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April 12, 2012

Love and Race

interracial couple

DATING FOR 7 MONTHS Jonathan Sam and Shevy Katan

Photo Credit: Chris Buck

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Afghan-American actress Azita Ghanizada and her parents learn about love in the U.S. AS TOLD TO CARITA RIZZO

In Afghan culture, you don't date — you marry. Even talking to boys before marriage brings great shame to your family.

My parents learned that the hard way. They met in Kabul when my dad was a 25-year-old playing in a Beatles cover band and my mom was the 13-year-old daughter of a well-off, prominent family. Their age difference may sound extreme, but it's not in Afghanistan, where younger girls are often married off to much older men. After school, my mom would sneak over to music venues where my dad played and hang out with him after the show. When their parents discovered their fledgling romance, they were forced to marry.

I'm not sure if they would have married if they'd had a choice.

In 1979, when I was toddler, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and my whole family fled to Vienna, Virginia. Far from home, my parents were determined to raise my two sisters and me according to Afghan traditions. We prayed five times a day and attended mosque and Farsi school, and my sisters and I weren't allowed to associate with boys. My parents' plan was for us to someday marry Afghan men of their choosing. They didn't want us to shame our family the way they had shamed theirs.

Even at an early age, I rebelled against my strict upbringing. When I was 9, I built myself a "make-out fort" in our backyard from wood, filled it with candy, and invited my blond, blue-eyed neighbor over to kiss. One day my mom caught us together and my dad kicked down the fort, but it was too late. I had gotten a taste of something forbidden, and I knew that my parents' lifestyle wasn't for me. I didn't want kabobs, Afghan music, and rules that required girls to be carefully monitored. I wanted mac and cheese, country music, and independence.—By my early teens, everyone in the local Afghan community — neighbors, my parents and their friends — already considered me too Western to be a proper wife. It was true. I loved American fashion and wore Guess jeans, sprayed my hair with Sun-In (turning it orange), and slathered my body with ba—By oil before sunbathing. I also threw myself into after-school activities. My parents forbade me from joining theater groups (in case there was a kissing scene), but they let me join the cheerleading squad, and I became class secretary. They didn't know that after school, I led a secret life with my girlfriends. We'd raid their parents' liquor cabinets for Johnnie Walker scotch and hang out in the McDonald's parking lot, drinking and flirting with older boys.

But I wasn't the only one in my family who had begun breaking away from our Afghan traditions. My dad started wearing baseball caps and polo shirts, watching football on Sundays, eating at Pizza Hut, and hitting the gym. He spent more time at dinners with his gym buddies and less time with our family. Meanwhile, my mom preferred to spend her weekends with my grandparents, cooking and talking.

My parents began fighting over their divergent lifestyles until it got so bad that my dad would come home from work, walk to his room in silence, and close the door. The tension carried on for years until they realized they had a choice. This wasn't Afghanistan. They could separate.

Their decision outraged our local Afghan community. I remember a group of about 30 people descending on our house to convince my parents to stay together. I locked the door, but they banged on it, shouting, "No one will marry your daughters with such shame!"

Pressure from the community kept my parents together for six more years, but eventually my mother decided to end her failing marriage. I was shocked at her bold move — traditional Afghan couples just don't divorce, much less at the wish of the wife. I thought she would sooner die in a loveless marriage than break with tradition, an act punishable —By disownment, exile — and in our homeland, even death.

After my parents' divorce, the first in our family, we entered a scary, messy new world. My father eventually started dating a blonde American doctor who walked around barefoot in her big house and laid her legs across my dad's lap right in front of me. It was odd to witness. I recall thinking that if this were Afghanistan, she would have been beaten with a stick.

But my father was finally laughing and being playful, things I didn't know he was capable of. Seeing him like that made me happy. He was living for himself — not for his culture — just what I had always wanted for my own life.

My mother moved on, too, but for her, marrying another Afghan man was the only righteous path. A few years after the divorce from my father, she booked a two-month trip to Pakistan to visit family. While there, she agreed to an arranged marriage with an Afghan engineer. She married him right away and moved back to Virginia with her new husband. When my mom called to share her news, I was shocked. But I take comfort in the fact that her marriage will remain intact due to her husband's strong beliefs in his religion and culture.

My parents' breakup, though painful, has benefits for me. While they are exploring their new romantic lives, they spend far less time trying to plot mine. The lesson they are learning is clear: Loving someone from the same race or religion doesn't guarantee happiness. It's no longer as important to them that I marry a "good Afghan man." My dad's advice now is simply: "Marriage will come when the time is right." I did introduce him to one American boyfriend I was serious about. He wasn't Afghan, but my dad knew I was in love, so he made an effort to bond with my boyfriend over their shared love of watching football at TGI Friday's. In the end, my dad admitted he was a good guy — maybe knowing all along that I was capable of making a smart decision. I'd be lying, though, if I said that my parents don't hold on to a small string of hope that I'll have a change of heart and end up with a traditional Afghan husband. They can't help it. But while I doubt that's going to happen, I'll break that to them later.

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