I never dreamed of having a big wedding, or even any wedding at all. When I met my now husband, he agreed that he would be happy eloping. But when the time came and we were getting married it became clear that the event was not for us but for our families – for each of us to introduce the people who had shaped our lives to our new spouse and for our families to get to know this new person. This ritual seemed especially important in light of the fact that we come from such different cultures. My husband is a Kurdish Turk, raised Muslim. I’m American, raised Irish Catholic just outside of Chicago.
In the end, we had three weddings.
While planning my weddings I googled, “I married a Muslim.” I guess I wasn’t surprised by the results, but I was disappointed. The results went from utterly unrelatable to downright racist. Not one of the articles described the easy nature of the mixed relationship I share with my partner. The top result tells of one woman’s “incredible journey” and her “brave escape.” Another details a Christian woman who was cheated on, tricked, and betrayed by her Muslim partner. They mostly painted Islam in a negative light and depicted Christian/Muslim relationships on a spectrum from incompatible to nightmarish. It went on like that for pages of search results.
It hurt me to think that my friends and family might find themselves reading these very same articles and wonder about my new spouse. This confirmed to me that our wedding celebrations, where friends and family would meet and mingle, were not just important but imperative.
Our first wedding: My husband and I had a typical wedding in Turkey, his home country and where he and I met and now live. The only legally recognized weddings in Turkey are secular, officiated by a “nikahı memur” or wedding official from the government. This wedding did not look unlike an American-style wedding. We had dinner, gifts, and dancing and I had a white wedding dress. We ended the night releasing two white doves, surrounded by outsized sparking fireworks. It was an amazing night.
For my husband and I, our different religions are not a point of contention, as we are both essentially “non-practicing” in our respective faiths. I don’t go to church and he doesn’t go to mosque. However, he is culturally Muslim the way that I am culturally Christian. Our countries of origin, while technically secular, are mostly populated with and governed by members of our respective faiths. America’s Congress is 90 percent Christian, there is a Bible present in courts of law and many people get Christian holidays, like Christmas, off work. Turkey is culturally Muslim in similar ways.
Together, we respect and participate in many religious rituals of both faiths, but like so many people, we do so with a level of remove from their religious origins. The core beliefs that my husband and I share, such as service, kindness, charity, and dignity for all people, are encompassed by both of our faiths.
But, as you may expect, because of our different upbringings my husband and I have our fair share of cultural misunderstandings. Together we easily bridge this cultural divide, finding humor in our various confusions and easily laughing at ourselves and each other. Once, we were going to visit his parents for Ramadan and I was supposed to wear “modest dress,” which I understood to be covering my shoulders and wearing closed-toe shoes. Before leaving, I asked my husband many times if my outfit was okay and he kept saying, “Yes.” An hour into our two-hour ferry ride to their home, he looked at me and said, “You’re not wearing that, are you?”
When I looked up at him it dawned on both of us that he had not understood the specific intention behind my question, “How do I look?” And, judging by his alarmed tone, I obviously had not exactly nailed a “modest look.” We had to laugh. We ended up having a beautiful day, despite my bare legs. No one seemed offended by my faux pas. Before we left their home my future parents-in-law proudly posed for photos with us.
Our second wedding: A year later, just last June, we flew to Chicago and had a big party for extended friends and family. There were speeches, food, and music. It was beautiful. At both of our public weddings our guests recognized us as a couple. Going forward, we were a pair in the eyes of our community, a small family of our own.
Googling “I Married a Muslim” is what made me want to share our story. A story that flies in the face of these internet results which relied on oversimplifications and focused on negative, extreme scenarios. However, it also compelled me to want to protect us. Included here you will see photos of my husband and I, but I chose not to share the image of our union which is the most special to me. An image from my third wedding, my “Imam nikahı ” or Imam wedding service, our religious Muslim wedding. As an artist, I understand the power of an image. It is a frame for a narrative, this narrative can be true or it can be an utter fabrication, even used to represent its opposite.
Our third wedding: This is how my third wedding, and the photo that I have not included, came to be. My husband asked me, “When we visit my parents next month, they would like us to have a Muslim wedding. What do you think?” “Sure,” I said without hesitation. It was an easy decision. I knew how important it was to them and that it would be a way of putting them at ease for our union, as not only am I a yabancı (a foreigner), my in-laws and I don’t have a shared language. I was snatching up their youngest son and together we are headed for adventures unknown.
My husband and I discussed the ceremony so that I would know what to expect. When the day came, the Imam we had planned on had been called away. We figured it wouldn’t happen on this trip, but after final payers that evening, my father-in-law came home from the mosque with a replacement Imam. While I had an idea of what it would entail, I could not anticipate the significance it would carry for me.
The Imam was a well-dressed older gentleman with sharp, bright eyes. He smiled and spoke directly to me. While sitting in the spare room of my in-law’s house, waiting for my husband to translate, the Imam kept his eyes on me, patiently waiting for my answers and affirmations of understanding. He was here for ME, he explained, to protect my interests. He assured me that he knew the situation, too, that I was a yabancı and not Muslim. He was letting me know that that he was here willingly, too. He asked me three times if I was here of my own free will. “Evet,” I answered, “Yes,” in Turkish.
I repeated the traditional Arabic prayers, line for line, after the Imam. As I spoke those words a warm and heavy feeling came over me. I saw the Imam with tunnel vision, and yet I was seeing through him. I felt a profound connection through time and space. I felt happy and like I had an adult responsibility to the world that I didn’t have before. Later, I spoke with my husband and he described a similar feeling.
My favorite photo was taken in that spare room in Turkey just after that short ceremony. In the image, we are in jeans and t-shirts, in the middle of a tidy room, my husband’s arm around my shoulders, my arm around his waist. I’m wearing my niece’s grey hoodie and my sister-in-law’s socks, donned in an effort to get me into quick compliance with modestly etiquette. My husband is wearing one of my least favorite shirts of his. My head is covered, for the only time in my life outside of touristic visits to holy places, adorned hastily by my mother-in-law in the hallway.
I see how this image could be read a number of different ways. My pink face under my white hijab next to my husband’s summer-browned skin and full, black beard. The misconceptions, knee jerk reactions, and even alarm this image could illicit in someone who had only ever googled the same phrase, “I married a Muslim,” is not something I want to ever be associated with. In private, it only ever represents my specific journey – a happy, willing journey into marriage with a Muslim man.
While I readily agreed to a Muslim wedding, my husband easily agreed to have our baby baptized in the Catholic faith, at the behest of my parents. We agreed together to request the “religion” section on our son’s Turkish ID to remain blank. When he is older he can declare himself any way he likes, but to us, it seems strange to assign him a religion at birth. While I married a Muslim, it is not his religion, nor mine that is the defining aspect of our relationship.
Maybe our relationship is too normal for the first page of Google results, too common, too banal. Regardless, I hope it comes up when a curious mind types those words into Google, looking for something they can understand.