'This is not a political story - it's a romance'
Former WUJS chair Hadar Harris and Moroccan-born Rahim Sabir, both human rights lawyers, stood joyfully beneath the huppa last month in Washington.
But for the couple, who married last month in a nature sanctuary in Maryland, theirs is anything but a tale of star-crossed lovers.
"It's easy to write this off as a Jewish radical leftist human rights lawyer who went off to marry a Moroccan Muslim, but this is not a political story - it's a romance," Harris, 40, said from her office in Washington D.C, where she is the executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University. "We don't see our relationship as a statement. But we understand that other people may look at it that way or project some political agenda."
For the rest of the world, the pairing has piqued interests. Harris submitted a wedding announcement to The New York Times' vows section and their union was featured with a nearly 1,000-word feature, complete with photos from the celebration. One reader tracked them down and in an e-mail message, called their relationship a "shimmering bit of news in an otherwise conflicted world."
Harris and Sabir, 43, first met four years ago in Oujda, Morocco, where he was coordinating a series of round-table discussions on pending reforms to the country's penal procedure code. Harris was a guest speaker. They spent several days together and though their professional connection turned personal toward the end of their trip, Harris never seriously considered a relationship with "a Moroccan Muslim guy."
"He was really nice, but it was more like, nice to meet you, we'll stay in touch, see you later, bye," she recalls with a laugh. "I didn't even consider it. He was living in Morocco, I was living in D.C. - and there was no future."
What followed, however, was a serious courtship, with long-distance phone calls, a constant barrage of e-mails and weekend getaways in various European capitals. At the time, Sabir was living in Casablanca, while Harris was working temporarily in Armenia - and in the months and years that followed the couple estimates they have accumulated at least 220,000 air miles in pursuit of their relationship.
Bonding and breaking up
"When I started calling her, I realized that this is the person I want to spend my life with," Sabir recalled. "It was definitely frustrating at the beginning because she was not as sure, but we laugh about it now."
After a few very intense months, the two met in London. They had bonded over a shared passion for social justice and human rights, both said, but Harris was determined to end the relationship because of their religious differences. "It was just too much of a challenge to my vision of having a Jewish home," she explained. "When we broke up, it was very sad. He walked me to the train station, like in a movie."
But Sabir, who describes himself as "culturally Muslim," called three days later. He claimed that he needed her help with a legal problem. They got back together.
Their relationship afterward had its bumps, but their short London break-up forced the couple to confront the religious and cultural divide they would ultimately need to bridge. Still, they separated again.
"For me, the fact that she was Jewish and Israeli was never an issue, but I knew it would take some time to convince Hadar," Sabir said. "I got to know her as a person and everything that happened didn't matter."
Sabir served as one of the UN's first human rights observers in Darfur. When he returned from the Sudan, he sent an e-mail message to Harris. "I am still in love with you," it read. "Please don't be mad."
Harris, who served for three years as director of program and resource development for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and moved back to the U.S. in 1999, was not mad. They got back together.
"I did the whole JDate thing and I was involved with a variety of American Jewish and Israeli men, but it never went anywhere," she said. "But in Rahim, I found someone with whom I shared such important values. Our passion for the work we do infiltrates all aspects of our life."
Their wedding included a traditional Jewish ceremony, with a huppa made of silk the couple bought together in a Moroccan bazaar and a ketubah [wedding contract] that included translations in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Everything in reverse
The couple also read a poem in Arabic and English by Ibn Arabi, a Muslim Sufi scholar born in the 12th century. "In the days before today, I used to deny my friend/ if my faith to his faith is not near," they recited, "But my heart today can take many forms/ A meadow for gazelles,/ A cloister for monks,/ A sacred ground for the idols,/ Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,/ Tablets of the Torah,/ Scrolls of the Qur'an/ My creed is Love/ Wherever its caravan turns along the way/ Love is my belief/ And is my faith."
Sabir has since learned to shop at the kosher butcher - a concession for both sides, since Harris is a vegetarian. They also have Shabbat dinners every week and Sabir tries his best to keep the dairy and meat dishes separate in their new home. "I don't have a problem with it, but it's hard to remember which utensils to use and when," he laughed.
Next month, the couple are expecting their first child, who will be raised as a Jew, according to Harris' wishes. The two like to joke that throughout their courtship, they did everything in reverse: first they decided to have a baby, then buy a house, then go on a honeymoon, and finally, get married.
"We're not doing this to change the world," Sabir added. "This is a woman I fell in love with and wanted to share my life with. It's not relevant if I'm Muslim and she's Jewish, or I'm Moroccan and she's Israeli. All that is accidental."