Moving to the USA with my Arab Husband

Cross-cultural marriages have increased during the last fifty years, and so has the ability to move between those cultures. Logic suggests that a stable such marriage should flourish regardless of which culture the couple chooses to establish their home.  Haven’t they both proven their ability for adjustment and compromise,  and welcomed aspects of the other culture into their lives?

Many years ago, while I was living in Saudi Arabia, cross-cultural marriages were the norm, at least in my circle. My women friends had come to Saudi Arabia from various countries, as had their husbands. Some of us met and married while in the Kingdom, like me and my husband. The common thread between us all was that we were all Muslims, content to have landed in Saudi Arabia for a time.

As foreigners in the Kingdom, we were welcomed for our labor, but not allowed to establish Saudi citizenship. Sooner or later, we’d have to go home.  Therefore, we came and went. Those who went reported back to those who remained.  I paid particular attention to the stories involving Arab husbands and American wives. I was always surprised to hear that some of these marriages collapsed upon relocation to the United States. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.

My Egyptian husband and I enjoyed a quiet, content and orderly life in Riyadh for six years. He worked as an engineer and I stayed home, indulging in all the domestic activities I’d postponed during my years of working in hospitals. We believed in this model of marriage, we were happy, and didn’t want to change it in the United States.

When we came to the US, he could not find a job  as an engineer because he did not have the required engineering credentials, despite a college degree and twenty-five years of experience for which he’d been well-paid in Saudi Arabia. In the US, he was unwilling to update his academic knowledge, and therefore became unemployable in his field. He then worked at a series of minimum-wage jobs. He did not perform well, mostly because he’d never set foot in a Western country before coming here, and his English was not perfect. Also, many American cultural behaviors confused and offended him, while he, in turn, did not endear himself to many Americans, except those in the Muslim community, who understood him.

While he suffered demotion and ultimate failure in the workplace, I had to return to my profession. Our roles became reversed, and neither of us liked it. In fact, we hated it. He hated staying home, and I hated working. He was not a good house-husband, and I always had to do the cooking, laundry, and cleaning in addition to my full-time job. We could no longer help or support one another. The tension eventually came to a head– I’ll save the juicy details for my memoirs–and I left him.

Oh, other factors put stress on us, factors that all Muslim cross-cultural couples face with respect to daily living.  Language is different, driving laws are different, house construction is different, holidays are different, clothing is different, and eating can be problematic with respect to pork, if not alcohol. America is full of pork, and you can’t always avoid it if you don’t know, for instance, the “sausage” is pork, and “hamburger” is beef.  Prayers are not easy to keep. In addition to never hearing an azan, work duties  interfere with prayers times.  On top of that, men and women mix and work freely together, giving everyone really good chances to become attracted to people other than their spouses. Even if each partner is firmly committed, he or she knows that the spouse may become the object of another person’s interest.

Speaking of “interest”, you can hardly buy a home in this country without using the usurious monetary system based on interest.

Another disappointment of living in the United States is that the Muslim community is spread apart. You have to drive a bit before finding a mosque or another Muslim family with which to establish social ties. This felt odd, because from our home in Riyadh, where we lived in a 100% Muslim neighborhood, we could walk to not one, but several mosques for evening prayer. In America, we felt like an island.

In spite of  those and other unpleasant adjustments that Muslim couples must make upon relocating to the United States after having lived in the Middle East, some families survive and thrive. I have noticed that the families remaining intact after moving to the United States are those in which the husband is employed in a satisfying profession, and the wife either stays home, or works at a profession she loves, and they both agree on her employment. Additionally, they have found ways to incorporate their Islamic practice into the flow of American society.

We couldn’t do any of that. We made mistakes. We fell subject to cultural and economic forces that worked against us, and we couldn’t find ways to situate ourselves comfortably. Now, more than ten years after those events, we are friends, we phone each other daily and maintain our family structure somewhat (with respect to the kids and now grandkids). Neither of us has remarried. He has never worked except part-time in low-paying jobs. I have worked continuously, to my chagrin. I now look forward to retirement, which should occur at the end of this year, inshaAllah.

The Muslim community around us has grown, and I feel encouraged that I’ll enter into community again. My ex-husband and I still go to jummah prayer together sometimes, and we reminisce about our happier days. We’ve returned to equilibrium, and take much pleasure in watching our grandkids grow and in helping our daughters care for them when we can. I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out any other way. If I had it do over again, I might not change a thing. If I were young enough to consider another marriage, I’d prefer another cross-cultural one, but I sure would like to give some advice to those who are considering it for the first time!

