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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Betty and Mahmoud

I'll be quick to announce that this post is one of the most contentious pieces I've ever written. Mind you, I stated the above without actually scribbling a single word. Ever since Betty contacted me a few days ago and dropped her heavy load on my doorsteps I've been thinking what and how to answer. I replied privately to her email message and asked her to give me permission to post both her question and my answer. I also wanted her to provide me with some details so that my inherent biases and notorious simplification of grand issues are somehow subdued. She obliged by pointing a mental flashlight toward various obscure corners of her private story. She was abundantly candid about voicing her concerns in a series of pin-point surgical questions. Yet her admirable effort made my task harder. To be, as she expects of me, truly honest, not only am I going to step on a few toes but I might run the risk of paralleling Dr. Phil's patronizing methodology.
I warned Betty from the outset that she might've chosen the wrong person. She offhandedly dismissed my reservation by simply saying: "You being a regular guy is exactly why I chose to speak with you about my relationship".

How do you feel about an American Christian woman dating and marrying a Syrian Muslim man? That was how I came to know about Betty and Mahmoud.

The question cannot be answered in an unfussy manner because it is a combination of several clear and hidden inquiries. Luckily though, Betty is asking about my opinion here and nothing more. So in a way I'm free to say whatever I please, although I will keep it to the very end. The difficult part of the question lies in the fact that it mixes religion and nationality together. This needs a little exploration then adequate explanation. To put Betty at ease I can start right off by saying that it really doesn't matter much whether the Syrian man is a Muslim or a Christian. It matters, however, where in Syria he comes from and what kind of family background he carries on his shoulders. Syrians, Muslims and Christians, are generally more traditional than Americans. This does not and should not have any positive implication or negative connotation to either Syrians or Americans. Our political, social and economic present in Syria is so vague, our future so uncertain we can only look back for reassurance. We feel safe in the pleasant knowledge that we are descendants of great civilizations and that, like a human heart, blood carrying timeless cultures, sciences and arts passed through this land and was diffused again to the rest of humanity. With a little over a couple of hundred years of true history to show, Americans have no choice but to shape their present and invent their future with great ingenuity and resilience without as much as glancing back. It's much easier that an American Christian woman dates and marries a Syrian Muslim man than a Syrian Christian woman doing so. Let's hold on to that thought so that I move to one of your more explicit questions.

How is life for Christians living in Syria? I know they are a minority there, but how are they treated as far as citizens of the country? Are they treated differently? Is the government fair to them?

Life is just about the same for Christians and Muslims in Syria. The government is fair to none. I truly don't believe that Christians are troubled much by their religion. As a matter of fact, it has been easier to be a practicing Syrian Christian than a practicing Syrian Muslim in the last 30 years or so. A devoted and pious Christian doesn't pause any political threat to the authorities and accordingly has been left un-harassed. While civil institutions like the Boys Scouts for instance, founded by Muslims were all shut down, church established societies and activities were not only preserved but as a matter of fact supported. Syrian Christians could be as traditional as Muslims when it comes to the virginity of their daughters and sisters, to answer yet another of your questions. It's generally not acceptable for Syrians that girls lose their virginity outside wedlock (from now on Syrians include Christians and Muslims). That of course doesn't mean that this rule is not being broken or ignored, especially in the larger cities. However, the stand on virginity and extramarital sex in Syria is not that different from rural Greece, Southern Italy or even many parts of Latin America. Clandestine extramarital sex is on the rise. It's not socially acceptable but I'll be a fool not to admit that within 50 years or so a Syrian virgin would be as hard to find as an American one.

Is it religious or cultural influences that are responsible for violence against women in Syria?

Both are, among other factors. We should not ignore the importance of the same causes that inflict the West like socioeconomics and education. Men who are physically violent with women share traits that trespass national and cultural backgrounds. Unfortunately we lack valid social statistics in Syria, not only on this issue but on almost everything else. It is my belief that the numbers, figures and percentages are very similar all over the world with the exception of a very few countries. You should well understand my dear Betty that Syria is not Saudi Arabia. I, among millions of Syrians, could identify more readily with Americans than Saudis. We might not like your current and most of your previous administrations but we also detest their mutated, malformed, and misbegotten form of Islamic theocracy. No! Women are not stoned to death in Syria. Had it ever happened? Perhaps it did: a couple of times in the last 1,000 years.
Syria is as safe as America is to you. I could've told you that Syria is much safer, which by the way is true. People, regardless of their nationality, could walk the streets of any Syrian city at any hour, day or night, without fear of being physically assaulted. You might, as a woman, hear stupid and harassing words of alleged admiration in certain instances on a crowded street in Syria but they wouldn't be more than what you'd expect to hear had you been passing by a construction site full of working men in Manhattan.
I know of several successful American-Syrian and European-Syrian marriages. I also know of a few that ended up in divorce leaving behind embittered children. I have previously written about my views regarding some requisites of a successful marriage (Asking for a Hand). I will probably write again and soon on the same subject. When a rare inter-faith marriage does take place in Syria it usually is a great success. The couple has defied all odds, taboos and norms and they could've only done so through unbending love to each other. Yes, I know of several cases of Syrian Christians and Muslims intermarrying and leading very happy lives with or without the blessing of their families.

