Sex is not something that’s openly talked about in our culture. Sex outside of marriage is usually frowned upon for religious and cultural reasons. My grandma, now 84, was promised to a man at the age of 11 and married at 12. In the 1940’s in the small northern villages of Iraq, it was very common for a “woman” to get married at such a young age. Although not Arab, Chaldeans were immersed in Arabic culture, and therefore adopted many cultural traditions from one another.
We were having a barbeque in our yard and my Grandmother was visiting. I’m known amongst my cousins for always asking stories about the old country and how things were back then, not only in a different time, but in a completely different country, which back then, seemed like another world. My grandmother was eating sweet watermelon, sun illuminating her still dense cheek bones and a bit of watermelon juice dripping down her forearm, forming a small puddle at the pit of her elbow. My grandmas hair, still pitch black and obviously died, was slightly in her eye and she had no reservations fixing her hair with barbeque sauce stained hands.
I made small talk with my Grandma and purposely shifted the conversation to her wedding day, at this point there was no men around, just my Mother and I. She looked surprised when I asked and she understood what my question was really about. I wasn’t asking about her wedding day, I was asking about her experience of consummating her marriage. She gasped, looked embarrassed and scolded me for asking such a private and “aeb” (which translate to “shame or shameful”) question. Although taken aback, deep down, I knew that she wanted to talk about it. I knew that in 75 years, no one could have dared ask her this question, not in my generation or hers. “I didn’t know what marriage was and what it really meant. All I saw was what happened before people got married. The girl got nice dresses and the grooms’ family would bring over cattle and sheep, fruits and nuts and sometimes gold to the brides house. I had just got my period a few months before, it all happened so fast. One day I was playing rocks with the other village girls and the next day I was a bride. I was one of the last child brides. Around this same time, our Patriarch had gone to Rome and had a meeting with the Pope and other Bishops. The Bishops bring up different issues that are rising in their communities, our Patriarch brought up that we have a heavy Islamic and Arabic culture around us and many of our young girls are being married off at 12 and 13 years old. The Patriarch that year, returned with an order, that the Church is no longer to marry any Chaldean girl under the age of 17. But I was already engaged and just a few days away from marriage.” She took a few sips of tea, and then continued. “My Mom did my hair and back then there was no makeup. I wore gold jewelry and had a beautiful dress on. The ceremony was nice but I was nervous because I knew everyone was looking at me. The food and party afterwards was nice, all of our family and friends, laughing, dancing, drinking and eating. Afterwards, I was expecting still to return home with my Mom and Dad, until my Mom told me that now I will go home with my new husband. I wasn’t afraid and didn’t think anything of it because I knew him from the village and knew he was a nice good man and had been family friends of ours. But what I didn’t know what was expected of me, now that I was a wife. He sat me down and in the most respectful, caring and gentle way he explained now that as husband and wife, we would consummate our marriage. So I ran.” She paused. “Ran where?” I asked. “I ran all the way back to my parents’ house, it was a small village so it was only a few streets over, but I ran all the way, from door to door, crying. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my parents, because I thought, surely if they knew what my now husband expected of me, they would never allow it and they would take me back right away.” “So what happened?” I asked. “Well, my Mom hugged and kissed me and slept next to me all night. And then, the next morning, she woke me up, got me dressed and ready, braided my hair and said ‘I will take you to your husband’s house, he is your family now.’ And she walked me back and I cried the whole way there.” I could see in her eyes that she was sad and almost had a feeling of regret. She continued, “31 years and 11 kids later, he passed away. He was a true gift from God and I couldn’t have asked for a better father and husband. I always feel sorry for our wedding night and I always feel sad when I think about it how made him feel when I ran away.”