When Sabeeha Rehman came to the United States at age 20 — after an arranged marriage to a Pakistani-American doctor with whom she spoke for the first time on her wedding night — she expected to stay for two years.
Forty years, two children and many adventures later, she is still in love and still in New York City. “Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim” (Arcade) is her memoir of resisting becoming too American while eager to embrace her new country. It is a warm, amusing and, for a Jewish reader, a surprisingly familiar story.
While Rehman writes of a Muslim woman’s experience, I was treated to memories of conversations with my own grandmother as I read about her figuring out America. The two women had much in common as they navigated the mysteries of American manners and expectations. But they were both sure that an education for their children was paramount.
Rehman’s determination to make sure her sons found “the right” Muslim women as wives; her riotous efforts to “arrange” their marriages in more subtle ways than her parents had done could have been my own mother’s. Even with all her efforts, one of her sons fell in love with a young woman who just happened to be Hindu!
To read about the author’s “Christmas-ization of Eid” is not only to laugh at the twisting that takes place to keep her children loving their holiday (even in July) but also to admire the clever and practical choices she makes — and, not incidentally, to associate with the commercialization of a certain winter Jewish holiday.
Rehman was a secular Muslim from an upper middle class family in Pakistan, where Islam is the norm, when her mother arrived at her college to tell her she was leaving that day to get ready for her wedding. It had to happen quickly because the groom was going to only be in Pakistan for a couple of weeks, his vacation. The bride-to-be was thrilled, never mind she didn’t even know his name. Several spirited chapters later, after her story shifts to America, she realized that if she wanted her two young sons to remain Muslim and become Pakistani Americans she was going to have to build a Pakistani community, including a Mosque and a school. Far away from home, she understood that Christianity was the norm in America and her children were going to experience the equivalent of anti-Semitism.
She did it. Rehman had definitely become an in-charge American woman.
She also earned a graduate degree and became a hospital administrator. Further proof of her Americanization. But when relatives came to visit from Pakistan, her husband would be sure to stay out of the kitchen, although he loved to cook, because that isn’t what men did in the old country — further proof of her hybridization.
Although there is much in this memoir that is familiar, there is much that isn’t. Rehman and her husband go on the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, that each observant Muslim is required to do once in a lifetime if possible. Later she discusses it with her son as he plans his own. It is a very moving section and just one example of how much there is to learn about others in this memoir while we are chuckling and looking in a mirror.
Toni Siegel, a librarian, wife and mother, lives in New York City.