By Sehreen Noor Ali
“Tell him I miss him,” said my usually stoic dad as his fingers sheepishly drummed the steering wheel. Somewhat surprised, I repeated to my husband, “Babe, Papa is saying he misses you. We ate his biryani last night and…”
“Put him on the speakerphone,” my dad nudged as he continued to fidget. “Talah, kya haal hai? We’re missing you, yaar. I made Pakistani biryani and you’re not here to enjoy it. I’m sending some back with Sehreen, but you really should’ve come with her this weekend.”
I chuckled a little. When Talah and I first met in London eight years ago, I would have called this scenario impossible. Back then we were only “dating.” Marrying Talah was an idea that my parents and myself would have never imagined.
People say identities are fluid. But if my parents respective Pakistani and diasporic-Tanzanian heritage were depicted as a Venn diagram, then my childhood was represented by the overlapping space in the middle labeled “Ismaili Muslim.” Growing up in northern Virginia, the biggest influence on my life and the core bond that tied my parents together was our faith in and regular practice of a sect of Shi’a Islam.
I clutched my Ismaili identity like a passport. It gave me membership to a club when all other doors were closed. My friends in the community did not come from a mixed heritage home and did not get why it would be such a big deal; after all, my parents were both South Asian and the rest of the world made no distinction between them. But, in conversations that were peppered with Urdu words that I did not understand or references to East African food that I never ate, I fell silent. I felt I was not part of any culture: I was too white-washed to be Pakistani, too Pakistani to be Tanzanian, and too brown to be white. So, I nestled more comfortably into the idea of being Ismaili, which to me meant becoming fluent in a set of religio-cultural practices, like attending the mosque twice a week or becoming the captain of youth volunteers.
“Talah is Sunni,” I warned myself when we unexpectedly fell in love. He was also the man that made my heart smile every day and showed me a new side of happiness. He was from Pakistan, was charming, intellectually curious, well read, funny, kind, and athletic. Despite this, I set a definitive date for our break-up. I could never imagine a future with someone who was not Ismaili. My angst stemmed from dramatic existential questions – “Where I would I belong? Who would I be? What would I be expected to become?” – to practical ones like, “Would I take my kids to my house of prayer alone?” The uncertainty washed over me like a string of tidal waves in which I re-drowned every single day.
Through this, Talah was my lifeguard. In his eyes, we got along like a house on fire and we were both Muslim – that was more than enough. He’d remind me that he grew up with Ismaili classmates and neighbors. “I don’t get it. No one made a distinction between us in Karachi. Why do you have to make an issue out of it in the U.S.—what is the big deal?” he’d ask.
Being a Shi’a Ismaili means I believe in the vested authority of the Aga Khan, who is a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad. It also means I pray at separate jamatkhanas, and not public masjids. As a Sunni, Talah believes it is the Muslim community as a whole that inherited the Prophet’s authority, not one single, unelected individual. Our divergent beliefs of religious authority means different ways of praying, customs, and interpretations of Islam. These differences were perhaps less of an issue for Talah and his family who grew up with Sunni Islam in Pakistan. As part of the majority, his family’s beliefs were fortunately not threatened.
Sectarian conflict grew in the 1980s under Pakistan’s Islamization plan. Normative Islam was equated with a specific brand of Sunnism, and minority communities, including the Ahmadi and the Shi’a, were excluded. For Ismailis, sectarianism has an additional dimension because many Shi’a do not acknowledge Ismailis as part of their branch. This is perhaps why most Ismailis until my generation did not consider marrying outside our very small community.
Being foreign often makes immigrant communities circumscribe harder boundaries in their new countries. It’s an act of survival; knowing who you are and where you come from gives you a lifeline in the face of unfamiliarity. It happened to my mother’s family when they moved from India to Tanzania in the late 1800’s and it happened to my Ismaili community during waves of immigration to North America in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Both times, families gravitated towards cities where other Ismailis lived and grounded their civic participation in jamatkhana.
Yet the notion that I had to somehow “protect” my Ismaili identity was ridiculous to Talah. “I would never expect you to become Sunni or to stop being Ismaili. Being Ismaili is part of what makes you distinct, and it is one of the reasons I like you,” he’d say. Four years of long distance love between London and Washington eventually won out. If we could survive the Atlantic, I began to think we would weather most things. With a healthy dose of time, many frequent flyer points, and personal progress on a steep learning curve, I finally saw that our Sunni-Ismaii relationship was not actually a zero sum game.
It was not so easy for my family. They grew up in a world where some within Islam rejected Ismailis as heretics and persecuted them in countries like Tajikistan and Syria. As Ismailis, we considered ourselves different and we had good reason to believe that several Muslims looked at us the same way. These perceptions put my family on the defensive. They had one fundamental concern: If I married a non-Ismaili Muslim, would I be accepted by his family?
A couple of years passed until my endurance won out again. It was not all sunshine and kittens – Talah and I bore our fair share of concerned comments from family and even friends – and we emerged from it bruised, but stronger. After hoping that my relationship might be “just a phase,” two things ultimately became obvious to my family: first, I was happy; and second, I was not going to give up. After some time, my parents asked to meet Talah.
We walked into the house to overwhelming scents of South Asian food: aromatic biryani, a traditional rice dish, and pungent nihari, a slow-roasted, spicy meat curry known specifically to Pakistan. We sat down to eat, and my parents and Talah started chatting about his family, his roots in Karachi, and his transition to London. My dad grew up in Karachi and my mother had first immigrated to London from Tanzania before settling in North America. Somewhere between the passing of the naan and the nihari familiarity took root. Conversation continued for a couple of hours and sometime towards the end of dinner my dad asked Talah eagerly, “So, how was the food?” Talah, known for his inability to kiss-up, had no idea that my dad only cooked on big occasions and said, “Delicious. It tastes just like the biryani I used to eat back home.” The smile erupting on my father’s face was unabashed and genuine.
Two years later, we were planning for our wedding and my dad had only one request: to serve “genuine Pakistani biryani.” He even offered to make it.
Sehreen Noor Ali worked for the State Department as a public diplomacy strategist for five years and recently moved to NYC to pursue a career in technology and education. She worked with the White House on President Obama’s Muslim engagement strategy and also led an effort to increase science and technology outreach. She received her Ed.M from Harvard University, her B.A in International Development from Brown, and was granted an academic fellowship in Islamic Studies from the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. She’s also a proud fellow of the Truman National Security Project and the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute.