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.
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.