“Have you lost your mind?!” Professor Lydia cried as soon as I announced that I had been engaged two days ago to Ali, a young man from Turkey. I had offered her “lokum,” Turkish delight, the traditional treat for the occasion. Naturally, I expected her to congratulate me by saying: “Me trashegime!” which means “May you have offspring!”
Instead, she fumed: “Marrying a Turk! Bah! Unacceptable! A girl as clever and educated as you! What a shame!”
My tears swelled around my eyes and my hands holding the lokum package began to tremble.
“You are going to be beaten three times a day,” she continued forcefully, like a fortune teller. “Like a donkey!” she finished, culminating in irritation.
Her words, as you may guess, saddened me beyond description. Coming from a well-meaning, educated and gray haired person, her comments were hard to disregard.
She knew nothing of Ali, my fiancé, other than the fact that he was Turkish. Yet, this very little information had sent her into a fit that materialized into unleashed accusations as if she had decoded his DNA fingerprints: “Caution! Prospective Violent Husband!”
I left the box of lokum on her desk with the flickering hope that she would change her mind, take one and wish me happiness. I walked out of her office and wiped away my tears, which were now flowing down my cheeks unconstrained.
Since the first day that I broke the news to my family that a Turk had asked for my hand in marriage-as you may know, sensational news travel with the speed of light-I had to bravely face comments coming from all directions.
“Why marry a Turk? Is there a shortage of Albanian bachelors?” mocked my father.
“How will we communicate with him?” worried Mom. “We don’t speak Turkish. He doesn’t speak Albanian.”
My eldest sister wanted to see his picture before saying anything about the matter. As soon as I showed her one, she cried with relief: “Thank God, he doesn’t have a mustache!”
My second older sister, looking at the same photo commented: “He doesn’t look Turkish. Look at his green eyes and his light skin. Are you sure about his origin?” she teased.
My 80 year old grandmother wasn’t interested much in his good looks. “You have my consent” she said “only on condition that he will not force you to wear a headscarf over your hair.” My sisters very quickly assured her on my behalf that the future groom seemed a modern person and would never do such a “backward” thing.
My uncle complained that since the groom did not drink alcohol he wouldn’t be able to join his toasts at the table.
Obviously, our neighbors, who had witnessed me grow from a wailing baby to a well-mannered college student had something to say about this unusual betrothal. I overheard our next-door neighbor whisper to my mom: “The Turks are conquering us again, but this time …” she paused, nodding in my direction as I passed by, and continued “… from inside.”
My classmates gave me the thumbs up for finding a smart man-apparently his Ph. D. studies in physics in the U.S. proved that beyond a doubt.
“You are lucky!” one of the girls commented. “Life in America is worth anything.” She acted like I would still get a pat on the shoulder, even if I was to marry a drug dealer as long as I landed on the other side of the Atlantic.
My roommate made the most mischievous comment: “Our national hero Skanderbeg” she said, “is turning in his grave upon hearing that one of his compatriots is marrying a descendant of the Turks he fought against for more than two decades.”
She laughed hard when she saw that her words had distressed me. “Don’t worry,” she changed her tone. “Nowadays everybody is marrying anyone; Italian, German, Spaniard, Greek, you name it. The only thing that matters is love, isn’t it?”
I could come to terms with all these opinions, except my professor’s reaction, which was very hard to swallow. Why had she been so negative about the very idea? If my future unhappiness was so obvious, how come my family, the people who cared about me most, had never given me the slightest hint?
Was my professor simply envious? Could it be sheer ignorance? How could that be? She was a highly educated person. I knew she was Orthodox Christian. Could it be that she simply disliked Turks because they are Muslims?
A feeling of shame overtook me as soon as I realized that this line of thinking might lead me to commit her very mistake. It dawned on me that prejudice, as ugly as it is, could be sneaky as well, creeping into your conscience with no warning. Was it possible to be totally free from it?
I felt angry at my weakness. Why hadn’t I been brave enough to sit down and have a conversation with Professor Lydia? If I had talked to her, then at least I would have learned her motives.
“Don’t be silly!” My roommate commented when I shared my concerns with her. “Hers is just a stereotype! The Turks ruled Albania for five centuries and she doesn’t want to forget it! Why do you even bother to think about it?”
Could that be the reason? Or was it just another consoling prejudice? I wondered.
True, history had been taught as the Communists saw fit and the Turks had been given the worst share of the blame, a vivid description which materialized in one ominous, infamous sentence: “Where a Turk has stepped, the grass never grows back.” However, this phrase is defied not only by the country’s green pastures, but also by the school buildings, water fountains, bridges, hospitals, and clock towers built by the Ottomans that are still standing as silent witnesses; nonetheless, this terrifying description has been engraved in the minds of my Professor’s generation. It had never crossed my mind that history would be involved in my marriage.
The absurdity of it put a smile on my face; this didn’t escape my roommate’s curious eye. “See? All this silliness for nothing. You will probably laugh when you think about it ten years from now.”
And, right she was. Ten years later, I smile as I remember in retrospect all the fuss about my marriage. My family forgot all their worries and demands, pleased by Ali’s genuine respect and accented Albanian. He called my parents mami and babi-something my sisters’ husbands never did-and he became their favorite son-in-law. My uncle didn’t mind him toasting with a glass of coke either.
Everyone is happy, I, most of all. In my husband’s eye the measure of a man is the way he treats his wife, as suggested in the prophetic tradition: “The best among you is he who treats his wife the best.”
I have read somewhere that one simple way to know if someone is a good spouse is to look how the household greets that person when he/she comes home. Do they smile when they see him/her? Are they happy that they are back?
In the evening, as I witness our four children jump for joy and chant their happiness “Baba is here, baba is here” the moment they see their father’s car enter the driveway, my heart swells with love. My husband beams with happiness at this daily celebration and I am seized by a desire to travel all the way over the Atlantic, find my professor and have that delayed conversation I had no courage to have earlier. I owe this to the wonderful man I call my husband.