In a recent blog post, Abu Fares skillfully outlined for Betty the issues that need to be considered to make an intercultural marriage a success. The post made me think about my own parents. Mixed marriages generally get bad press as the media focuses on sensational stories of relationships gone horribly wrong. Given this negative image, if my parents' story appears unremarkable to me -they are my parents after all- theirs is a story of success and is perhaps a story worth recounting.
Fifty two years ago, a young Syrian physician, doing a year of post-doctoral training in London, met a young European woman who was in London to learn English. They fell in love. My father, not wanting to be hemmed in by his family's choice of suitable future spouses, proposed to my mother. Before they returned to Syria, they went to get the blessing of her parents. My father, won over my grandmother with his Levantine charm. My grandfather, on the other hand, could not swallow the fact that his daughter was marrying an Arab. Though he did not stand in the way of their union, his attitude never changed. Upon seeing me and my brother a couple of years later, he told my mother that we were not as brown as he expected us to be! He, unfortunately passed away shortly thereafter and I regret never to have been able to know him better.
Arriving in Lattakia of the mid 50s was a cultural shock for my mother. She was received with open arms by my long-widowed paternal grandmother and my father's nine uncles and aunts, an open-minded and highly educated bunch embraced her easily. But Lattakia was a small, parochial and conservative town and the the arrival of a foreign bride certainly set the tongues wagging. Her unusual parenting methods, she followed the Dr. Spock school of parenting, was the talk of the neighborhood. They noted with amusement my mother's penchant for using colored plates to increase her children's finicky appetite. The ladies of the حارة (neighborhood) were scandalized that the doctor's boys were playing, dressed in nothing but their underwear ( شحّارن they are going to "catch" a cold!), in the tiny wading pool my mother had put in our small garden.
It took my mother time to adapt to this new social environment. The support of the extended family made the transition much easier as was the support of a handful of other European women from mixed marriages living in town. My parents' relationship remained solid in spite of my father's increasing religiosity. To his credit, my father never imposed his religiosity on my mother or used it to limited her in any way. Soon, however, their lives would be turned upside down by external upheavals beyond their control. With my father's involvement in politics, we moved to Damascus. The subsequent political unrest of the early sixties made it difficult for us to stay in Syria and the family decamped -in haste- to Lebanon. There, the more open and liberal social atmosphere offered my mother respite from the more restrictive public sphere in Syria. Simple pleasures like going swimming became possible again. On the other hand, Lebanon, with its schizophrenic identity problems, could at times prove to be uncomfortable for my mother, married as she is to Muslim Syrian. To her annoyance, some Lebanese, who fancied themselves more European than Middle Eastern, felt at liberty to share with her all of their prejudices against "les Arabes"; all within earshot of her four boys.
For the next three decades, Lebanon would become the home base of a nomadic family existence as my father, working for an international organization, was posted in various developing countries. In an attempt to provide us with a stable education my parents enrolled us at first in boarding schools in Lebanon and we would rejoin our parents abroad on holidays and in the summer. This often proved too difficult a separation for my mother who would return to Lebanon to stay with us for months at a time. Eventually, to preserve family unity, we abandoned our schooling in Lebanon and followed my father in his various postings. Though my parents' relationship was strained and severely tested, especially at times when they were separated, it survived. Fifty two years on my parents remain inseparable.
The success of a marriage, whether within or across cultures, comes down to the compatibility of the partners. Any relationship requires, in addition to love, a willingness to compromise, a give and take to reach a balance that is acceptable to both. In an intercultural marriage the spouse who ends up living in a new culture will have to make additional compromises. Of course, how much compromise is required depends on the how accomodating the culture is. Certainly modern day Lattakia is a very different place than Lattakia of the 50s. But Lattakia, a coastal Levantine city, even in the 1950s was more accomodating than a place like modern day Saudi Arabia, outside of the artificial foreign enclaves, with its imposed homogeneity.
But mixed marriages are not only about compromises. Exposure to new a new culture is greatly enriching for both. Moreover, for a resourceful spouse, like my mother, access to the ethos and morals of two divergent cultures came in handy in keeping us, her children, in line. She might, for example, become indignant if our behavior offended her European sensibilities in some way. Yet she could in an instant turn the tables on us and act like the most conservative Lattakia mother chiding us for some other behavioral misstep. The conservative Lattakia mother is the face she yielded when it came to her sons' relationships with the opposite sex. She would advise us about "nice"girls whom she thought appropriate for us. When we made our own choices, she acted like the typical Arab mother, jealously protecting her "precious" sons from unworthy women. Um Kareem was on the receiving end of some of that wrath although I am happy to say that she is now, thank god, the favorite daughter-in-law.
Whether intercultural marriages especially European-Middle Eastern unions are any less successful than other marriages is difficult to say. After reading Abu Fares' post I put that question to my mother, knowing that she is not one to mince words. She said that in almost all marriages that she has known between Syrian men and European women, the men married for true love and remained loyal to their wives even when the realtionship faltered for other reasons such as difficulties with the husband's family or the inability of the wife to adapt to Syrian culture.
Of course, the couples my mother knew may not be representative. Nevertheless it clearly shows that such marriages can succeed and prosper. And if they offer greater challenges at the start, they also offer greater rewards when they do succeed.