Tradition Guides Their Muslim Matrimony

Posted: July 23, 2000

For Farheena Ahmed and Zeshaan Rasheed, dating was always out of the question.

The custom in their Muslim culture is to seek a mate, not a date, and the introduction of potential partners is commonly done by the parents.

In this case, Farheena, 24, and Zeshaan, 25, met on their own in 1998 when both were working in a lab at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

At the time, she was a master's degree candidate at Johns Hopkins (she has since graduated, and is starting law school in the fall). He was in a combined M.D./Ph.D program at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

They were surprised to discover they had both graduated from Rutgers as undergraduates the same year, but had never met each other on campus.

After sharing a few casual lunches with Farheena in the lab, Zeshaan brought up the subject of marriage in February 1999. She confirmed she was interested and that was basically it. They introduced their parents in March and in July held a Nikkah ceremony at which Imam Hamad Chebli blessed their union.

Technically, they could have been considered married at that point. But they treated the Nikkah as an official engagement ceremony and continued to live separately while planning their wedding.

"It's not looked on well for a Muslim guy and girl to hang out together if they are not married," said Farheena, who describes herself as equal parts traditional and Western.

The Nikkah was relatively small, by the Indian community's standards. Only 200 people attended. More than twice that number attended the couple's June 9 wedding ceremony at the South Brunswick Manor. The same imam, from the Islamic Center of Central Jersey, officiated.

The wedding festivities lasted four nights.

One evening, the groom's family travels to the bride's family home bearing gifts of clothes and jewels. Then the bride's family returns the favor. They all gather again for the Mehndi, when the bride's hands and feet are painted with henna. It is applied like cake icing through a slim opening in a plastic pouch. The henna appears olive green at first, and dries to a dark red that lasts a week or more.

The wedding ceremony itself is hosted by the bride's family, and the following night there is another reception hosted by the groom's family.

Throughout, the guests wore traditional costumes elaborate enough for a Hollywood epic.

The groom wore a shirvani, a white tunic and turban, to the wedding.

His arrival at the hall was initially blocked by a bevy of adolescent cousins from the bride's family charged with the task of emptying his wallet. After Zeshaan had forked over handfuls of tens and twenties, he and his family (known collectively as the Barath) walked through a line of the bride's female cousins, who showered them with rose petals.

The bride, called the Dhulan, entered on the arm of her 12-year-old brother, Adil, who also read a portion from the Koran in Arabic.

Farheena was dressed in red with gold brocade - a wedding costume Zeshaan's mother bought for her in Pakistan.

The couple sat on white thrones etched in gold while their parents wrapped them in garlands of white chrysanthemums and red roses and fed them sweets.

Though they held hands and hugged after exchanging rings, the couple did not kiss publicly.

Zeshaan's family settled in South Jersey when the Islamic Center there was still in its infancy. Now the center, in Palmyra, has a full school program. Zeshaan attended Moorestown Friends School and Bishop Eustace Prep. Still, he is fluent in Urdu, and, he says, he never felt torn between Western ways and his religious and cultural practices.

Farheena, whose family is from India, and Zeshaan, whose roots are in Pakistan, are especially sensitive to the small differences in their cultures.

But the real divide, Farheena said, is that she's from Central Jersey and he's from South Jersey.

"So I root for all the New York teams," she said. "And he roots for the Philly teams."

To have your wedding or commitment ceremony featured in Love Story, contact Dianna Marder 215-854-5702 or dmarder@phillynews.com

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