Ask Richard: Arabian Nights, American Days July 4, 2009

Ask Richard: Arabian Nights, American Days

I don’t know how much expertise you have when it comes to Islam and the Middle East, but here goes. I’m in the very beginning stages of what I suspect will develop into a relationship with a guy from Saudi Arabia. He spent some time in the U.S. as a child, seems pretty westernized, isn’t super-religious, and is aware of my stance on religion, my feminism, and my Jewish heritage. I’m not going to lie, though. The whole thing still seems like dangerous ground. Am I being insanely naïve by even considering a relationship with this man? And, given how intertwined culture and religion are, even if he professes to be fairly non-religious, am I in for a nasty shock?

-Feminist Jewish Atheist with an irresistible attraction to Middle Eastern men

Dear Feminist Jewish atheist, etc.,

It’s also dangerous ground for me to characterize all people in a category from the few examples with whom I am familiar, because that would be bigotry. So I’ll have to speak about general precautions and the virtue of being circumspect and slow.

There are many scary stories about the outcomes of some cross-cultural relationships. It may be unfair to assume that those stories are typical, but we should not ignore them either. Most of us have heard the story portrayed in the book and movie, Not Without My Daughter, written by Betty Mahmoody, where the American wife of an “Americanized” Iranian traveled with him to Iran for a family celebration, only to find that she would be required to adhere to the dress and customs of the country, and that neither she nor her daughter would be allowed to leave Iran. After an extremely arduous and dangerous journey of many months, she eventually escaped to the West with her daughter.

Almost the exact same thing happened to a friend of mine, who met a man from Saudi Arabia and married him in the United States. Shortly after giving birth to their son, she accompanied him to Saudi Arabia to meet his family. Once there, her husband, who seemed suddenly changed, told her that neither she nor her young son would be allowed to return to the U.S. She immediately fled with her son to the American Embassy, and after some difficulties, returned to the States. She spent the next several years hiding from her husband, who, being from a wealthy family, might have been able to gain custody of their son, one way or another.

Ok, enough of the scary stories, whether they are typical or not. The point is that all new relationships, even those within a single culture, have the potential for disappointment, danger and even disaster. Most of those hazards would be avoidable if the people involved would go into them slowly, with their eyes open, talking and talking and talking about all the issues that will affect their lives as they become more established and committed to each other. They should know well ahead of time their partner’s attitudes and habits around money, sex, religion, children, in-laws, cultural customs, expected roles within a marriage, where they are going to live, diet issues, drug and alcohol issues, their past relationships, how and why those ended and many other things. And they should watch the behaviors, not just listen to the reassurances. There’s nothing wrong with a discreet background check.

Unfortunately, most new couples, their eyes glazed over in their infatuation for each other, make little or no effort to check such matters out early, and only discover the serious problems after they are deeply stuck in the middle of things. Newlyweds often know far more about the personal details of celebrities than their own partners. Many states require “conciliation counseling” before granting a divorce, seeing if there is any way the marriage can be repaired. It would save a lot of money and heartbreak if those states required PRE-marital counseling before granting the marriage in the first place.

The first thing for you to see is if he is even open to such frank discussion. If not, then I would not predict much satisfaction coming from the relationship. Even if you and he are able to talk exhaustively about all those things, there are still at least two possible snags: One, could he be lying, shining you on, telling you whatever you want to hear because he wants something from you? For instance, is immigration status or citizenship a motive that might be behind his pursuing a relationship? Two, even if all that is worked out and he is genuinely sincere about his motives and expectations, and if perchance you end up marrying him, be extremely cautious about going to his native country with him. Even if he is very “Americanized” while in America, the culture and family expectations when he is back in his native land are very powerful. All that westernization can suddenly evaporate. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Arabia…

As Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
“Love and reason keep little company together.”

Somehow, somehow, try to keep some blood flowing to your brain when most of it is flowing to your loins. Men are most notorious for their foolishness in this way, but women do it too. Somehow, somehow, keep your eyes and ears open even when your heart is full. Women are most notorious for their foolishness in this way, but men do it too.

I hope your life goes well.


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  • My friend Heather had a similar experience when she tried to leave her husband in Indonesia. Unfortunately she wasn’t allowed to leave the country without her husband’s written permission. I imagine that there are lots of stories like this. Why bother telling the stories of reasonable and understanding husbands and families?

    Cautionary tales serve a purpose. In any big decision we should plan for the worst and hope for the best.

  • Hello,
    I’m an agnostic from Saudi, I can say one thing… “he” might be the man of your dreams… but family and peer pressure are very big forces in the region… so, if he is willing to live with you it he west.. cool, but do not think you might be able to live there with those views… I cannot even tell my best friends of what I really think… I know its like that with all religious communities.

  • If the relationship goes well and you want to meet his fimily, perhaps meet them in Jordan.

  • Stephen P

    My experience in this area is not remotely comparable with Richard’s, but I do at least have the experience of having married someone from another country, with another mother tongue. (But we were both from “western” countries, so the cultural gap was very much smaller.) Before that I had dated other woman where there was a larger cultural gap.

    One advice I would give (to everyone, cross-cultural relationship or not) is to first meet the prospective in-laws before making a decision on a permanent relationship. It will help you understand the background of your partner and, at the very least, suggest plenty of questions to ask. The younger your partner is, the more important this is.

    And if their mother tongue is different, then learn their language well enough to at least carry out a basic conversation. Yes, that is quite a lot of work, but making a cross-cultural marriage successful is likely to be a lot of work anyway, and ignorance of your partner’s mother tongue makes it a lot harder. (My wife and I speak each other’s language with complete fluency, and we are bringing our children up bilingually.)

    If meeting the prospective in-laws while still unmarried is not possible for cultural reasons – and in Saudi Arabia I understand it would be difficult if not impossible – then that would for me probably be a deal-breaker. In countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan it would probably be feasible.

    Of course I understand that the world is not simple. In some cases it may be impossible to meet the prospective in-laws for purely financial reasons, or they may be trapped in a war zone. Or your partner may have permanently cut all contacts with his family – though that in itself would be a reason for exercising caution. But the general advice stands.

  • Ex Partiot

    Get away from him as quick as possible. This relationship can only end one way for you, a major disaster in all respects. Remember a women is nothing more than a piece of property to be owned by these people and they can do what they want with her and you will end up with no rights what so ever

  • Aj

    You take risks in any relationship, you could meet the wrong Western man that suddenly changes, gets you to move away from your family and friends. One risk factor that can be eliminated is travelling to backwards countries like Saudi Arabia with a repressive culture and corrupt government. At least in the West you have equal rights. Even if someone is “westernized” doesn’t mean they won’t use religion or culture against you if things go south. I think there’s been a case of a Western man using Sharia law against his wife in Dubai, even though they weren’t permanent residents.

    I have read sociologists noting that if people are isolated from their culture, then they don’t have much problem adopting another culture. However, when they are once again emerged in their own culture, with peer pressure, family pressure, they can quickly revert to completely different stances. Getting to know them in the West, isolated from their family, is different than getting to know them with family influence.

    Immigrants to the West can be great people with great values. If they’re here because of the culture of freedom and rationalism, as a lot are, that places them above a lot of the “natives” in my book.

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