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Author's sister's wedding

Lisa Jose is ready for the inevitable, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have questions.

THE PHOTOGRAPH IS black and white. That is not surprising since it was taken 61 years ago. The edges are torn. The dark haired girl sits on a chair looking at the camera, unsmiling. Next to her, a tall man stands erect with his hands awkwardly clutching the back of the chair.

“I was 19 when I married your grandfather,” my grandmother tells me. “He came to see me; he asked me my name and what I had studied. Then, a few months later we were married.” Her marriage was arranged by her parents, as was my parents’ marriage, and as will be mine.

During my grandparents’ time, it was very orthodox. Girls were married in their late teens. There were not many women who pursued a career. From my perspective, the girls were duty-bound to be married. They did not even have a say in planning their wedding. The date, the venue, the menu, and, in some cases, the groom, were agreed upon by someone else. There was no courtship.

“There was no romance before the wedding,” reminisces my grandmother. “All that came after the wedding.”

Author's grandparents

There was hardly any chance to meet your fiance before the wedding. You could only wonder what he would be like, how your life together would be. Sometimes there was hardly any room to wonder, because in the short span from the time the marriage gets fixed to the actual day, there are a lot of things the bride-to-be has to learn. Traditional Kerala cuisine tops the list.

During my mother’s time, many things remained unchanged. She was enrolled in college for a Masters program when her great-aunt came with a proposal for a groom from another Syrian Christian family. The Syrian Christians of Kerala are a close-knit community with strong traditional values and an equally strong emphasis on family. To the Syrian Christians, a marriage is not simply the union of a girl and a boy, it is respected as the union of two families, two families from the same community with the same traditions and faith. Parents are wary of marrying their children into families they have not heard of.

When the proposal came, my grandparents started calling up people to inquire about my father’s family. There is a saying in Kerala that if you trace the family tree way back, you will find that everyone is related to everyone else. There is always someone you know, who was married into another family and who in turn knows someone else married into another family and so on. In our community, each family has a unique ‘family name’ along with the surname. It’s not really difficult to gather information about a certain person if you know their family name.

Family reputation, background, and financial standing matter a great deal. No one wants to marry their daughters into a family that cannot support them. At the same time, no one would want to marry their daughter into a family that is not reputable, no matter how wealthy they are.

During my mother’s time, courtship was not shunned, although it was not entirely encouraged. My mother met my father a couple of times. She still remembers my father rushing into the store where she was shopping for her wedding sari. They exchanged a few words under the watchful gaze of my grandmother. My father was too shy to come alone; he had dragged his younger brother along with him.

“He was the most handsome man I ever saw in my life, with thick dark hair,” my mother remembers. Looking at my father now with his near-bald head, the only proof that she is not lying is the photograph on her bedside table.

However the world progresses, I have learned that marrying their daughters off is one duty every Syrian Christian parent takes seriously.

With the passage of time, the mindset has changed considerably. My parents have given me a relatively free hand. I have studied to my heart’s content. I have traveled solo to different continents and done other un-Syrian-Christian-like things. But when it comes to the matter of my marriage, I still fall under the reins of the Syrian Christian community. “Are you serious?!” my friend from Atlanta, whom I met in grad school, asks. “Yes,” I say. “My parents will find the groom.”

However the world progresses, I have learned that marrying their daughters off is one duty every Syrian Christian parent takes seriously. No one, not even a “rebel” like me, can change how that is done. Like my grandparents, my parents will find a suitable boy for me. They will call up people, who will know people, who in turn will know someone else.

“Aren’t you curious as to how he is going to be?” I don’t find his incredulity surprising. He was born and brought up in the West. He is bound to find it unsettling. Even I found it unsettling at first. But the truth is, even without knowing the person, I do have a general idea as to how he will be. After all, he is Syrian Christian; I already know how he was brought up.

All my life I have been a go-getter. This sitting around waiting for a suitable boy is new to me. What if the person does not like traveling? What if he does not read classics? What if he is not the adventurous kind? There are times when I consider an arranged marriage impractical in modern society. But I am a Syrian Christian. I have been brought up to respect my family and my traditions.

“Pray to St. Raphael,” advises my aunt. “He is the patron of happy meetings.”

“Say three Hail Marys every night,” advises another.

That’s the thing with us Syrian Christians: we are strong believers.



About The Author

Marie Lisa Jose

Lisa spends all her vacation days traveling to different corners of the world, seeking out adventures and finding stories waiting to be told. When not on vacation she is either planning for one or working on her collection of short stories. She blogs here.

  • Priyanka kher

    Lisa this is very interesting. Coming from India, I know all about arranged marriages and more:) As for me, I dated my husband fro eight years before we took the plunge.

    Good luck to you!  

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      Thank Priyanka. I need all the luck I can get.

  • Rouillie Wilkerson

    I do not have the same upbringing as you, nor do I subscribe to any faith or religion, however arranged marriages serve a purpose and when done correctly, have proven to be longer lasting than marriages that we choose for ourselves. 

     I suspect this has more to do with people in our lives seeing things more objectively than we can, when our heads are caught up in romantic ideals.  In
    other words, when it comes to arranged marriages, I’m a believer. Thanks for
    this personal piece; it was an enjoyable if not educational read.

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      Thanks Rouillie.

      You are right about the objectivity part of it. I trust my parents to come up with better choices than ones I would normally make.

      • Katalina

        I think the “Western” cultural expectation of a marriage based on romance is unlikely – as is evidenced by the high divorce rates. As a divorcee myself, I wonder sometimes what the outcome would have been if my parents had thoughtfully and objectively chosen someone they thought would be a good match for me.

