After the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, overseas jobs for ex-pats seemed plentiful if you could tolerate a little rougher lifestyle. Once the divorce from my cheating wife was finalized in early 1988 I left the US with a few possessions (a suitcase, passport, and cash) and took a contract job. The initial contract was for a year, but as it turned out I would not be coming back to the US for a lot longer time than that.
After a few months on the job, I began to informally teach evening English classes for students who wanted to practice speaking and reading. One young man, in particular, seemed keen about building up his vocabulary but after several weeks of attendance just suddenly quit. I thought that was the last I would see of him and quickly forgot all about it.
Sometime later I received an in-country letter from someone unknown to me, in the letter (and in her native language) a pretty young lady introduced herself to me as the male student’s younger sister. Enclosed in the letter, which her brother insisted she write, was a very modest photo of herself. She was 22-years-old, auburn shoulder-length hair, a trim figure, and brilliant green eyes, but most importantly, she was still living in her father’s house. We began a regular correspondence and traded a few more pictures; my study of her language increased considerably at that point since she spoke not a word of English.
After making arrangements with her brother, I took vacation time and stopped by her village to meet this lady in person. When I arrived in town he alone met me at the bus station and laid out some ground rules for meeting his sister (many more rules would come later) for the first time. Our first meeting at the garden was odd, he talked almost non-stop but she said next to nothing during the entire evening. Sitting directly across from me she would not look me in the eye but kept her head slightly bowed while we were there, but twice I caught a glimpse of her beautiful green eyes sneaking a look at me. Much later he told me that her place was to be seen but not necessarily heard at the first introduction.
Attitudes are quite different in her culture than those in the West.
An eligible single man needs only to have a steady job, a willingness to support a wife and not be living out of a bottle or a gambler. If he is religious too that’s a big plus. Unlike the West there is no long, ridiculous list of requirements to meet in order to be a potential husband, a man’s looks are rarely even considered. There is no casual dating and no premarital sex. Every “date” we were allowed to go on before the marriage always came with a chaperon between us. No hand-holding, private alone time or kissing allowed.
Virginity is a requirement to be an honored bride in her culture. If there is no proof of her virginity on the wedding night she is considered immoral and the marriage more than likely is quickly annulled. Of course, her family is shamed, the punishment or fate of the ex-bride is left to her male relatives to deal with which does not turn out well for her.
A couple of days after our first meeting I received an invitation for dinner from her brother. I arrived at her home (she still lived in her father’s house as an unmarried girl) and I met her father. He was a bricklayer and mason supporting seven children and a wife. We migrated outside and talked awhile, discussed marriage, my job, quite a bit of religion, views on family and oddly enough my prior military service. Then it was time to eat. Everyone sat on the floor on cushions around a very low wooden table, my young lady served the family and I was told a couple of times that she had prepared the entire dinner by herself, that also included the fresh-baked bread. Her father was served first, then me, followed by the brothers, last served were the sisters and mother.
Once the meal was finished all of the men went out to smoke on the porch, and a lot more questions came from her brothers and father. Then it came down to the wire, her father asked me directly what my intent was towards his daughter and what I was after. I decided that my answer had better be just as direct so I told him that I intended to make his daughter my legal wife, marry her in her church and in her country. He agreed and gave me permission to do so, afterward the conversations changed considerably. I had committed, not just to her but to the whole family. I did not recognize this at the time, but her status also changed (for the better) in the family, she was no longer just the youngest girl and last on the pecking order, but was addressed much more politely by her brothers and sisters while I was present.
In the rural areas, brides are often bought (bride price, not a dowry) and arranged marriages are common for cash as negotiated between the girl’s father and the groom’s father, but in my case, directly between her father and me. We spent one afternoon drinking tea and negotiating a price for her before our engagement was officially announced. My wife initially cost over $8,000 US but converted into standard weight 24k gold coins which I gave to her father several days later.
My future-bride and her mother were waiting in the living room during these negotiations and were told the bride price her father and I agreed on; and that she would marry me after our engagement period was completed. After our engagement became official I then was allowed to buy her small gifts and flowers (never an even number such as a dozen roses, only odd) from time to time, but was cautioned by her brother not to overdo it.
One immediate difference after our engagement was that my weekends were no longer mine, every Friday evening after I came home from work, one of her brothers escorted me to her home where I would spend the entire weekend, then return to my place late Sunday. This was good, it gave us supervised time together to “get acquainted” and she began learning English from me.
The official engagement would last exactly one year and we threw a big party for family, friends and lots of neighbors to celebrate. Food, drinks, cake, her engagement dress and a small amount of gold jewelry, her shoes, a couple of boxes of cigarettes for the men and of course music (I did not pay for the celebratory gunfire, however). The party guests divided into men and women, they did not mix. The ladies stayed in the house or in the wall-enclosed backyard, the men were across the street in a neighbor’s yard. I can’t say what the women were doing at the time, but the men were talking, drinking, smoking, then somebody thought it would be a great idea to have a knife-throwing contest (I got lucky and stuck a few on the fence post which made me look good).
