Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mixed Marriage: A Insider's View

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.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks

When it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Western opinion is greatly influenced by cultural and religious biases, collective post-Holocaust guilt and a narrative of the conflict that is almost exclusively that of Jews living in the West. In addition, with the passage of time, a clear-eyed view of the root of the conflict is increasingly muddied by intervening world and regional events, and more recently, by internecine Palestinian conflicts. Yet, when pared down to its bare-boned essentials, there is stark, simple and undeniable reality to the conflict: The deliberate, planned, systematic dispossession of Palestinians of their land which continues unabated sixty years into the conflict. That reality, clear as day to most Arabs –and I might add, most of the rest of the world-, still does not seem to register with most Westerners. Raja Shehadeh’s book, Palestinian Walks, goes a long way into refocusing the attention of its readers to the realities of Israel’s intentions.

Shehadeh is a lawyer and human rights activist who spent decades trying to defend Palestinian lands from expropriation by Israel. In Palestinian Walks, Shehadeh, an avid walker, recounts several of his most memorable walks through the unique Palestinian landscape in the past three decades. As we go along with him on his walks, we learn much of the geology of Palestine as well as its flora and fauna. We also learn about the intricate relationship between this land, its history and its people through stories of his own extended family. He goes on to poignantly describe the devastating changes in the Palestinian landscape brought on by the settlements, the bypass roads and most recently Israel’s “security” wall. Throughout his walks Shehadeh reflects back on his struggles as a lawyer trying to defend Palestinian land from expropriation. He describes in great detail the systematic way in which Israel thwarted local and international laws to steal Palestinian land and expel its rightful owners. He exposes as a bold faced lie Israel’s contention that settlements were built only on “public” lands in the Occupied Territories. Shehadeh’s wrath is not limited to Israel though. He rails against the PLO and its failure to include the settlements in the Oslo accord, an omission that he feels has had disastrous consequences. All that Arafat was interested in, he contends, is Israeli recognition of the PLO.

Much of what Shehadeh exposes is not new; it can be found in many more scholarly books and magazines. The value of Shahedeh’s book, with its seemingly innocuous title and low key style, is that it brings the stark reality of Israel’s machinations to the general (Western) public. This is not second hand recounting of dry facts but first hand information from a man who is intimately involved. Moreover, what makes this book so powerful is the juxtaposition of the personal anecdotes from someone with a deep love of the land, with the hard facts. What also comes through in some of the anecdotes is the mindset of the “other”, the settlers and those in Israel and outside who empower them. Take, for example, this anecdote about a Palestinian farmer most of whose land was confiscated for building a settlement and what was left of his house and property was fenced in except for a passageway a few yards wide. Now the wall threatened to cut him off from his village and the houses he built for his children:

Sabri and I were standing outside in the sun looking at the settlement through the wire fence built around his house. He was telling me about this latest case when we saw an old man walking his Labrador on the other side of the fence. I tried hard to catch the man’s eye. I wanted some indication of how he felt confining his neighbor in this way, but the man would not raise his eyes from the ground. He went solemnly through his walk, keeping pace with his dog, never showing recognition of Sabri or his guest.”

When I read this and think of the Western media’s accepted narrative of the Israeli as the perpetual victim and the Palestinian as the perpetual aggressor, it is hard not to get angry. Is there any more need to explain Palestinian rage? to answer the question of "why do they hate us?" when Barack Obama deems it only wothwhile to visit Sderot and not the thousands of Palestinians who suffered the same fate as Sabri and when Sarkosi says that the creation of the state of Israel was the greatest thing that happened in the 20th century?

As you delve further into the book, Shehadeh’s mood grows from melancholic to despondent as he realizes that his life’s work, that of trying to protect Palestinians from Israel’s seemingly insatiable appetite for other people's land was a failure. At one point, as his father once did, he briefly thinks of suicide. Some of the gloom lifts towards the end of the book as Shehadeh’s perspective changes. He has to force himself to admit his failure, the defeat of this phase of the struggle for Palestine, to enable him to move on. He also learns the virtue of patience as he realizes that while most men measure their accomplishment in the time scale of a lifetime, history follows not such time scale.

