Part 1 – Engagement & wives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Ali, 28, is from Saudi Arabia and studied electrical engineering at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is married and has two children, aged 3 and a newborn.
Conversation with Amara Hartman.
So how did you meet your wife?
There’s something you should know–
Is she your cousin?
Yeah, that’s the first thing, though not actually. My grandfather has a sister, this sister has a boy, this boy is my wife’s grandfather, so my grandfather is like an uncle to my father-in-law, which makes my wife my cousin. [In our culture], we don’t normally hang out with girls, but if the family gets together, I see my relatives who are girls, but I don’t talk to them a lot; I just hang out with the boys, and she has six brothers brothers who are my friends.
Was that by choice? Or, did it just so happen you only hung out with her brothers.
I liked how this house is built–how they respected each other. So I went to my mother, and I told her about how they have a girl my age, and I wanted her to go see how she [my wife] is. So my mom went with my five sisters.
That’s so cute.
My sisters all went, and they were taking notes. They came and told me all about her, and then my mother called her mother for an engagement.
How long did that take? The process from when you were like “can you go check this girl out…”
Three weeks. When my mother called and told her I wanted to propose to her to be my wife, she told her we have to ask her first and see what she thinks about your boy.
Is that typical? If I were a Shiite Muslim woman and my family came to me and said, “There’s a boy who is interested in you.” I would have the option of saying “Ok, I’ll meet him” or “No, I’m not interested.”
Is that different with the Sunni?
No, it’s very similar. Kind of exactly the same. So it usually takes the family about a month or two to come back with a yes or no, because they have to know about his boy they’re giving their daughter to. [In my situation] her brothers were my friends, so they went to her after about a couple hours and said, “You have to say no.”
You have to say no?
You have to say yes! [They said] “That’s embarrassing to keep him waiting.” But she kept saying, “No, I’m going to wait.” One of her brothers immediately called me and referred to me as the brother-in-law, as if she’d said yes. So after about three days, she responded yes, because she knew a lot of things about me since I was her brothers’ friend.
What is the benefit of that do you see? Do you just go about it that way because that’s your culture or do ever wish that you had met an American girl?
The good part is that we have what’s called the engagement period, which lasts as long as the couple wants it to be. In that period of time, you’d be able to know me, and I’d be able to know you. If, for some reason, you find out that I’m not really that person you’re looking for, you’ll be able to step back and say, no I don’t want him any more.
So it’s not as restrictive as saying,“I would like to marry her,” and if she says yes, then you’re just stuck together.
Exactly. And the other part of it is there is no sex until the marriage.
Oh, that’s how you had a daughter right away.
Exactly. Oh my god. Yeah, exactly. And yeah, for me, because she was in school, and I was in school here, the engagement period was about a year. I went back to Saudi Arabia August 1, 2012, and we got married. Then she moved back here with me.
How did you feel when you had a daughter? Is there a cultural thing where you hope for more boys?
I was actually happy. But yes, you want more boys. I know people who divorce their woman, because they’re not having a boy. Muslim men can marry up to four women.
To see how many boys they can get?
Let’s assume we got married, and after a few years, you and me aren’t getting along that well in life. So we think of getting divorced or separated. The problem with divorce, though, is if I marry another woman, and you marry another man, what if those people don’t want your previous kids? Where are they going to end up? With their grandparents or the street. So Islam is giving the men a second option to try, because in Islam, we believe women like to be with their family.
Like they prefer to be family-oriented instead of being out on their own?
They will give more effort to save their kids and their husband more than the men would. So, if the men were thinking of getting another wife, they would not divorce and not let the kids be on their own. It’s just an option. But the tricky part is that you have to be fair to both wives. Like, if I take you out for Pizza Luce, I have to take the other one for Pizza Luce! If I take you here and take the other one to Cheesecake Factory that’s not fair.
That sounds crazy. Why would a man do that?
Well, even though it’s easy to get married, they make it hard [like that], so you don’t do it for fun. But people still do it for fun.
Do women have the same option?
No because of mixing. If a woman sleeps with four men and got pregnant, how would you be able to tell who the baby belonged to? If a man sleeps with four women, you always know who the baby belongs to.
Would you ever do that?
NO WAY. I’m good with one wife. My father has two wives.
So you have two moms? Do you interact with them, or is it separate?
Yes, I do. That’s the funny part–they’re even. My father has a house with two floors, and my father and my mother live on the first floor, and my stepmother lives in the second floor. [The floors] are exactly the same. If you were sleeping on the first floor, and they took you in the night, and you woke up on the second floor, you’d look around thinking you were still on the first floor.
So does the second, or third etc., wife just accept it?
Yeah. If I meet someone else, I have to go through the same process of going to the family and saying I want to marry this woman.
But it’s the same as the first wife, where the woman can decide if she wants to go down that road and be the next wife?
Yeah. So [I have a question for you], why is it illegal or looked down on for cousins to marry?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think it just comes down to feeling weird about it–and this is just my opinion, because it doesn’t happen in my family, and I don’t know anyone who has ever married their cousin. But I think even though our American family units are not close like yours, we still have this idea of, “That’s my family member. I wouldn’t marry my brother, I’m not going to marry my cousin.” Even though when you think about it biologically, cousins can come from anywhere. In that respect, it doesn’t bother me. But I think if I was presented with that option, like if I had a male second or third cousin who wanted to marry me, it would feel off.
Gotcha. See when I search online, what I found out is it all comes down to genetic diseases. If you have something and your cousin has the same thing, your kids will have the disease too.
Oh yeah, inbreeding can cause genetic mutations. Something about science where if you don’t have enough different things coming into play, it’ll build in on itself. But I feel like that’s more really closely related people? Like, if I had a brother, and we had kids, and then my kids had kids together, that would be a huge problem. But I can see how there was enough removal between you and your wife where I don’t think your kids are going to die or anything.
Since it’s legal for us, for cousins to get married, you do have to go to the hospital to get a blood test. They did it on me and my wife. You are forced to do to it to be legally married to your cousin.