Generally what is the Syrian view of Americans and America?

This post will be read by other Syrians who might agree or disagree with me. They can do you a great favor if they comment on your questions and my answers and share their opinions with both of us. I have repeatedly stated that some of my best friends are Americans (Memories of America). I like some Americans as much as I like some Syrians. I also dislike many on both sides. Generally speaking though, Americans as a group are closer to my heart and mind than many other crowds. My extreme dislike, disappointment and resentment, however, are directed toward American foreign policy and the injustice it keeps inflicting on people all over the world. What this current American administration did to Iraq and its people is not to be taken lightly. What successive American administrations did to the Palestinians is a shameful act, a crime against humanity. They may have not been the direct perpetrators but they were accomplices to the Israelis all along. History, eventually and even if written by the winners, will not neglect to condemn the atrocities and absurdities committed by American forces for the alleged protection of the freedom of their homeland. On this particular point, the majority of the 6 billions humans living on this planet agrees with me. Syrians, like many others, are intelligent enough to distinguish between the actions of the American government and the American people. We, in Syria, are suffocating from lack of political freedom and a total absence of free press. You, in America, are drowning in the mediocrity of your incongruous democratic system and the deception of your biased media. Finally Betty, and as far as your direct questions are concerned, you wanted to know why I write in English. In order not to repeat myself, let me direct you to this old post of mine, titled appropriately enough (Why Do I Write in English).
Now comes the simplest yet most difficult part of my task, to give you my personal opinion about your relationship with Mahmoud. You have given me some private details which should remain so. I have asked you to tell me where Mahmoud comes from and a little bit about his family background. This is where I'm going to step on toes as foreseen in the beginning of this long article. The cultural difference between Mahmoud's background and the average Tartoussi's, between Mahmoud's city and Tartous is as huge as the difference between Tartous and New York City. You see Betty, Syria is a jigsaw puzzle of miniature mosaics. Unlike the United States where conformity bridges the distance between Henderson, Louisiana and Chicago, Illinois, Syria is very much varied and diverse. Where Mahmoud comes from is a world apart from mine. I have been there and cannot convincingly say that I can survive in that part of Syria for over 48 hours without a major nervous breakdown. I am being territorially chauvinistic I know but I owe you the obligation of speaking my mind. Mahmoud might be able to adapt and live happily in America but the opposite is not true, in my opinion. You will not be able to live in Mahmoud's town as a married woman without giving up a part of your identity, if not all. I know of many Americans who live permanently in Damascus and are very happy. Damascus is a wonderful metropolis and so is Aleppo. But I really can't see an American man or woman living in Tartous happily for the rest of their lives. There are a few of them in addition to Westerners from other nationalities by the way but they are the exception rather than the rule. You would not stand a chance in Mahmoud's town, of this I'm most certain.
I hope I didn't bore you to death. I tried to be as brief as possible with very little success evidently. Give yourself and Mahmoud a chance. Don't think of him as a Syrian or as a Muslim but just as any ordinary guy. Is he Mr. Right? Is he the one whom you truly love and desire? Do you see yourself spending the rest of your life with him and growing older together? Does he make you laugh, does he make you happy, does he make you think? Do you miss him when he's not around? Is he the one you want to see in the morning, every morning? You alone have answers to these questions. You should also keep in mind that divorce has unfortunately become an acceptable option regardless of culture, nationality or religion. If you approach your relationship in any other manner you are very likely going to be disappointed.

I wish you the best of luck and thank you so much for confiding in me.

22 comments:

Her Epiphany said...

