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Reader, I married a Muslim

When Lynda Tavakoli, who lives near Lisburn, first met her future husband she was instantly struck by how handsome he was – and that he was from a different faith. In a frank and tender account, she reflects on 30 years of marriage, and the lessons we could all learn

I don't often listen to the news these days – it's mostly depressing and I prefer to fill my life now with as much light as I can but you can't exist with blinkers shadowing your eyes either.

So when my attention was drawn to local recent events concerning Muslims and their place in our society I was transported back to 1998 when I was asked to write a piece about my mixed marriage for this newspaper.

My husband, you see, is Persian – not actually an alien being, although one wonders if that is not how many non-Christians are presently perceived in this small country of ours.

There are few changes that I would make to the words I penned 16 years ago but of course our personal lives have seen many of their own changes since then.

Our children, both of whom experienced the normal angst of their teenage years, have grown up and now enjoy independent lives away from home.

Our parents aged and became frailer and more dependent upon others (two of them have since died), and I have faced the many challenges that cancer presents. Plus, there has been the on-going worry of financial stability and job security. So, we've not been much different than a lot of other people really and in many ways we've been luckier than most.

We live near Lisburn, where I am a special needs teacher in a local primary school. My husband is a chartered engineer.

When I look back on my marriage which has managed to survive the past 30 years, I know that my husband has had to make many more compromises than me.

Most of these he has accepted graciously and without complaint and if I'm completely honest this has been in no small part due to neither of us having experienced any form of racial discrimination here.

Perhaps we've been lucky. Perhaps we have simply chosen to gravitate towards people who are like-minded and non-judgmental.

But all the same, I cannot remember one incident of racial abuse of any significance – and that goes for both Northern Ireland and Iran alike.

Compromise, though, was the catalyst for longevity in our relationship and when I look back at my younger self I am proud to have had an upbringing which allowed me both freedom of thought and the opportunity to experience diversity without judgment.

Consequently, when I initially met my husband I was aware of three things:

Number one – that he was very good looking;

Number two – that he was Iranian, and;

Number three – that he was a Muslim.

In that order.

At first I spoke to him in the odd way that we do with foreigners, very loudly and slowly as though they are complete idiots. That was until I realised he was neither hard of hearing nor unintelligent and, in fact, his English was better than my own.

Even now I would bow to his superior understanding of both grammar and punctuation in anything I write.

In those early stages of our relationship the knowledge that we were worlds apart in all the fundamental areas of our lives mattered little. Living in a neutral country helped (we met in America) and coming from Northern Ireland and Iran respectively was more of a source of amusement than anything else.

As time passed, however, there became the need to look more seriously at each other's backgrounds.

Indeed, there were a great many more questions to be answered than either of us had anticipated. If there was to be any hope of a future for us then it was necessary to re-educate ourselves.

What I knew about Iran, its people, its language and its culture, was very limited indeed.

My opinions thus far were based on what I had witnessed on a television screen and basically that was that someone called Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to Iran in the late 1970s after some kind of revolution.

Conversely, my husband's view of Northern Ireland was that you couldn't walk down the streets of Belfast without bullets whizzing around your ears.

Our learning period was not without its moments of frustration. For my part, I tried desperately to learn the Persian language (Farsi). In the end my efforts at writing it were so pathetic that I gave up, but I persevered with the spoken word and am thankful now that I did, albeit in a pigeon-Farsi sort of way.

Now, of course, we have visited family in Tehran many times and had I not had some sort of grounding in the language communication would have been rather difficult between my non-English speaking in-laws and me.

And if I was welcomed warmly in Iran then the same was true of my husband's acceptance here, the irony being that it seemed easier for some people to accept a Muslim over someone from the 'other side' (although my parents would have accepted him regardless of religion just as long as he was kind).

The only problem I ever had with food in our house was the fact that my daughter, Farah, was vegetarian and my son, Ben, was a carnivore. Try making meals around that! I tried, very early on in my marriage, to attempt to cook reasonable Persian dishes and during our visits to Iran, Sam's mother (Mama bozorg/big mama!) helped to teach me. I'm still pretty hopeless, it has to be said.

On a more serious note, regarding the tradition of women covering their heads (as is the case in Iran) I have only found it irritating while out for a meal in a Tehran restaurant. Especially during the hotter months of the year it just isn't comfortable to keep your head covered while eating and my impulse was always to free myself of the rosari (scarf).