        • Carlo Alcos

          OR…one could also question the institution of marriage…

  • Colleenelep

    I agree with Rouillie, I work in a large Indian community and have discussed the “arranged vs. love marriage” topic many a time.  It seems that having such immense family support, both in having them select your partner and them helping a couple get through the difficult times results in strong unions.  A nice read!

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      Yes we do have a lot of family support. Probably that’s why I am not freaking out even as I type this.

  • Midhun
    • Marie Lisa Jose


      Your post was a nice read ! Thanks for sharing it.

  • LLA

    Nice One… Support you completely, voting with my personal experience….

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      Thanks LLA.

      I would love to hear about your experiences.  Maybe we can compare notes :)

  • Tony Pallivathukal

    Well written Lisa. 

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      Thanks Tony.

  • Candice Walsh

    Great read, sometimes wish I were a part of such traditions. Never really thought about it that way, but you’re right — our parents tend to have better judgment than we do. ;) 

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      When I was growing up I was sure they were trying to ruin my life. When I look back now I realize how wrong I was.

  • kickinbetty

    Before I got married, I would have been aghast at the idea of an arranged marriage. But after being married (happily) for 7 years, I do realize that those first feelings of love only go so far. Too many people, young and old, faith-filled and questioning, make the commitment of marriage to another person, based on that fluttering, fleeting feeling. The problem is that there is no commitment to the marriage itself, or family. My husband works many hours to provide for us, and it takes work to make time for romance. My husband is worth the work though, and I like the idea that my kids see us (my husband and me) treating each other well, respectfully, and lovingly, even though every minute is not filled with fireworks. Those fireworks definitely have a way of distorting one’s judgement, so maybe a loving family making a choice for you is not such a horrible thing.

  • Worthington

    A good marriage is a magical, elusive thing and it is no surprise since people are so diverse in their needs, tolerances, and capacity for giving.  One of my students (Pakistani) went along with her parents plans to choose her husband here in the USA.  They chose for her a worldly man who had more non Pakistani friends than Pakistani friends while she was the opposite.  On the bride’s side for the wedding there were only three guests outside the Pakistani community in our town…3 college professors, including myself.  There was courtship and romance but within a year they divorced.  She started graduate school in NYC and he did not want to move from LA to NYC. They couldn’t find a compromise.  The arrangement met the parents needs but did not take the two young people’s goals into consideration.
          Marriage does involve trust that both partners will respect and sometimes bend to each other.  I proposed to my husband after we had known each other for 6 months. He was leaving for Germany and I knew in my heart he would return married if I did not tell him I wished to marry him. We have been married 35 years. 

  • Mpartrid

    I think there is no magic to arranged marriage verses romantic marriage.  There is no recipe for a successful marriage.    It all depends on the skills of the cooks and their ingridents. 

    However a big part missing in the modern (western) romantic marriage is the exclusion of the families.  Arranged marriage for the most part is the marriage of 2 families.  One of the  focus is on the welfare of the families and their future and so the families have a great interest and investment in this union.  In such, they provide tremendous support in all areas.  When the marriage becomes a matter between 2 people, they lose the support of their communities.  It’s the flip side of the same coin.  When you kick everyone else outside your bedroom, you can’t expect them to rush to your aid either.

    We in the west cherish our individual freedoms and loath the meddling of the communities and families we came from.  We would rather shop for new commuities on our own terms than to allow the ones we benefitted from for years to intervene.  Until trouble comes and we wonder where is the community support.   Again, you cannot reap the benefits without subjecting yourself to the rules.  That is the inherent contract of a community or family.

    On the other hand, many arrange marriages resulted in utter disaster, even with greatesr care taken by the families.  Arranged marriages do not work without the shame of divorce.  When you know that you have no way out, you work a lot harder to try to make things work.   Many participants suffer greatly in silence for long periods of time with no relief in sight.   Sadly I know a lot of women who endured this their entire lives.

    So what is better?  It’s a fine and delicate balance.

  • Liz

    Very well written piece, and I’m glad that you embrace the idea.. I come from a similar family like yours but I would rather not get married than have an arranged marriage.. And I will argue that many times arranged marriages “work” because divorce is a taboo in our culture as well. 

    I can hardly imagine the idea of spending my life with someone I don’t know and I would never want to be bound to a place or a way of life by someone I didn’t care for to begin with… I value my freedom above everything else, even companionship. 

  • Janet Johnson

    The end is Nigh! Personally, I have no idea as to Notes on arranged marriages. Nor do you. Nor do I have an opinion on it. I’d just use plain & crystal-clear backbone, but sadly, although it is commonly available to all, many would not recognise it unless it was packaged up & sold in £1 shops or Primark or came with tomato ketchup on top.

  • Sachith Thomas

    Lisa .. Beautiful. We do have a wonderful tradition. 
    Have blessed days ahead .. 

    A true Syrian Christian :)

  • Sachith Thomas

    Beautiful .. We do have a wonderful tradition .. 

    Have blessed days ahead

    A true Syrian Catholic :)

  • Ashish Mathew

    Don’s do it Lisa molle. You’re no longer a Syrian Christian. You are yourself. You might be from their (and my) small religious community, but they don’t know everything. Syrian Christian families are cool but they should break out of this mindset, and so should you.

  • Australia Visa

     This is really the reality. Majority having arranged marriages are on Muslim Countries and this is part of their culture since before. I have this friend before and his marriage was arranged since he was in High School. He was so disappointed about that because he really don’t love that woman but he was forced to married that woman. That’s the reality it bites.

  • Diwia Santosh Thomas

    its so beautifuly written. you’ve captured the essence of the culture. kudos

    • Marie Lisa Jose

      Thanks Diwia :)

  • Sharmilla Abdullah

    This is an awesome piece :)

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