I can't imagine how hard it is for Betty, first to come to the realization that he is the right Life Partner in terms of character, secondly, to face the obsticales "forced realities" of society. But it was done before, although results vary, yet each union has its own identity hence should be handled differently. Change is necessary and as Henry George said "There is danger in reckless change; but greater danger in blind conservatism" in other words, only she knows what is right for her, somehow we all get to know that.

Abu Kareem said...

Abu Fares,

Loved your response to Betty, balanced and truthful; said as only you can. I agree with all of it.

To Betty:

I am the product of a mixed marriage: Christian European mother and a Syrian Muslim father. It has been 52 years and going strong. Keep in mind that my mother arrived in a Syria that was much more insular and conservative than it is now. In contrast when I open the student directory of the school my children attend here in the U.S., almost half of the kids have two addresses because their parents are divorced.

Lujayn said...

Abu Fares, its a difficult question to answer but you gave Betty your honest opinion. In the end, she is the one that has to decide what matters to her, what she is willing to give up, what she is willing to accept, what she can handle and what she wants from this marriage. I can only hope she makes a trip to her husband's home town before making a decision.

kaya said...

Great post AbuFares.
You are a regular Dr.Phil/Robert de Niro (meet the parents).
But you know its a funny thing. My husband and I are both Punjabis from Lahore.
The differences between us however are like chalk and cheese. Yes we share the same language, culture, religion so to speak, but our representations of these similar things are so different that we might as well be from seperate religions or races.
My point?
When one falls in love and chooses oneself ones life partner, it is more often the uniting of hearts/souls and those transcend all other man made barriers.
Its hard for a inter racial marriage agreed, but people dont seem to realise that marriage is in general a tough deal which you have to work hard at no matter where/who you are.

Sean L said...

Contentious? No, I don't think so. That's some of the best common-sense advice I've ever read!

As for the differences between Damascus, Tartous and Mahmoud's home town... well, that's very correct and makes a lot of sense too. Even within 'new' countries like the US and Australia, there's a lot of cultural variation between cities. Multiply that by thousands of years and the differences become even more apparent. For instance, I found the differences between Hama and Tartous absolutely fascinating, even though they're about 50km apart.

One more piece of advice that you can give Betty is to jump on the Lonely Planet message board for Syria (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forum.jspa?forumID=18&keywordid=81). There's a few American, Australian and European expats who post on there regularly; if she's after any more feedback on what life in Syria is like for an outsider, someone should be able to answer her questions. Best of luck to her.

Hope you're also keeping well!

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Abu Fares, very well-written and balanced post, but what else is new :)

I completely agree with Mrs. Robinso… oops! I mean with Kaya; I had the chance to meet people from variety of religions and backgrounds in the past couple of years. One thing is for sure: human beings connect on levels that transcend religion and race. I have a friend who couldn’t be more far from me in terms of his/her upbringing and culture, yet it feels like we’re kindred souls.

What could be a crucial point for the sustainability of the marriage (IMHO)is the place where Betty and Mahmoud intend to live: I suggest as a start (and if possible) a place where they can be at equal distant from their originating cultures. The equal vectors meeting and creating balance so that nobody feels pushed or compromising. I hope I’m making sense.

Wish you both the best of luck.

Now to the subject of inter-religious marriage in Syria; I have only one thing to say, and I know it might get people going gung-ho all over me: it’s definitely not fair that Muslim women can’t marry Christian men (should they chose to) while the vice versa is possible.

abufares said...

Hi y'all
I don't want to reply to each comment as usual since this particular post is in the end about Betty & Mahmoud. I wish, however, that everyone pitches in with an opinion like all of the above have done so far.
Zena brought up a very interesting point and that is no 2 stories are ever similar.
Abu Kareem was very helpful especially since he talked about his parents' wonderful experience.
Lujayn's suggestion that Betty should visit Mahmoud's town is great advice. I might add that if and when Betty feels that her relationship should move to the next level, a visit to Syria and to Mahmoud's town would be very beneficial.
Kaya as ever hits the nail right on the head. Race, religion and nationality are not that important anymore when the fire of true love burns and illuminates the dark alleys of doubts and bigoted stagnation.
Sean, a world traveler from London, practically brought Betty's attention to the need of learning from the experiences of others.
Dubai Jazz a Syrian expat in Dubai tackled the issue from a different angle and paused a very serious and valid question. We should answer his question on whether we agree with him or not (and I will later on in this comment section.

I really believe that the story of Betty & Mahmoud is one with universal appeal and validity. There are no right or wrong answers, just honest and personal ideas to share.

saint said...

