More than 16 years ago I married into a real Arabic family and had to eliminate a pile of prejudices first.
Actually my husband was supposed to marry his first grade cousin, as it is still practiced a lot in the Middle East. This way the money stays in the family and the members know each other well to spare them from unpleasant surprises.
But family plans did not work out, because firstly, their son had to study abroad, in England, where many young men were sent to obtain a good qualification to become a much needed doctor, engineer, architect or accountant that this region lacks and because of which they still import so many foreign workers and specialists into the Middle East.
As it might be expected of someone studying abroad in a place where many international students gathered together, the son, on whom all family hopes were laid, met and fell in love with a European lady, me. Long story cut short, after a few years it became evident (meanwhile I had converted to Islam through my Arabic studies) that he wanted to marry me and to live in his home country in the Middle East. I said yes.
First of all he returned home alone to prepare his family, which ended in a family drama. The disappointed uncle whose daughter he would not marry got upset and no longer supported his nephew’s studies. The mother broke out in tears; her mean sisters-in-law would make fun of the young man’s mad choice; his father began chain-smoking, while the female family members tried to change his mind by offering to arrange a marriage with a beautiful local girl showing him daily pictures of willing ladies as per the traditional marriage mediation procedures. But all their efforts were in vain, even though they had done everything to argue him out of his foolish decision, knowing that women from the West were usually „easy“ girls, not to be trusted as wives, and that the „Englies“, as all foreigners from the West would be called (i.e. the English), were not very clean but stinky, because they did not use water after they had been to the toilet to wash the relevant body part with lots of water. They also had their doubts if a young woman from the West knew how to cook and she probably was not very talented in housekeeping either. Moreover they did not know anything about my descent. Family is important in the Middle East; if you get married, you marry the whole lot.
But despite all protests, my future husband would not change his mind. After the initial temper had calmed down and my fiancé’s family elders had traveled all the way to Europe to ‚examine‘ the bride a date for the wedding was set and I flew to my new home, a small island in the middle of Arabia. Only the closest family members were invited to our wedding, roughly 250 people, because of the embarrassment that the son of a traditional and well recognized family would marry a foreigner, even though a Muslim. I didn’t mind the „small“ number of guests, besides I did not understand a lot of the local dialect. I had spent a year in Egypt and the dialect I knew was not the same, but at least I spoke some Arabic.
After a few days the tension subsided as I had a lot of experience from my stay in Egypt in how to deal with people’s fear and apprehension of strangers. I knew that I had to meet my new family with understanding and empathy. I also knew that in the opposite case people would react similar or worse if, let’s say, my brother would want to marry a girl from a totally different culture who had never lived in Europe before. I understood why the family was worried. Thus, in the coming days I spent a lot of time with my new mother-in-law helping her in the kitchen and around the house in order to break down the emotional boundaries and to get to know each other. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, noticed with satisfaction that I knew how to take care of a household, which I owed to my experience as an au-pair girl in London. We finally got to know each other much better while picking rice, which proved to be an excellent language learning opportunity for me. I owe my fluency in colloquial Arabic to her.
Within a few days the ice was broken and my mother-in-law took me into her heart. To show me her affection she would throw a piece of meat from her side of the huge plate with rice and lamb at which we all sat on the floor eating with our hands, of course. The other family members stopped breathing to see how I would react to this old local custom that might be fairly unappetizing for a European. I thanked her with a smile and ate. There were many other incidents about which we often laugh today and which we fondly remember. I have since become one of the favourite family members and enjoy everyone’s full respect.
By the way, the children of the two sisters-in-laws of my husband’s mother, who had made mischievous and sneering comments before our marriage, got also married since; one of them has a daughter-in-law from the Far East and the other one a European son-in-law. Well, how does the proverb go? Do as you would be done.