Chapter 12 - A Most Unusual Wedding

The following day I was unexpectedly summonsed to appear before an ad hoc tribunal. One over which Arash had given himself jurisdiction and likewise appointed himself to preside. ‘So how many were there then?’ The tenderness had gone. Sitting himself down opposite me in the lounge, Arash’s demeanor was serious as he firmly closed the double doors. Unable to decipher the reasons behind his latest malaise, I sat looking at him as a naughty schoolgirl would her teacher. What had I done wrong now? I immediately felt guilty as charged, although entirely unaware of any accusations against me. Not that I had to wait long to find out. ‘It is absolutely vital, Clair’, he began, ‘that if we are to marry that I should know about your past boyfriends. All of them’. So that was it. I breathed a sigh of relief, allowing myself a mischievous half-smile, knowing that not too much time would be required - it was not as if there was a long list to rattle through. But he retained his unblinking gaze. I had assumed that we had survived the earlier episode of his apparent dismay at the absence of my virginity and convinced myself that such matters belonged firmly to the past. Evidently not, though, for Arash was now anxious to establish a detailed inventory and comprehensive checklist of my sexual past.

‘Just tell me’, he snapped impatiently. ‘How many were there? One, two ….ten or more? I need to know.’ He then produced a small, ivory-coloured jewellery box. My jewellery box. ‘Let’s go through these items right now and see what we can find.’ I looked on as he carefully picked out a filigree gold necklace and held it up towards me. ‘Who gave you this and why?’ my inquisitor enquired. His fingers then rifled through a modest collection of pendants, rings, bracelets and brooches, all the time moving quickly on from one item to the next, as if to avoid contamination. Opening out his hands, he looked at me and said ‘it’s all dirty, you know, dirty and tainted, and I won’t allow you to keep any of it in the house.’ I looked at Arash stunned by his sordid insinuations and the sexually charged nature of his vivid imagination. To make matters worse it was not as if there was anything of substance to confess to. But I immediately concluded that when it came to the issue of my jewellery, that if these few pieces, birthday presents for the most part, were really going to represent an obstacle to our future happiness together, then Arash could dispose of the whole lot right away. When juxtaposed with my love for him, a few items of gold and silver seemed so meaningless and insignificant. In any event, he appeared to have found a solution of his own. ‘You’ll never see this again,’ he announced. ‘I’m donating it all to charity’.

Was this an act of Christian compassion and forgiveness on his part? Certainly not. Or was Arash fulfilling one of the five duties incumbent on every Muslim - that of Zakāt - the practice of giving charitably based on accumulated wealth for those who are able? Possibly so. Whatever the case, one of the beauties of the world’s great religious texts - from the Ancient Greek scriptures to Zoroastrianism, and just about everything else alphabetically in between, is that there is something for everybody to be found within them, that they are capable of interpretation in a wide variety of often contradictory ways. Of course the Koran, the central religious text of Islam, is no exception in this regard, as Arash’s mother, Shahin, knew very well. My prospective mother-in-law never had any issue with my being from another faith - or if she did she made a good job of keeping any reservations to herself. She also happened to be familiar with many of the holy book’s 114 chapters - which was why it did not take her too long to read of the four conditions to be satisfied in order for there to be a valid marriage contract: that there should be a clear proposal, at least two competent witnesses, an unambiguous acceptance and a marriage gift by the bridegroom to the bride. There was no mention of any obligation to register the marriage with the relevant civic authorities. Islam, considered by some to be harsh and unbending, in fact seemed to be rather flexible and accommodating - for there was no mention of any obligation for a marriage ceremony to take place within the confines of a mosque - nor even of the necessity for an Imam or Mullah to oversee or conduct the proceedings. And there was further good news. That although Muslim men are not generally permitted to marry non-Muslim women, an exception existed for them to be able to wed what the Koran referred to as ‘people of the Book’ - a reference to Jews and Christians alike - on the grounds that all three faiths believe in a single God and in revealed scriptures. The children of any such inter-faith union were always to be raised in the faith of Islam, true enough, but Shahin wisely concluded that such a bridge could be crossed in due course.

