In the Beginning…

In the Beginning…

During my eighth month in Riyadh, 1986, I fell in love with an Egyptian man. He was Muslim; I was Christian. Neither one of us allowed that to get in the way of the natural course of events.

He worked at KFSH, in the Emergency Department, and I worked in the lab. I met him when I started working third shift; he used to bring specimens to the lab.

Third shift at KFSH was indeed a graveyard shift. Only one person was needed to cover my whole section on third shift.  During the day it needed ten people. I worked twelve hours, seven PM to seven AM, four days a week, and spent most of that time alone.

The quiet, slow atmosphere of routine evenings in the hospital gave third shift workers time to talk to one another about subjects other than work. Because none of the supervisors were there, nor any of the Saudis, men and women didn’t maintain as strict a separation as they did during the daytime. Therefore, Ahmed and I talked to each other, sometimes at length. We started seeing each other on days off.

We’d sit in the hospital lobby, just talking. We’d take the hospital bus downtown to the suq, and walk around for hours, until the same bus came back to get us, along with whomever else had come downtown that night. People noticed immediately that Ahmed and I were spending too much time together.

If I had taken up with a man from any of the Western countries, no one would have raised in eyebrow, but Ahmed was Egyptian, and I was American. I had been warned, just as all newly arrived expatriate women are warned, to stay away from Arab men.

Well, I didn’t travel half way around the world to burrow into a pack of Americans, no offense to my compatriots. I simply thirsted for expansion.

We knew each other for just a few weeks when he started talking about marriage. In my still naive American mentality, I was impressed that this handsome, exotic man wanted to marry me. We agreed on a two year courtship.

That alone should have given me pause, but I knew nothing about Islam and little more about Arab men. I decided that I needed to learn about Islam. I believed (and still believe) that a married couple should observe the same religion. The Muslim people I met at the hospital had impressed me with their positive attitudes, their emotional warmth, dedication to their professions and families, sense of security and of purpose. If Islam had anything to do with such development, I wanted to discover the process, and try it for myself.

So began my inquiry into Islam, primarily because I thought I would become the wife of a Muslim, the wife of Ahmed. I wanted to see if I could observe Islam with him.  The two year courtship passed, during which I suffered an earthquake of changes, the magnitude of which threw up the foundations of my most basic assumptions. Everything fell back down all mixed up, and when the dust settled, I was a Muslim.

Eventually I did become the wife of a Muslim, but not Ahmed’s wife. That’s another story. Suffice it to say that when Ahmed exited my life, Islam remained.

Serendipity

Serendipity

I liked the concept of arranged meetings for the purpose of evaluating potential marriage partners. Even though the meetings were stressful, they cut through a lot of crap that the American system of dating ensures before getting down to business. The flip side was that partners did not have much time to evaluate situations or personalities. They couldn’t really get to know each other before marriage.

“Oh, no! If people got to know each other before marriage, NO ONE would get married!” said an Egyptian friend, during a lively discussion comparing the cultural practices of finding a mate. I laughed, but lived long enough to learn the wisdom of her words.

My American friend– the one married to the Egyptian shiekh who had an Egyptian first wife –asked me to write a letter explaining what I needed in a husband. Her husband wanted to start a project to bring couples together for marriage.

I wrote the letter, indicating that these were my requirements:

1. The man must know English and Arabic.

2. He must not smoke cigarettes.

3. He must not already be married.

4. He must be educated with at least a bachelor’s degree.

5. He must want to move with me to the United States.

Somehow, my letter ended up with a Saudi man, a smoker, the owner of a small vegetable market who had a wife and children, and did not know English. He was looking for a second wife. The sheikh gave him my letter. I have seldom felt more discounted as a woman, or insulted as a person.

The grocer couldn’t read my letter, of course, but he remembered a loyal customer, an Egyptian man who bought fruits and vegetables every week, and who knew English. He asked this man to translate the letter.

Both men knew instantly that I was not a suitable candidate for becoming anyone’s second wife, but the Egyptian man recognized that he did possess the qualities I was looking for, so he contacted me, and we married after five months of whatever kind of courtship we could manage in Riyadh at the time. We moved to the United States after six years of marriage, and stayed married for six more years.