Aside from that I have never had a problem with that particular issue or indeed certain other issues because in the end it comes down to having respect.

I don't have to agree with certain beliefs in either my own religion or my husband's but I can still respect them. And sometimes it's hard to see much respect in a lot of religions these days.

The cultural side of things could have been more of a problem for our marriage. I was realistic enough to know that culturally the gap between us was enormous so I set to work finding out as much as I possibly could about Iran.

What I discovered about Iran was that its people were not the fanatics I had expected but a modest, respectful, hard-working people very much like those in my own homeland.

Funnily enough, the difference between my husband and I which may have seemed to be the most difficult to overcome, was actually the easiest – religion.

One of us Christian, the other Muslim. I bought my husband a Bible and he bought me a Koran.

I was absolutely determined to deride it before I started to read but on progressing through this alien book I realised that the similarities were remarkable.

Certainly, some of the names had been changed and the stories took on different slants but to me there was nothing in what I read that was threatening unless I wanted it to be. Here were two books which basically told you that you ought to be kind to each other.

As one might expect within any mixed marriage there was the dilemma during their formative years as to which particular religion our children were to be brought up in.

Eventually, though, my husband and I decided on a compromise in that as much as we could, the children would learn about both Muslim and Christian values alike. If they had wanted to attend church or mosque then we happily complied. If they showed a desire to learn about Persian or Northern Ireland history then we supplied them with as much unbiased information as possible.

The fact that they both attended a Quaker Secondary school gave weight to our belief that an ethos of tolerance and open-mindedness would give them a decent grounding in being a good person. But ultimately we left it up to them to hopefully choose a religion or culture they were comfortable with and that, I believe (although I wouldn't like to put words into their mouths), is probably proudly Persian/Irish (Irish/Persian).

Which brings me back to the beginning. Light.

It seems to me that through the almost interminable dark tunnel of the Troubles there has, over recent years, been something resembling brightness at its close.

We are on our way but have not yet arrived.

In the end fundamentally most of us wish for the same things: a decent place to live, security in our job, enough money to feed and look after our children ...

You don't have to be a political animal to want any of these – you just need to be a half-decent human being.

Protestant, Catholic. Muslim, Hindu. Agnostic, Atheist.

What does it matter as long as we make an effort to have a love and respect for one another?

I can only speak for my own experiences which have taught me that where there is a willingness to make things work then they can work, and I have learned that a lot of bigotry and fear is born out of ignorance in its proper sense.

You cannot condemn someone else's religion or culture if you only know about your own but sadly I suspect that there are folk who may never change their ideology, it having been indoctrinated into them for so long.

So maybe it's time we armed ourselves, not with weapons, harsh words or political rhetoric, but with knowledge.

It might yet surprise us all how close to each other we really are.


Love across the divide ...

Other non-Muslims who have married followers of Islam:

  • In one of the society weddings of 1995 the then Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the late financier Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, wed cricketer Imran Khan. Jemima, whose mother Lady Annabel is a descendant of the Londonderry family and spent much of her childhood at Mount Stewart, said that she was technically Anglican but “was made familiar with Jewish |traditions”. Her paternal grandfather was German Jewish. Jemima and Imran wed in a traditional Islamic ceremony in Paris followed by a civil ceremony at Richmond Register Office. A few months before her wedding, she converted to Islam. The couple settled in Lahore, Pakistan, where Jemima learned to speak Urdu and wore traditional Pakistani clothes. In June 2004, it was announced that the Khans, who have two sons, had divorced, ending the nine-year marriage because it was “difficult for Jemima to adapt to life in Pakistan”.
  •  Laila Rouass, best known as serial schemer Amber Gates in Footballers’ Wives and for a turn in TV’s Strictly Come Dancing, was brought up a Muslim, though no longer follows itShe says: “I respect the religion I was born into, but I don't practise it. However, I do believe in thanking God for my happy life.” Laila, who has a seven-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, became engaged to professional snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan in February 2013. The couple first began dating in early 2012.
  • Shortly after singer Janet Jackson wed billionaire Wissam Al Mana in 2013, it was reported that she had converted to Islam. Like her famous brothers and sisters, Janet was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Janet’s third husband, Al Mana, a Qatar native, is involved in his family’s controlled Middle-East-based Al Mana Retail Group. Her brother Jermaine converted to Islam in 1989 after a trip to Bahrain.

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