‘Arash-jaan, Arash-jaan-negah kon! Arash dear - look!’ She could hardly wait to announce the news. ‘You were looking for a way to marry Clair and thanks to the Koran we have found it. By marrying you here at home, but not registering the marriage with the municipal authorities, you can be considered man and wife.’

Of course the key issue was whether or not my father would buy it. In fact it was not a difficult sell - as soon as he saw that it was merely a home-made religious ceremony and without any consequences relating either to my nationality or citizenship - well, he had resigned himself to going along with it.

The wedding preparations could now proceed. Once the date and time had been agreed, it was not long before delicately inscribed invitations, designed and drawn by Arash, were being delivered by hand into an assortment of letter boxes around Tehran - to family, friends and company members for the most part. With my parents due to return to London the following week, time was at a premium. Although anxious to assist Shahin in any way, the discussions relating to the wedding arrangements were rather stilted and awkward. Determined to keep a low profile, Arash’s father Parviz had nevertheless agreed that the ceremony and party be held at his house, where Shahin, together with her three daughters and Mansoureh would oversee the catering. Babak was given the task of helping out with decorating the house, whilst Shideh patiently accompanied my mother and I on a mission to find an appropriate dress for the occasion. That proved to be a not particularly taxing task, on the grounds that she already had a specific shop in mind. Her choice of boutique happened to be exactly to my taste, for the outfits there were particularly beautiful. As I looked through the collection, a full length lace dress caught my eye. ‘I love that dress too Clair’, my mother said, ‘try it on’. Helping me with the hooks and eyes, the sales lady, clearly impatient for my small delegation to observe me in the dress, opened the curtains of the changing room with a grand flourish. After a moment’s pause, my mother commented ‘oh, it really is beautiful, darling, I love the strapless neckline, it looks really elegant on you’. ‘Yes, it does’, Shideh agreed, ‘and the beige is simple and romantic at the same time - I'm sure my brother will love you in it’. The keen sales lady, sensing our interest in the garment, tried her luck with a matching shoulder wrap , demonstrating it with a coquetish turn. All that was required was a minor alteration to the length of the dress - and we left the shop with both wedding gown and shoulder wrap in tow, congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

I knew that I had a lot to thank my parents for. It was all too easy to get carried away with the detail of the wedding preparations and easier still to overlook the sadness I knew my father was doing his best to conceal under his stoic smile. So I made a point of spending time alone with them in their hotel room. I loved them both so much and now, suddenly, away from Banafsheh street and in the quiet of their room, I suddenly felt a wave of nerves overwhelming me. Closing my eyes I tried to ignore any feelings of uncertainty, edging myself closer to my father as I did so. I placed my head on his shoulder, exactly as I used to as a child when feeling uneasy or scared. As usual he was able to sense what was going on in my mind.

‘Don't worry, darling, these worries, they are all quite normal, it's just a case of last minute nerves. I remember feeling the same way just before I married your mother.’ I knew he was trying to lighten the atmosphere but behind his reassuring words it wasn't difficult to see his underlying sorrow, convinced that he was on the verge of losing his daughter to a man whom he didn’t particularly like or approve of, abandoning her in a far and distant land.

Bursts of joyous laughter, quick chatter, the clanging of plates and the rushing of feet up and down steps, all merged to create a most energetic and excited atmosphere in the Alizadeh household. It was October 1973. Preparations were well underway. Typically efficient and understated, Shahin oversaw the transformation of her house on our wedding day. Large vases of honeysuckle and roses adorned every corner of the entrance hall and lounge, filling the air with a heady scent. Sholeh, the youngest of the three sisters, blessed with her mother’s kindness and wisdom, was determined to take me into her charge to guide me through the rituals and routines befitting an Iranian bride. With toiletry bags in hand she whisked me away to my first experience of a hammam, the Middle Eastern variant of a steam bath. Standing in the humid high-ceilinged cubicles, we set about scrubbing ourselves down with a loofa. Lathering gently all over we stood for a brief moment breathing in the aroma of the rose-scented soap. Once back at her Banafsheh Street home, shortly to become mine too, she plucked my eye-brows, shaped and manicured my nails and with a natural flair, massaged my back and shoulders to relax me for the impending ceremony. For a moment I lay with my eyes shut tight, feeling perfectly pampered. As I put on my wedding dress, I felt exquisitely feminine, the beige silky material flowing around my body and caressing my skin. Carefully placing a string of pearls around my neck and a garland of flowers on my richly hennaed auburn hair, I could hardly believe that this, at last, was my wedding day. Long-awaited and fraught undoubtedly. I wished that my parents had been more eager participants, basking in my joy, rather than being such reluctant recruits to the ceremonial proceedings about to unfold. It was Arash’s wish that he too would receive his father’s seal of approval but for the moment at least, Parviz was nowhere to be seen. Still, it was my wedding day all the same and my eyes remained firmly focussed on the man who would shortly become my husband.

