Badruddin Khan, the pseudonym of a Pakistani man who emigrated to North America, tells his story in Sex Longing and Not Belonging (Oakland, Cal.: Floating Lotus, 1997). In a noteworthy passage (pp. 156-60), he describes the high diplomacy involved when he, 31-years old and living in Toronto, returns to Pakistan to get married. After a number of "somewhat surreal" meetings, he and his family met the family of Nusrat, a 19-year-old girl attending medical school in Karachi.
Our first meeting was at Nusrat's family's house in a remote section in the city of Nazimabad, with perhaps a dozen people present. It was a large room with mismatched furniture that had obviously been uncovered for the event. The curtains were musty and threadbare. The smell and formal layout of the room suggested that it was little used, which marked this meeting as a special occasion. Ornate lamps stood mismatched on faux marble-topped tables, and freshly dressed servants darted about, serving tea and snacks. Everything had to be just right. . . . This was clearly a family occasion, a social meeting, with deeply personal undertones. It was a serious affair, masquerading as a tea party.
The men were ushered to one section of the room, the women to another. I sat in an armchair, in a position of honor. I had already been screened through the grapevine and found to be adequate. Now the question was one of chemistry. Not just the chemistry between me and the woman who would share my bed, but the chemistry between the families. What was on the table was life-long friendship. These men would call me "brother" and be forever in my sphere. These women would show their faces forevermore at important events that called for social contact and would visit me at will. This was a diplomatic meeting, a high-level conference. Briefing books had been studied, advisors consulted, and scenarios for success and failure discussed. We knew their family background for two generations, as they did ours. Friends and acquaintances, however distant, were referenced to helpfully fix coordinates and establish credentials.
This was women's work. I could hear the discussion from a distance. They asked questions that were direct and often personal. This was no time for delicacy, since a serious step was about to be taken. This was a heavily choreographed investigation: every word, every pause, every delicate hesitation conveyed an opinion, position, and circumstance. After all, social life is the mainstay of life in Pakistan, and such skillful negotiation and navigation is an essential part of this life. Within the hour, the women had sized up whether they had friends in common, and what opinions they held of people known through reference. This vetting process helps create esteem and affection between our two families regardless of whether I marry Nusrat. This was constructive activity, busy bees tending to the social hive, building each tear with delicacy and tact. One unwarranted word could sour the situation at this stage.
The men, meanwhile, were casually discussing manly things. I was asked about life in Canada, my work, and the political situation in Pakistan. We spoke of the weather and the demands of travel. One of her brothers had a friend in Vancouver: Did I know him? Another mentioned a friend at New York University: Had I run into him? Did I participate in the Pakistani social organizations in Toronto? Did I cook for myself or eat out? Work was hard, they knew, but everyone has to make time for leisure. How did I spend my free time? All casual questions that new acquaintances might ask. But I knew without a doubt that after we left, if there was a continued mutual interest, phone calls would be made, references in Canada and the U.S. would be checked, and any blemish in my background would be cause for rejection. If the matter was to proceed further, an informal task force would be assembled from within the family network in deadly earnest. The men at the helm would probe, investigate, verify, validate, and flush out the slightest hint of scandal or impropriety in my background. . . .
While we were talking, I heard Nusrat's mother excuse herself. She returned a few moments later, daughter in hand. Nusrat was introduced to my sisters and mother. This was a good sign. It showed we had passed the first cut. This was clearly a modern and enlightened family, since it was rare for a girl to display herself before a suitor. I heard my mother and sister greet her, and I turned to look. She sat down with a glance in my direction, her side to me, so that I could see her profile and see the movement of her head and body as she spoke. This was my moment to assess whether she was adequately attractive. The talk had turned casual, the business agenda for this meeting was over. After another half hour of discussion during which my sisters chatted with Nusrat, we departed.
"So, what did you think of her?" my sister asked.
"Looks quite good," I said, clearing the way for further overtures.
I would meet Nusrat again, twice more, and speak directly with her just once. At our second meeting, her brother informed me that "a good friend" of his was in Toronto and I must look him up when I returned. He had clearly been busy between our meetings. My conversation with Nusrat at our third meeting was brief. . . . I asked her how she liked the weather, and told her that I was visiting from Toronto. After a few moments, her mother came over and protectively led her away, like a dainty flower in risk of withering from too much exposure. We never met in private before we were married.