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!