Contentious, yes, but only for one issue, Mahmoud place. You made me curious where Mahmoud place is, and it might be up to Betty to find out what values he still cherish and what he dislike from his home place. Although, it might have little effect on the Mahmoud personality and affiliation.

I was in the same shoes like you abufares, when my neighbor, a young professional single lady came to me for advise about a fellow Muslim from the middle east she is sleeping with and considering him for long term relationship. I had the chance a day before to meet him and listen to him. When she asked me, I could not hide my views about this guy who still living in his stone aged mind. I still feel proud I did the right thing and stood to humanity not nationality side of the matter.

Az3ar's Fan said...

As an Arab who is married to someone from the USA and living in the USA, I can share this: in the long run you will be missing your family and it will be difficult to connect with them on daily basis. For that alone, I want Betty to think about her future decision. I mean if you go to my blog, you will find my post of the late great poet Mahmoud Darwish longing for his mother. Ofcourse, the poem has more significane than that but you get the point.

Mariyah said...

Well said, Abu Fares. Your thoughts are not contentious...just well laid out and thoughtful.

Betty: As a product of a "mixed marriage" - my mother a Christian European and my father a Muslim Syrian - I have only a few things to add. Yes, their relationship was a product of a past generation, but after also talking to some friends who are in mixed marriages I can suggest the following:

As a wife of a Syrian be prepared to fully embrace Syria and its traditions. You will find that they will play an increasing large role in your life and the life of your future family. Family in Syria, as with many other traditional countries which Abu Fares aptly mentioned, is tighter and more influential than you may ever see in an American family.

Yes, love can overcome race and religion, but love alone cannot hold a relationship together. You have to make sure that you are willing to comprimise...perhaps more on your side and that that will not eventually create bitterness. I experienced very little to do with my mother's background until I left for Canada when I was 20, which I know bothered my mother. You may be a stronger woman, in this respect, than my mother, and Mahmoud may not be as stiff as my father, but you may still find an inequality in that element of your relationship.

Of course, its not all negative, I only wanted to outline the things that caused problems. My father was fiercely loyal to my mother and the two of them experienced a wonderful love story that lasted nearly 40 years. It appears you are cautiously entering this relationship and with your eyes open. Kudos to you. I hope it works out.

KJ said...

Thanks Abu Fares for this post.. did I tell you that your posts make my day and take me out of my misery?

Yes! For that you serve a great purpose in my daily life.

As for Betty, allow me to quote Abu Fares (or rather perhaps paraphrase): You'd know if he's Mr Right if you can imagine yourself sharing one toothbrush with him

kaya said...

Very truly said mariyah
You speak of the differences of mixed marriages, you would be amazed at the huge differences that exist within the same race/religion/culture.
My husband's family is so far removed from mine that the tiniest things they say/do would freak me out.
14 years later and after much trial and tribulations, I have finally to a certain level, come to learn to overlook and ignore many things.
Just as not speaking the language has its drawbacks so does it have its plus points.
You dont understand a lot of stuff said, and its less hurtful. You are given a certain amount of leeway because YOU dont know the culture and as such can get away with quite a bit.(HEHEHHEH)
Its very good advice that I am about to disclose. The settings of the scenario in the early stages is what will last a life time.
Its been 14 years but the goof ups I made early on tide me over now. Everyone seems to have forgotten that its been 14 years, that I speak punjabi fluently, or know the ins and outs of the family.
They always say, oh she doesnt know she has come from out.
You know what I mean.
If you do not have that level of understanding with your husband- believe me, no one else can guide/support you.
Its very important esp in our culture, to follow his cue, like whom he likes, and so on forth.
Once you have built that trust, then you can start making changes slowly, in things/people that you dont like.

Anonymous said...

I, a Catholic raised atheist, was once in a very special relatiosnhip with a Muslim from Syria. Although we shared many views, interests, loves, friends, likes and dislikes, he felt always the need to remind me that I would not fit in back at his home town. In the end, after a year or so I broke up with him.

Maybe I should have asked him if he was also willing to fight for what we had? If he would stand by me no matter what, as I would have for him? If he could live with the good and the bad a mixed marriage could bring?

If Mahmoud is willing to make it work and share the responsability a marriage entails, I give Betty the thumbs up!

w.b. yeats

Betty! said...