A couple of weeks into our engagement and I was told by her brother that I was expected to provide certain gold jewelry for my bride to wear and display on our wedding day. There are shops (souks) that sell nothing but gold jewelry in her country; Yankee dollars are good and acceptable but no one argues with gold. The standard bride bracelet bands are made of 1 ounce of 24k gold, but they are not to be worn as daily jewelry. After the wedding, they are put away for safekeeping. Since the husband-to-be is the only one to buy these bands for the bride to wear (and I had a year to get them) how many she wears on her wedding day is an indication of what she is worth to him. And yes, the neighbors and family women DO count how many she is wearing. Through some not-so-subtle questioning, I learned that the typical bride in the village might wear four to six bracelets for the wedding. On our wedding day, I made sure that my new wife wore five on each arm to ensure her status increased even more in the eyes of her family and friends.
Her mother mostly stayed in the background during our engagement year saying very little except, I think, to coach her daughter on a few things on being a wife from time to time. During the year we went out to eat at halfway decent restaurants, had family picnics and barbeques, went to the beach a couple of times (she could not swim a lick), went shopping and often sat on the porch, just being together.
About halfway through the engagement year, one evening I was sitting with her father in the living room having a smoke after dinner when she came out of the kitchen carrying a pan of water. It is important to know that wearing shoes in the house is not allowed (to this day we take our shoes off when we come into the house), so all I had on was socks. She put the pan of water down, took off my socks and washed my feet while her father and mother watched, I did not quite fully understand what that was all about but the foot-washing “sealed” us. She never did it again.
As our wedding day got closer she asked me about America, my family (they never fully accepted my wife for many years and treated her badly when I was not around), where we would live and asked that maybe someday I would teach her how to drive a car (I did try exactly one time to do that after we were married).
I married my wife in 1993 within her religion and the wedding ceremony took place in her father’s house. In early 2020 we will celebrate our 27th anniversary. When our honeymoon was over we began the slow and frustrating work of getting the legal US immigration process completed which took us another sixteen months (the US embassy was the biggest pain in the ass by far in that process). She did get her “green card” and eventually became a naturalized American citizen after we finally moved back to the US. And I sent her to a driving school to learn how to drive — she earned her license.
Though arranged marriages may seem like an antiquated idea to some people, they are still popular, especially in poorer countries. It is pretty cut and dried, arranged marriages are business deals, cash and/or goods for wife and children. Like my story, I gave her father a set amount to marry his daughter and the deal was finalized between him and me. It was only later after we were husband and wife that we began to love one another.
Someone once estimated that over half of marriages worldwide are arranged and while the US divorce rate hovers around 50 percent, the divorce rate for arranged marriages is closer to 4 percent. One other vital point needs to be made. My father-in-law, wife, myself and her culture hold honor in high regard, once a promise is made you keep it. I promised to protect, provide for and be faithful to my wife, she also promised to be faithful and obey me. For both of us, it was and is a matter of honor.
After our wedding, my wife and I settled into a decent, modern two-bedroom apartment in town that was within an easy commute to my job. When I first arrived in-country, I rented a tiny one-room almost-shack for mostly sleeping purposes. My “villa” back then had only cold running water from a single tap (which I NEVER drank from directly but always boiled first), a nice private outhouse in the backyard (no reading material though), a bottled propane heater and a two-burner propane stove, a small refrigerator, one coffee pot, and a cot to sleep on.
One of the major changes I noticed was the way she was treated and addressed back with her family and in her village. People were very polite to her and were careful to address her as Mrs. (my last name). While we were engaged, my wife-to-be practiced writing her new name for several months before our marriage; when we moved into our apartment I found a writing pad filled with her practice married name signatures (I still have that writing pad today). I have never understood the ridiculous purpose or reasoning of hyphenating a married woman’s last name with her maiden name or for her to keep her maiden name after marriage, to do so is a sign of disrespect towards her husband.
At last, my job was a wrap and my contract completed, it was time for us to move back to the States. We had a comfortable life in an apartment near her village, visited her family on a regular basis and she had adapted to being my wife. But we had accumulated a LOT of stuff over the years that had to be disposed of (which did not please my wife). We distributed as much of our stuff as we could among her family (which did please her somewhat), sold some and gave the rest to the neighbors.
Once all our household goods were gone and it was time for us to leave, she hand-carried all of the required paperwork for immigration onto the airplane and we left her country for the “land of the free.” I had arrived years before with a single suitcase and passport, now I left with much more luggage, one pretty green-eyed young woman who belonged to me and quite a bit more cash in hand than when I had first landed in-country.