Two months before I married, I had my first period. I still wore a training bra. I was 12 and had never kissed a boy, never fathomed marriage. “Repeat after me: I, Habiba, take you, Ali, to be my husband for the duration of 90 days,” Ali*, my new husband, said.
Within seconds, I was married. In an Islamic Temporary Marriage, the marriage isn’t nulled with a divorce, but rather a specific period is set — in our case, 90 days. No witnesses are needed, and unlike traditional Islamic marriages, the man doesn’t need to support the woman. But if the girl or woman gets pregnant, the baby isn’t considered illegitimate.
After my parents divorced when I was five, I spent the school year in Tucson, Arizona with my Jewish mother, and summers and holidays with my Muslim father in a cult in Texas. The cult leader didn’t live with the members but lived an hour away on a hill with his three wives and multiple children. Polygamy is allowable in Islam, and a man can marry up to four wives.
The summer after I completed seventh grade, I flew to my dad’s as normal — but this was to be a different summer to all the others. The leader asked my father if I could live with him at his residence to help care for his four young children. No other person had been asked, so my father quickly agreed, thinking it was a wonderful opportunity for me to be close to the leader.
On the first night, the leader’s adopted son Ali snuck into my room and violated me. By the third night, he feared he was behaving un-Islamically, so he married himself to me until the end of August when I’d return to my mother in Tucson for eighth grade.
At 15, Ali was already worldly, having lived on three continents. His accent was erudite, tinged with British English. I still played with Barbies.
Although my parents loved me, they were preoccupied with their lives — my mother with her boyfriends and career, and my father with his new family and religion. They rarely kissed or hugged me, and I was starved for attention and affection. Ali provided both.
My body began producing dopamine and oxytocin, and I attached quickly. Ali’s scent turned sweet, and I noticed his chest muscles. I began to feel safe in his embrace.
Ali continued to sneak into my room throughout the summer, and although a few people knew about our marriage, our union was mostly kept secret in the dark of night. Towards the end of the summer, Ali looked serious. “I’m moving to Pakistan.”
I sobbed, “How will I survive?” He’d been successful in training me to need him.
When my father picked me up at the leader’s house in August, I didn’t tell him what happened, and when I returned to Tucson, I also didn’t tell my mother. I was ashamed and confused. And besides, Ali thought it was a good idea I didn’t discuss our “relationship” with anyone. He taught me he was my wakil, the person in charge of me, who I needed to listen to and follow.
I had spent 90 days disassociating, and after I returned to Tucson, I completely withdrew, desperately needing to protect my horrible secret. I lost interest in school, dropped my group of elementary school friends, and began wearing black head-to-toe.
My relationship with my mother also changed — I stopped speaking to her except when necessary. I mostly stopped talking altogether, collapsing in on myself.
But my relationship with Ali continued through letters, arriving in Tucson in blue airmails with stamps in Urdu. My mother probably thought Ali was a boy I met in Texas; a boyfriend, perhaps. She could’ve never guessed we were married.
Ali was a skilled writer, and with each letter, I not only fell more in love with him, but I also fell in love with words, the way they were carefully strewn on paper.
Twice, Ali flew to Texas from Karachi. By then, most everyone in my dad’s religious community knew about our marriage. By then, most of the girls my age and younger had been married off in forced arranged marriages to men much older. My situation didn’t seem unusual in comparison.
At 16, I graduated from high school early and moved to Texas to live with my father full-time. Soon, I flew to O’Hare, where Ali now lived on the South Side of Chicago with his mother and grandparents. However, just as my life began to feel somewhat normal, the leader requested I fly to his new house in England to work for him, again caring for his children.
My relationship with Ali continued through letters, but now, I was the one sending blue airmails. Mine were stamped with Queen Elizabeth. Ali’s writing diminished as mine blossomed. For weeks, I didn’t receive a response. Worried, I’d write him, “Everything okay?”
Ali eventually also moved to England at the leader’s request. When he arrived, I begged him, “Please tell me what’s wrong.”
Finally, he responded, “I married another woman.”
“No,” I cried. “Please divorce her.”
“I love you both.”
We traveled to Spain, staying at the leader’s villa. When Ali worked on the leader’s yacht, I stayed home ironing his clothes, creating middle creases in his Bermudas, hiding love notes in his pockets. With each puff of steam, I prayed my adoration would seep through his skin, his bones, and into his heart. My obsession with ironing would solve the problem — he’d realize how much I loved him and divorce the other woman.
Ali didn’t arrive at this “aha” moment. Instead, he temporarily married a topless girl he met on the white sandy beaches of Mallorca.
Several months later, I made the difficult decision to leave England. The night before I flew to Tucson, Ali pleaded, “Please stay. We’ll make it work.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said, walking back into the bedroom. I never imagined parting with what I treasured most. “Here.” I filled his arms with the letters he’d written me. “I don’t need these anymore.” Each envelope had been opened and reopened, emblazoned with my fingerprints.
In the end, I lost the leader, my community. I never got my forever marriage with Ali, but when I gave Ali back his words, I found my own. Soon after, I flew to Egypt and became fluent in Arabic. As a solo woman traveler, I backpacked the Middle East.
Fortunately, I never became pregnant with Ali, and a couple of years after returning to America, I married a man I met at university. We had two sons. I studied languages, completed a Ph.D. in linguistics, and studied creative writing at Columbia University. I ripped apart grammar, analyzed words. I combed through research on cults, child marriage — the role language played in my life to control and manipulate.
Love and healing zigzag, squiggle. Throughout the years, Ali randomly contacted me. “I love you,” he’d confess. When I was 42 and newly divorced, he sent me a Facebook message: “Come to South Africa.” I was heartbroken over the end of my 17-year marriage and still heartbroken over him. I immediately flew to Johannesburg, where he was living.
Ali was married with three children. I learned he also had temporary wives in Indonesia, America, and England. The offer was still on the table: I could marry him and be one of many wives. In the cult, I witnessed women’s and children’s lives torn apart because of polygamy. During the trip, I confirmed to myself that I cannot share him or any man.
I left South Africa early and bought a ticket to Australia, where I again backpacked alone.
Now, single, on the cusp of 50, I’m an empty nester of two amazing sons, ages 24 and 25. Both of my parents are still alive, thank G-d, and as I did as a child, I continue to balance their polar opposite lifestyle. My father is still a religious zealot. My mother is still a Jewish 1960s liberal feminist.
I don’t speak to my parents or anyone much about my trauma — I reserve that for my daily writing practice and therapy sessions. Through marriage, kids, and heartbreak, words have been my confidant, my education, and my savior.
In crafting sentences, I cohered my fragmented and juxtaposed identities. I dug myself out of a child marriage and clawed myself out of a cult, transitioning from servant to master of my own life. After a lifetime of men, I’m happy to sip cappuccinos and watch Netflix cuddling with my pillow, alone. I found self-love, which is unconditional and everlasting.
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