This week my marriage turns 30. We were young when we met, and engaged within a year. We were "set up" by very dear friends with whom we gratefully still remain close!
In the Middle East, marriage is a leitmotif in almost every conversation with adolescent girls, and an obsession with family members and their friends. When I was 16, I went to visit my grandparents in Paris where they lived. An elderly friend of my grandmother’s took me aside and asked me outright “Tanti, how many suitors have asked for your hand in marriage?” I was a teen with pimples and the last thing on my mind was marriage.
Fast forward a few decades to when I found my suitor; our marriage really took shape when we moved to New York. We were two people left to our own devices. We dictated our happiness. New York gave us the happiest years of our lives. The first time I visited New York in the mid 1980s, I had a premonition that I would one day make it my home.
"Where else can you see Moroccan-born photographer Lalla Essaydi, Algerian Kabyle singer Souad Massi and Rachid Taha perform? New York City where we fed our soul and spirit." Sara Khalifa shares the secrets of a happy marriage.
We made the most out of living in the city that never sleeps. The first year we moved here we took full advantage of what New York has to offer especially culturally. Every weekend, we would visit museums and galleries. It was in New York that we discovered the Moroccan-born photographer Lalla Essaydi. She is known for staging photos that disrupt the fetishistic Orientalist stereotypes of harem women and odalisque. She often inscribes her subjects‘ bodies and the spaces they occupy with calligraphy written in henna.
We attended lectures, concerts even when there was standing room only, and of course the theater, which filled our lives. At one point we went three nights a week, and we went everywhere: Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway and Brooklyn. We saw plays by Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Tony Kushner and my all-time favorite ,the great Tennessee Williams.
We were lucky to watch the angelic Algerian Kabyle singer Souad Massi perform at Carnegie Hall, singing a blend of Portuguese fado that incorporated oriental musical influences and instruments such as the oud. She played acoustic guitar, and sang a more personal repertoire in both Maghrebin Arabic and French in contrast to her more political songs. I will never forget seeing the late Rachid Taha perform at the Poisson Rouge, a cabaret-like music venue downtown where at one point, he dove into the audience as if he were diving into a pool and was pulled back on stage by some of his adoring fans. A close family friend had a box at the Met and we enjoyed many operas there. We always dined in style at the Grand Tier during intermission, an eclectic, diverse group.
New friendships slowly developed and old ones were rekindled. Like most New Yorkers, we ate out a lot. We discovered restaurants of every ethnicity in the five boroughs. We fed soul and spirit. Life was beautiful.
When I first arrived, I volunteered as a patient advocate at a head and neck cancer center in a major New York hospital, and learned a lot about medicine albeit in a peripheral role. I worked very hard for six years in that position and then felt burnt out by dealing with death and disease. I went back to my artistic roots and joined an art auction house which was quite a different adventure. I got to travel to many destinations and became quite successful in my chosen field.
Every few months I would travel to see my family in Lebanon, and for work. This gave me great pleasure as I watched my three nephews grow up. They thrived in the same country that I was brought up but which I had to flee when the Civil War began. I preferred spending time with them, choosing my moments in their company. I woke up with them every morning and watched them from the balcony as they boarded the bus to school all the while complaining how much they hated going. The youngest one was the one who complained the most.
In the Middle East, marriage is a leitmotif in almost every conversation with adolescent girls. An elderly friend of my grandmother’s took me, a teen with pimples, aside and asked me outright “Tanti, how many suitors have asked for your hand in marriage?”
Then three years ago, Stewie our adorable Pomeranian came into our lives. Our routine quickly changed. We began to entertain more at home. We hosted kitchen dinners and naturally, I filled the flat with flowers. Anyone who knows me, especially from my Instagram account, knows the importance of flowers in my life. This was a tradition that my husband started when we first arrived in New York. He would send me a bouquet of the most well researched arrangements every Friday.
He also thrived not only professionally, but personally as well. He took up cooking at the French Culinary Institute, kickboxing, Brazilian jiujitsu and kendo. He also brushed up on his Mandarin which he started learning at college. He had a teacher who would come twice a week, and they would read and discuss modern Chinese literature in the original.
We traveled throughout the United States and got to see this beautiful country from east to west. We went to Hawaii which was unforgettable, and visited Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. We drove along the Pacific highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. America made us happy. It allowed us to blossom, to grow together.
Thirty years is a long time. It had its ups as well as its downs. There were always friends who held my hand along the way. There was also Hussein who let me shine in his light.
Things have now changed once again . In the last few months of lockdown, I have been helping a friend design masks for a charity. I’m also working on a line of tee-shirts and cushions for another charity that is close to my heart. Now is the time to give back with so many in need.
Today’s article is one of gratitude. Like the rest of the world, we are valiantly riding out a storm that ambushed us. We are indebted to so many who make our lives possible. Parents who care, a mother-in-law who sends delicious home cooking, and friends who comfort us.
Even though the outside world is contaminated and the news from Lebanon is unprecedented in its ferocity, barbarity and hopelessness, I have chosen to cocoon myself for one day – the 14th of July – and appreciate the life which I adoringly created for Hubsi, myself and Stewie in the Greatest City on Earth.
I leave you with the words of the French writer Andre Maurois: “A happy marriage is a long conversation which always seems too short”.