No book has aroused the ire of academia more than Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, describing the clash of civilization between East and West, particularly the World of Islam and Christianity. Although the book mirrors conventional conservative Islamic doctrine that the World of Peace (Islam) will be in continual conflict with the house of war (Christiandom), Middle East Academia has been trying to refute the premise since it was published. It, along with the masterpiece on Arab culture, The Arab Mind, has been on the haram list for quite a while. These politically incorrect texts are often denigrated and used as examples of the nefarious “orientalist” category. The people who brought the Middle East magnificent history and its people to the attention of the West have become villains because they also pointed out the backwardness and dysfunctionality of modern Middle Eastern societies. They, particularly Bernard Lewis, also correctly illuminate the internal Islamic and political issues and conflicts that brought the Arab world to its present unhappy state.
But to move on, nothing so dramatically illustrates the clash of civilizations more than when an American woman marries an Arab man and goes to live with him in his country. I know this is a sensitive subject that some may see as offensive but it is not meant to be. It is simply a dive into the depth of cultural differences and how the strength of Arab/Middle Eastern societal mores, particularly Muslim, are underestimated by Westerners.
The recent escape of Princess Haya from the harem of the Emir of the United Arab Emirates, charging him with brutality and a host of other evils made me think of the more crucial problem of American women marrying into the Arab culture, without a clue of what lies ahead. Although Princess Haya is Jordanian by birth, until her marriage to the UAE ruler she spent her life living by Western standards. Like her mother, the free spirited Queen Alia, she was educated in the West. I am surprised she married someone like Sheikh Khalif abin Zayed Al Nahyan. I watched him closely in 1968 when I was with the British officered Trucial Oman Scouts. It was an event in which some of the Bedouin tribes were performing sword dances. He seemed very effeminate and wimpy. I got a very bad impression. So good for you, Haya!
I have many anecdotes concerning this issue but the recent news of princess Haya brought back to my attention a particular one…when an American woman marries into Arab society.
So Sally, an impressionable young woman usually from the Midwest, meets Ahmad, who like her is a student at the University of Ohio State. He is courteous and very dramatic in his attention to her. Unlike American men, he writes poetry, sends her flowers, tells her of the wonderful life awaiting her in “Arabistan,” Most of all he is persistent; unlike the local boys he does not have a “whatever” attitude. A few polite rebuffs do not send him away, so they get married, to the dismay of her parents, and even more to his mother.
After arrival in Arabistan, Sally has some pleasant and not so pleasant surprises. Being from an upper middle class family, Ahmad has the entitlements unknown to the American middle class. She will have a maid and there are people who come and go doing “gopher” chores for her. The housing is not bad, old and antiquated, but not uncomfortable. The shopping malls are not far away, seem very modernistic, have the latest European styles, and they glitter night and day putting the Galleria to shame.
But alas, there are unpleasant surprises as well. They move into his parents home, upstairs in well appointed rooms, even if the style is all gold lame′ and Louis the IX. Sally has been briefed on the mores of a conservative society and she knows she has to dress demurely and always be in the background, but she is unprepared for Umm Ahmad, the doting mother of Ahmad, who has total dominion over Sally, watching her every move and constantly scrutinizing her movements and words for misconduct or transgressions.
Now Sally, being like many Americans, doesn’t take her religion that seriously. She went to Church sometimes but mostly it was a social thing to do with parents. So she converts to Islam to make Ahmad happy. Converting is a nice gesture but it doesn’t mean all that much to Umm Ahmad who knows about America and Americans from movies and her studies in school. She knows that many Americans are nice people but politically America is the Great Satan. Thanks to Hollywood she knows Americans are a godless immoral society. (Note: Actually Sally “reverts” because in Islamic theology we are all born Muslims but become “others” by conditioning.)
