseeing in your area.”
“Really, Mustafa? That’s amazing! I never thought you’d be able to get away from work!”
“Allah is the best planner,” said Mustafa. “By the way, will you be having the nikah in a masjid?”
“Uhh, no . . . We’ve decided to have a small wedding at Emma’s house. Her neighbor is going to perform the ceremony, you know, in a non-religious way. He’s licensed to marry people.”
“But you’ll also do a nikah, right?” asked Mustafa.
“I don’t even know how to organize one,” admitted Sam. “Mustafa, I know you’re going to lecture me, but I haven’t really gone to the masjid since I moved here. I pray at home, you know, but I don’t have much time for the masjid, and they won’t let me off work for Friday prayers, and . . . “ Sam trailed off, having run out of excuses.
Mustafa was silent for a short while and then let out a deep sigh. “I’ve failed you, little brother. I should’ve helped you more when you moved here to the U.S. With mom and dad gone, you needed guidance. I probably should’ve insisted that you move to Dallas and live with me and Maryem. But listen, you need to have an Islamic marriage contract. Otherwise your marriage won’t be blessed, even if it’s legal. It’s not hard at all to organize a nikah. It’s mostly just paperwork. I’ll help you arrange it once I get there, insha’Allah. Okay?”
“Okay. Thanks, Mustafa. Thanks so much.”
“I’m glad to help, even in this small way. I’ll talk with Maryem, and if she’s okay with this plan — which I think she will be — I’ll book the flight and e-mail you the details. I can’t wait to see you and to meet my future sister-in-law!”
“I can’t wait to see you guys!!” said Sam. “Asalaamu alaykum, brother.”
“Wa alaykum asalaam.”
The day of the wedding finally arrived. Sam was thrilled to have his brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew in town. They had made a fantastic first impression on Emma and her family, since Dr. Mustafa radiated confidence and wisdom, and Maryem the pharmacist was equally competent and poised. Their children were friendly and gregarious. At ages 7 and 9, they were old enough to be well-behaved, but still young enough to be free of adolescent moodiness and self-consciousness. It was a joy to see them all, and Sam asked himself why he hadn’t made more efforts to see them regularly. He realized again that he was embarking on a whole new phase of life. Marriage was already maturing him.
Alejandro, Margo, Hal, Evelyn, and Margo’s godparents were the only guests at the small but beautiful ceremony. Evelyn had decorated the home tastefully and stylishly. Everyone enjoyed a catered lunch in the elegant dining room, in front of a roaring fire. The weather was crisp but clear. After lunch, Mustafa had arranged for the local imam to come to the home. There, he efficiently helped Sam and Emma sign the wedding contract in front of witnesses to bind them Islamically. For the second time that day, the couple solemnly pledged their commitment to each other. Then the imam joined the whole wedding group as they sat companionably around the fireplace, sipping hot chocolate, and eating a decadent wedding cake. It was, everyone agreed, a perfect wedding.
Two days later, as he and Emma lay under the shade of a palm tree on a sun-kissed beach in the Bahamas, Sam realized he had never been happier in his entire life. Everything is coming together now, he thought. I am so blessed. I feel so complete and content. I could go on like this forever.
Little did he know that his world was about to be turned upside down.
To be continued, insha’Allah…