His face radiated a gentle pride. Arash’s perfectly pressed dark brown suit and cream tie were well-chosen and flattered his tall frame. I had only ever seen him in jeans and casual clothes, his immaculate attire prompting me to stop in my tracks for a brief moment as I soaked up the sight of the fine-looking man to whom I would shortly be wed. There was an atmosphere of excitement and expectation as the small number of guests and family members - there were only around twenty of us all told - waited for the marriage ceremony to get underway. Arash and I stood side by side, our sense of relief almost palpable. I thought of the many obstacles we had managed to overcome, the hoops we had been obliged to jump through. My father stood directly opposite us, solemn and dignified. Standing next to my mother, he had volunteered to conduct the proceedings himself. His background and training was as a mechanical engineer - not a Mullah. And yet he took to his new role of interpreting marriage as defined within Islam with an air of confidence and easy expertise, as if he had presided over many such interfaith occasions.

‘Has there been a clear proposal of marriage?’ he enquired of the man about to become his son-in-law’. ‘Yes, there has’, Arash replied. My father then turned towards me. ‘And do you, Clair, my daughter’ - he looked directly at me - ‘do you, clearly and unambiguously accept Arash to be your husband?’ I heard myself answer affirmatively, but it was as if my voice came from some distance away. ‘I do. I most certainly do.’ Duke then turned his attention to those present in the lounge. His voice now slightly strained, he continued. ‘We are privileged to be surrounded by such generous family and friends, here today to share in this happy moment but also serving as witnesses to the joining in matrimony of Clair Symonds and Arash Alizadeh.’ With those words Shahin stepped forward, presenting me with a family heirloom, a turquoise ring set in an ornate gold leaf setting. My father then reverted to a more classical script. ‘Since the conditions required for a valid contract of marriage have been met, I now declare you man and wife.’ There was cheering, clapping - conviviality and celebration spontaneously breaking out in the lounge - whereupon the wedding party got underway.

Some six hours later, as the last guests were preparing to leave the Alizadehs’ residence in Banafsheh Street, and the celebrations began to come to a close, I reflected on the day’s proceedings. Of course I was happy - overjoyed, in fact - because I had got what I wanted. Arash and I were now officially man and wife, living together from then on at his parents’ home and recognised as a married couple by both families. But I knew very well that my father had suffered considerably throughout the day. It would have been his preference to see me standing under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, marrying a Jewish groom in a ceremony performed by a Rabbi, witnessing the breaking of the glass underfoot and hearing joyous cries of mazeltov! ringing out in a synagogue according to time-honoured Jewish tradition. Instead he had been reading passages from the Koran, marrying his daughter off to an Iranian Muslim of whom he thoroughly disapproved - his sole consolation that I was able to retain the British passport which had become so precious to him.

But Duke was not the only disgruntled parent on my wedding day. Arash’s father Parviz had not articulated his disapproval in any way. Yet his absence at our marriage sent out a message that could hardly have been more clear. As we danced and partied the evening away in the lounge downstairs, he had remained alone in his bedroom on the first floor, as he had done throughout the day, refusing to have anything to do with the most unusual matrimonial proceedings taking place in his home. Duke and Parviz had hardly spoken two words to one another - but they had come to share the common ground of disapproval, though manifesting it in different ways. Our married life, it seemed, had got off to a distinctly shaky start. A portent, perhaps, for what was to follow.

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