Words and illustration by Zahra Marwan
I’m from a traditional, conservative Kuwaiti family. On both sides of the family. My dad was always in his dishdasha, my mum in her abaya.Though a high school drop out, my dad insisted that I become educated, and that I stand on my own two feet, not dependent on anyone. And when I brought home someone I thought I should marry, he asked, “why would you want to get married?!” even though he’s spiritually devout.
Long story short, I left Kuwait with my parents when I was a child. But they didn’t forget to pack our heritage and traditions. I grew up in New Mexico, USA and when I was 17, they moved back to Kuwait. I was so young, and suddenly felt nothing anchoring me down anywhere. Through the University of New Mexico, I received a scholarship to study in Paris, France where I remained for three years.
Paris felt like a city that was made to give you access to the arts. From the cinemas, to the museum exhibits, to the public libraries, even to the poster ads, it was hard to not feel inspired. That said, I was immersed more in art than in the French language and culture. In 2011, I went to a film festival with my Franco-American friend Alex, seven hours away from Paris. In between films, Alex stepped out to smoke a cigarette, and I meandered the halls.
With shoes too big and in a crowd, I stepped on someone’s feet. He kept walking and I accidentally did it two more times. With frustration, he let my clumsiness pass before him, and we were stuck in another crowd. He kept saying things in French while we waited for people to move. I was so nervous that he might be angry, and with poor understanding of the language, I pretended to laugh off whatever it was he saying. The crowd eventually broke and we went our separate ways. A few days passed and I saw him again in a place ironically called the “Bon Lieu”, or the “Good Spot.” He sat next to me and asked:
“No, my name is Zahra.”
“I’m from Kuwait.”
“Ah, you must be rich.”
“No, I live in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.”
And from there, he asked this “charmante demoiselle” out. Although we met in a city hours away from Paris, it turned out we lived in the same neighborhood.
With all of my complexities and abstraction of being a young woman from the Gulf with a liberal New Mexican education in France, he stuck by my side, and traveled to meet my parents. Between two families from societies with strongly set traditions and values, three embassies, a mountain of cultural friction and a waltz with bureaucracy, I married a lighthearted person who supports all of my endeavors, and who has seen me through pitfalls of family tragedy and pain.
Florian left his super cool job in the arts in Paris to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico with me. Since then, he has accompanied me twice to Kuwait to see and sit with my aunts, uncles and family friends during the weekly ziyara (family visit). He’s been to the sea and to the sambosa and aush guy, where he’s the only tall, blond man in my primarily Bedouin neighborhood. Only in Kuwait do I realise how we look nothing alike, and how radical and bizarre it is that we’re together and married.
My family members still make remarks that I missed my chance of integrating and living a comfortable Kuwaiti life. During a casual afternoon drive with just the two of us, and many other prying and uncomfortable questions, my uncle asked me, “Why did you a marry a Frenchman?”
This question flipped me upside down. I didn’t have an answer. Are people commonly asked why they married a person after five years of marriage? I wondered and ruminated, and reflected on what my life could have been like had I fallen in love or married traditionally in Kuwait. But then Florian called, as he always does, and before making me laugh he asked, “ça va, Zahra?” and I remembered why.
I never intended for the French language to remain a part of my life, but that’s how each morning starts.
Life with Florian is so sweet.
Zahra is an artist and writer who grew up in two deserts that vary drastically and have many similarities in culture. One close to the sea in Kuwait, the other close to the mountains in New Mexico. She studied the visual arts in France and resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she works in her studio at the Harwood Art Center, and where she incorporates Kuwaiti tendencies into her daily life. To view her art click here.