Sally soon learns that as an American she must be like Caesar’s wife, above any suspicion. Arabistan is not Saudi Arabia where she would be basically an indentured trophy and an outcast member of a family that generally never accepts her, but it is a conservative society. She sees some local girls without a hijab, (head covering), some with jeans and seemingly unconcerned with the subordinate role of women. But she, as an American, cannot be afforded that freedom. Not only her mom but all the neighbors are watching too.
From hundreds of years of history the culturally inferiority of the West has been inculcated in mama’s mind. From the time of the Crusades and the initial contact of East and West, the Franks (Europeans) were a dirty people who only washed maybe twice a year (with cold water) according to Arab historian Ossama (Arab Historians of the Crusades) by Francesco Gabreilli. Frankish men did not care if their wives had sex with other men, only objecting if the other guy was using his bed. The Franks were delighted with the Arab male bath attendants who shaved their pubic hair, and who, then brought their wives in for the same procedure, much to the chagrin of the male attendants. BTW this may very well be true. The Franks were an uncouth bunch. This jaundiced view of European manners and morals is well described by Bernard Lewis in his book, The Muslim Discovery of Europe. Arab visitors to Europe made note of how dirty and smelly the Europeans were, including the women.
But to return to the Sally story, Umm Ahmad is a nice lady, always friendly and often charming, who knows some English but does not believe in the concept of privacy. She is always at Sally’s elbow. S ally doesn’t really have much to do, the maid or Umm Ahmad washes her clothes. She doesn’t do housework as it is demeaning to her status. Umm Ahmad or the family cook does the cooking. The food is good, sometimes a little heavy, and not the same as the Americanized Lebanese restaurants they frequented in Ohio. Sally longs for a Big Mac and there are American fast food places in the city but all her excursions are usually with mama. Going to a fast food place would be an insult to mama’s cooking.
Umm Ahmad, despite the onerous restrictions on sexual matters common to her society (which ironically is the most sexually obsessed society on earth) is very inquisitive about relations between Sally and her beloved son. With her Midwest upbringing Sally is very uncomfortable with this. There is no concept of privacy…wishing to be alone is an aberration and denotes a socially unstable individual.
Going out requires a lot of preparatory explanations and, as mentioned before, will not be done alone. Going out of the home is basically a no-no unless accompanied by a trusted family member. I remember talking to a young American woman in Tunisia who had married into a wealthy Tunisian family. She knew all about the customs and proscriptions…she thought…but the first time she went out she wore a long dress from neck to toe and was met at the door by her mother-in-law who was furious. It seems the American lady had worn a belt around her waist. In a very conservative society any dress which reveals the figure of the woman is haram.
But the biggest surprise is Ahmad himself. Once a really fun guy, always with jokes and loving words and constant attention to Sally, he now seems distant and different. In fact he is, because now he is a married man and presumably a father to be and fun time is over. His father keeps a careful eye on him. As long as he is in his father’s house or even close proximity, he is under his father’s orders, no matter how old he may be. Women have women things and men have men things. There is very little fraternization except close family members.
Should Sally complain that she is tired of always having to show up at a certain time to have coffee or tea with mama and how she has no privacy….and by the way the way Ahmad, where are you at night these days? Why can’t you drink coffee with me instead of with your buddies at the coffee shop? Ahmad, who adores his mother and will always put her first, is very unsympathetic and blames Sally for not being more understanding.
From my years in the Arab world and knowing American women married to Arab men, my observations are that they mostly adjust, some simply resign themselves to their life, a few enthusiastically accept it, and more than a few try to escape. But there are many problems with that. One of the first things that often happens when Sally arrives in country is that her husband takes her passport. In other cases after a divorce, the ex- husband says “get out of here but you are not taking the kids.” She will find herself without any legal legs to stand on.
In the 1830’s Alexis de Tocqueille observed how much more independent American women were compared to European women. I believe this is why American women have the toughest time adjusting to Arab family culture.
So ladies look before you leap…but perhaps love conquers all.