 

 

 

Contemplating the Roller Coaster

Over the years, I have kept in touch with a friend I met in Riyadh. She is also an American woman, married to a Saudi (I was married to an Egyptian). We met at the Riyadh community college for ladies. We were both studying Arabic and we became friends. In addition to seeing each other at class, we talked on the telephone nearly every morning, after husbands went to work and children went to school.

 

We talked about everything–  Islam, marrying Arabs, living in Riyadh, cultural differences between Americans, Saudis and Egyptians. Every few weeks, she’d come with her driver and we’d go to Obeikan or Jareer bookstore, where we wandered around the aisles containing books on Arabic and Islam. We were happy with our husbands and our lives, in the 1990s.

 

Now, we are all in the United States. I am divorced and she is clashing with her husband about vital life concerns. Suddenly I remember conversations I heard long ago from other women, conversations that went like this:

 

“My friend was married to an Arab here in the Kingdom. As soon as they went to the States, they started fighting and now they are divorced.”

 

“Yes, I heard the same thing about a Western woman who used to live here, married to an Arab. Their marriage unravelled when they went to live in the States.”

 

I’d heard this conversation often enough to realize the truth of it. Cross-cultural marriages that flourished in the Kingdom tended to fall apart in the States, even when both parties belonged to the same religion. I knew that the challenge of repatriation, and adjustment to differing social and economic conditions, could put a strain on any marriage, but I never imagined my own marriage would follow the same pattern. It did, only two years after we left Riyadh.

 

Now, my friend and I talk about how and why our marriages became unsatisfactory. Neither one of us is happy with our situations, yet we do not regret our choices, and neither do our husbands, so what has happened? Sometimes I feel as though my entire Riyadh experience was a merry-go-round I’d been riding. I got on willingly, enjoyed the initial ups and the downs, and sat through multiple rides, next to the man who became my husband.

 

Then, the merry-go-round stopped, and we had to get off. We moved on to the roller-coaster. It made us both sick and dizzy.

 

I don’t think I can carry this metaphor any further, but you get the idea.

 

We’ve recovered our equilibrium, with feet back on the ground, somewhat the worse for wear. Do all marriages, and all lives, include a merry-go-round, a roller-coaster, and a grounded walk away from both of them? I don’t know. I am content, at least, thankful to Allah for everything, and so is my friend, and so is my  ex-husband.

 

الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ عَلَى كُلِّ حَالٍ 

“Alhumdulillah ‘alaa kuli haal,” we now like to say. “Praise God in every situation.”

 

 

Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.

Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.

I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.

Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.

Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.

I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!

Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.”  I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or  any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.

Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think,  “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!

Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.

Agitated

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I allowed myself to get embroiled in a blog conversation with someone whose objective was only to inflame, ridicule, provoke, and insult. See:
I bent over backwards to accommodate A’idah’s points, give weight to her accusations, and maintain objectivity at the same time. In the end, I had to extricate myself, and I’ve been agitated for two days.

Why? What sort of emotional complex gets activated, not only in me but in many people, when religion is on the table?  This question seems more important than the conversation we’d had in the first place. The topic was Islam, of course. What other topic, these days, inflames to the extent that Islam inflames?

Islam is the third largest monotheistic religion in the world. It’s been around for centuries. Something is right with it. The best way to address troublesome issues regarding Islam and the West is to admit that something, indeed, is right with it. That “rightness” underlies all else, and needs to be acknowledged before any of us– Muslim or non-Muslim– will be able to purge Islam and cultures of the deviations have taken hold and drawn us all under the rubble.

A’idah and I were at cross purposes, and I knew it from the start, but why did I yield to the bait? The answer lies not with the conversation, but  with me. It goes all the way back to my conversion to Islam in 1987. No, it goes back further, to my rejection of certain aspects of Christianity. No, it goes back further than that, even. Maybe it goes all the way back to birth, when my cozy world spit me out into cold, noisy air and assaulted me with tactile irritations, blinding brightness and speed-of-light motion that induced a most terrifying vertigo, followed by prodding and rubbing and the shock of my own first breaths.

Then I heard my mother’s voice.

Religion is a response to birth trauma?

Does that sound far-fetched, or atheistic?

Even as a believer in Allah, I can accommodate the idea that religion could be a response to birth trauma.

Well, be that as it may, I remain agitated, angry even, at how Islam has been kicked and slugged and stabbed and blasted by people who take pleasure in the attack, who do not ask the hard questions, do not even pretend to dig into the substance of the matter, but condemn with sweeping verbosity, and polish their skills at sarcastic dialogue with bitter, lip-licking delight.




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.