Shehadeh’s clearly thinks that Israel's current policies, disastrous as they are for the Palestinians, will ultimately doom Israelis as well. Although he does explicitly spell it out, you get the sense that he believes as did Edward Said, late in life, that the ultimate solution is a one state solution. The one state solution is gaining traction among more and more prominent Palestinians although it remains anathema to the vast majority of Israelis. I have come around to believe the same although I do not see how it will ever become acceptable to enough Israelis to make anything more than a pipe dream.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Step 1: Aref Dalilah's Release

Mohannad al-Hassani, Dalilah's lawyer, said upon his release:

"We hope that this will be the beginning of freedom for the rest of the prisoners of conscience in Syria."

I couldn' agree more. I am a hopeful person by nature and will not speculate about the motive for his release, hoping -against all odds- that this is not political maneuvering or some quid pro quo to placate some foreign leader, like Monsieur Sarko, par example. Oops, I speculated!! Whatever the reason, it is a good first step and hope that it becomes a trend.

On Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist

"THEY hate our freedom!", "THEY want to destroy our way of life!", "THEY love death more than they love life!", "Islamofascits this and Islamofascists that....". These and other like-minded statements permeated the airwaves and newspaper headlines during the early post 9/11 frenzy. There was talk, by otherwise reasonable people, of internment camps and mass expulsions. Paranoia and xenophobic patriotism electrified the air and made every Arab and Muslim living here retract in fear, concern and anger. We all wondered how far this will go and whether we should pack our bags and leave.

Changez, a highly successful immigrant and the protagonist of Hamid's novel, chose to leave. Mohsin Hamid's intriguing novel is a monologue by Changez as he entertains an American visitor to dinner at a Lahore restaurant. Changez, a Pakistani immigrant, recounts his years in America starting as an ambitious student at Princeton, on to success in the rarefied air of a Manhattan valuation company. Then 9/11 transpires and things start to unravel. He becomes disenchanted with post-9/11 America and feels torn and guilty about being away from his family in Lahore as Pakistan and India, with American collusion, edge towards war. He thinks of returning home. His mind is made up when on an business assignment in Chile, a book editor compares Changez, a soldier in a high temple of the American capitalist empire, to an Ottoman Jannisary . Changez returns to Pakistan where he becomes a vocal critic of American foreign policy.

Early on in the novel, we learn that the American visitor is not a guest but is there in some official capacity. Tension builds as we learn that the American is uneasy and suspicious. We get a distinct feeling that something ominous is about to happen but Hamid's deft storytelling leaves us guessing to the end. In fact we are left guessing at the novel's abrupt end as to what exactly happened. Perhaps it is a statement by Hamid about the murky and yet unresolved state of affair between East-West, seven years after the start of the open-ended "war on terror".

Through the monologue Hamid answers the question that Americans keep asking: "why do they hate us?". Hamid's response is not an angry polemic but a subtle, intelligent explanation. It is the fact that the United States is, whether Americans want to admit it or not, the world's economic and military bully. American by and large see themselves as moral and decent individuals but there is a fine line between moral rectitude and condescending, self-absorbed, self-righteousness. America's asymmetric response to 9/11 is one manifestation of this syndrome.

Seven years on, the tide of mindless flag waving is slowly turning -slowly. This book was published in 2007 to uniformly good reviews. Yet I bought it from a bookstore a couple of weeks ago from a pile of deeply discounted books, an indication that it is not selling well. It is too bad, this book should be widely read by Americans. I guess it is more reassuring to read a book by pseudo-experts reassuring you of your moral superiority and confirming that the enemy is more vile than Satan, than to read a book that holds a mirror up to your face and shows you all the warts and wrinkles that you would rather forget.