September 11th changed lots of things for Arabs and Arab Americans, including the ways we’re perceived.
Americans (and, indeed, many westerners) have become very interested in the Middle East, and the things that happen over there.
And, while I’ve spent a significant amount of time on this site going on about political changes and religious things, too, I’d like to open the eyes of my non-Arab (or Arabic-speaking) readers to more cultural things; today’s topic? The way “Middle Easterners” get married…
Pick a song, any song, the ones from the top. That’s right, think of any American Top 40 tune and consider the lovey-dovey words, the “I can’t live without you!” words, the “let’s dive into that broom closet and get to know each other” words. Maybe those are poetic in their own way, but, well…
Arabs, on the other hand— arguably the most romantically-minded people on the planet—have a knack for putting their feelings in more heartfelt terms than in the likes of such songs as “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time” (Britney Spears’ claim to fame) and “I Want You Back” (N Sync).
For example, Lebanese singer Asy el-Hellani sings “Wi’n kan aalaya/addilak enayya/bass inta tirda/wi’t’hissi bayyaa ,” which means “If it was up to me, I would give you my eyes, just so you would agree/accept and feel my presence.”
And Egyptian singer Amr Diab, in Ayzeen Yighayarook, sings “Yakhdo enaya, y’shofook,” which translates into “If they took my eyes, they would see you (in them).”
But relationships don’t always start out that way..
For my fellow first-generation Americans, get ready to hide a smirk, because your life story is likely hidden somewhere in this article. For the uninitiated—that is, the person who’s never had a thing to do with the Arab way of doing things (namely dating)—I advise you to buckle up. You’re going to hear some things that’ll make your teeth itch.
First comes marriage, then the baby carriage, then love (if you’re lucky).
Sometimes it happens like the movies—two people see one another across a crowded room, hearts connecting the same moment their eyes do. More often than not, however, the future spouses are the victims of matchmaking attempts or chance meetings at religious centers (though in some cases, a man will learn about someone’s daughter or sister or friend—sight unseen—and then come to her house for a visit with her father). More often than not, an arsenal of roguish tricks assists the potential lovebirds in securing affections and ascertaining feelings.
At any rate, under the old regime, the Arab man learns about a potential bride, asks about her, and then—as early as the same day, in some cases—enters into an engagement contract with her. In more Westernized Arab cities, however, fewer and fewer couples enter into an engagement so quickly, opting instead to learn more about one another before signing on the dotted line. Every region also has its own pattern of arranging things, and its own particular timetable for doing so. I think it’s safe to say, however, that a good deal of Middle Easterners who still live there aren’t “in love with” their intended when they say “I do”—at least not in the American sense.
Many American women take a proposal as a sign that things are going great, and that an “I love you” is on the horizon. American men are generally quick to forgive the woman they love, because they would rather spend the rest of their lives with her than without. Arabs, on the other hand, are looking for a spouse who fits their criteria, and generally don’t stick around too long if something unsavory appears out of their almost-spouse’s past.
The biggest deal-breakers are dishonesty, having hidden something, and being damaged goods (these obviously overlap, in some cases), although, true to Middle Eastern form, a man would be forgiven most of these, while a woman would get dropped like nobody’s business.
In terms of dishonesty, one may have lied about his or her age. I was especially sad to hear about a girl who had spent almost 15 months engaged to a man who loved her dearly. They were both professional, successful first-generation Americans; her family hailed from Port Saiid, while his family, who loved her as their own, came from Aswan.
On one of her birthdays, his family threw a celebration, inviting all of the other Egyptian families in the area.
All was well until it was time to open the gifts; as her soon-to-be mother-in-law read card after card aloud (to the girl’s delight), one card made Aunty stop in her tracks “To Rania, the sweetest and best girl, on your 27th birthday! God bless!”. His mother’s face drained of color, but she pressed her lips into a tight smile that no one really picked up on. Making an excuse, she managed to sequester both families. “Is it true that your daughter is twenty SEVEN?” she demanded. “Yes, but you’ve known this for over a year,” answered the girl’s father, suspecting his future sister-in-law of madness. “But my SON,” she screeched, “is only twenty FIVE!! You said she was younger than he was! Khalas!” It didn’t matter to her that her son was almost 26, that he couldn’t have cared less if his intended had been 30, or that the misinformation was actually due to a well-meaning relative. Alas, what the mother said went, and there was more than a hint of sadness in his eyes as he turned to stare at her one last time.
Other than age, a girl can lie about having been engaged before, about her extent of sexual experience, or even about her opinions. Arabs obviously don’t have a corner on the prospective bride’s lying market, but in many cases, the deal’s off once the falsehood is unearthed.
In terms of hiding things (close relative of ‘lying’), a girl might hide her previous involvement or even friendship with another man (some Arabs can be very suspicious of a mere friendship), any physical involvement with these same men, and illnesses in her family, either physical or emotional; This is because Arab families tend to steer clear of families with illnesses among their members, because they feel that it will have affected the person, and also because of heredity; this is the opposite of Americans, whose attitude when in love is more often than not “We’ll get through this together! I’m here for you,” rather than the Arab response of “um…. see ya!” On the other hand, one Saiidi friend of mine alleges that it was her refusal of her previous fiancé’s repeated attempts to seduce her that made her now-husband admire her and propose.
The third deal-breaker, as I’ve mentioned, is the state of being “damaged goods.” Many Arabic women I know disregarded the fact that their suitors were playboys prior to the engagement, declaring, “He picked me, though, didn’t he?” Some men feel almost the same, citing “It’s what happens after the marriage that counts!” For the woman to feel this way is almost expected (rather unreadily, sometimes), but it’s something of a rarity for the man to feel this way. More common are the men who are out for blood, so to speak, but more on that later…
(This article excerpted, in part, from Sally’s 2004 “Mid-East Meets West: On Being and Becoming a MODERN Arab American.”)