Hi ALL I am Betty!! I want to thank everyone for the wonderful advice. My relationship is new but I am trying to work through some of the toughest issues as soon as possible so I can arm myself for the future. Honestly, I don’t know what will happen in my relationship, we are both so focused on our careers and we are taking the relationship very slow, hoping to give us time to be sure about one another. I contacted abufares to seek knowledge and an understanding, and as everyone has said he was successful! The middle eastern culture is so foreign to me. Here in the US we aren’t exposed to any of the “good” aspects of it. Everything we hear is politically based or are stories of unjust things happening to women and daughters. I cant understand “him” until I see more of the story so to speak. So thank you all, I wish I could pick every one of your brains with questions, but who has time for that. I guess the main goal for me is to get past the stereotype and try to understand the conflicting issues between American and Middle Eastern culture. I am open to any more advice and am thankful for feedback thus far!

abufares said...

Hi Y'all

I planned to remain silent and just observe in order not to influence the exchange in any way.
I'll step in momentarily and respond to a couple of points.

@saint
You're right. Betty should make her own mind about the possible effects of Mahmoud's background and upbringing on their relationship. Even if they plan to remain in the US as I've learned later, a visit to his hometown (if things get serious enough) could be of tremendous value.

@Az3ar's fan
Homesickness is a powerful emotion. It doesn't affect all people equally. I can only talk about myself. I can't see myself staying away from Tartous for any significant length of time even on the account of my career (which it did).

@Mariyah
Your words obviously come from a deep personal experience. Betty needs to communicate with girls like you who can help her in locating some seemingly insignificant loose threads.

@KJ
Thank you for restating what I believe "was" and still "is" my greatest contribution to humanity.

@Kaya
Alas... Only if you weren't sooo married. I would've certainly made a pass at you.

@DJ
I'm all for Civil Marriage in Syria and everywhere else in the world. I don't have to embrace it myself but I fully support everybody's right to do so.

abufares said...

@w.b. yeats

Vanity! Fools alone give themselves the right to think on behalf of others. They believe that by avoiding a moment of truth they will successfully evade suffering.
Sitting at the table later on, counting their gains and losses, they realize the harsh truth. Pain was, all along, inevitable.

abufares said...

@Betty
So nice of you to drop by in the comment section.
It seems that the general consensus, so far, is that we should follow our heart and that love is greater than any obstacle.
I fully agree. The least you could achieve is to give yourself the opportunity to learn about and to enhance your knowledge of the other people who share this planet with you. The best, of course, is to live happily ever after.
Either way, you should never come out a loser.

Anonymous said...

Abufares,ignorance is the worst of all disease, no mater what the religion is,

READ, IN THE NAME OF THY LORD WHO CREATED,

education is the key
lĂȘ

ps, just returned from fishing we hade a nice day,

MadSurg said...

I haven't been following this much, but here's a website I read a while ago and I think it'll be useful:
A Foreigner in Syria
the writer is a college student from Massachusetts who visited Damascus for some time to learn arabic. He has a positive attitude and his writing is fairly accurate..I hope it'll help a bit

MomTo5 said...

Salaam,
Dear betty,you are very welcome to write to me.
It is hard but everyone can make it insh allah :)and in theese days whith the internet its not hard to keep in touch whith family.
I am from Sweden and have been married to an cristian Lebanese and we have 2 kids and i have lived in Lebanon to and are now married to an Palestinian since 10 years alhamdullilah and i live in an camp here in Syria since 4 years.
(cristian lebanes/palestinian muslim !!!! lots of problem...yeah belive me)and its never ends...
well...sometime i will write a book about my life ;)

Best regards from an happy europen in Syria.

Sarah said...

This has been a fascinating discussion...and I have only two things to add.

First, how well Betty fits in with Syrian culture will probably depend to some extent on where in the U.S. she's from. I've met people from the Southern U.S. in the Middle East who seemed to have an easier time fitting in that people from the Northeast, for example.

Second, it's nice to hear about so many examples of foreign women remaining committed to the Middle Eastern men they date. I'm not against romantic flings, but the majority of flings that I've witnessed between Western women and Middle Eastern men haven't ended well; worse, they've reinforced negative stereotypes on both sides. And contrary to gendered stereotypes about men and women's ability to commit to a relationship, in these situations it usually seems to be the foreign girl who leaves the guy in the dust, much to his chagrin...so it's nice to know that these relationships sometimes result in a fruitful and rewarding commitment.

abufares said...

@Sarah
Thank you for dropping by.
I agree with your two points almost completely.
Today I read a wonderful post by Abu Kareem about his parents experience.

http://levantdream.blogspot.com/2008/08/mixed-marriage-insiders-view.html