Valentina Primo delves into the intricacies and intimacies of intercultural marriages as she speaks to six very different women from all over the world, with one common attribute: their Egyptian husbands.
There is a massive cyber-library of gruesome books and articles revolving around the dangers of intercultural marriage, especially when it involves an Arab man, resulting in a global stereotype that configures nothing but prejudice. But is there no experience at the other end of the spectrum? CairoScene speaks to six women and delves into their stories of success, struggles, and romance having married an Arab man.
It was 1968 and Beatrice was faced with the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. As her husband led her into the boat, she glanced back over her shoulder and said goodbye to Venice, hoping the journey ahead would leave space for some rest. It had been a fatiguing trip since they had left from Birmingham, England, crossing the channel tunnel and hopping on a seemingly endless series of trains through France and Italy until their had reached the port. As she put baby Yusef to sleep, she looked ahead and thought of Greece, the last stop on the five-day journey that would lead them to Egypt.
“We had been married for a year, and it was actually me who persuaded him to come back to Egypt, although he would have liked to stay in England,” she says. Granted a scholarship by the Egyptian authorities, her husband Aly was studying to obtain his PhD in Mathematics at Liverpool University, where he and Beatrice had met. But as the scholarship requirements demanded his payment if he were not to go back to his homeland, Beatrice encouraged the return.
“I had never left England, so it was very strange for me to move,” she recalls. As they arrived to the airport in Alexandria, Beatrice encountered the flavors of Egypt for the first time. “The hotel in Dumiyat, the fool and ta’meya place, going to the Mugama'a, it all sounds so strange now,” says Beatrice, now a widower and a grandmother of seven children, who works as a supervisor in a school in Nasr City.
In her opinion, family was vital to her successful marriage. “His family was really nice to me, his father used to celebrate Christmas for me and prepare special cakes for the occasion,” says the 70-year-old woman, who converted to Islam four years after her arrival.
“It hasn’t always been smooth,” she says when describing her 45-year marriage. “We have had our difficult times as any couple does; but it wouldn’t have been different if I had married and English man,” she admits. Beatrice stayed at home taking care of her child for the first two years and then started working as a teacher in a school in Zamalek, until they moved to Saudi Arabia, where they lived four years. “I didn’t have problems adapting to the culture; I used to have a friend who used to laugh and say I am a British woman from Bulaq,” she says as she candidly laughs.
The Family Puzzle
Marriage came out as something of a challenge for Faima, who moved to Egypt with her 4-year-old daughter after meeting her husband through an online simulation game called Second Life. The story, a seemingly surreal tale where simulated reality fused with her real life, took her from her native Bulgaria to Egypt’s northern town of Fayed in Ismailyia, where she had to live in a house with no roof for a year. “Because Mohamed was meant to do the military service and married a foreign woman, they suspected he was only trying to dodge the army,” she explains. “So they suggested I lived in the same city where he was allocated, in a very humble house right in front of the entrance to his camp.”
Now happily married for seven years, Faima recalls the difficulty of the first year, when the family had to live on a meagre LE 200 per month. “I had packed my suitcases with my Prada handbags and found myself choosing between buying yoghurt for my daughter or milk for me, as we couldn´t afford both,” she laughs with irony. Her husband, who adopted her daughter, now works as a gynecologist in Cairo’s Dokki, where the couple lives with their two children.
“Our main difficulty were my in-laws. I never had any contact for six years, until the baby was born. They just pretended I didn’t exist, and Mohamed repelled the attacks and ignored them in return,” the 41-year-old woman recalls. “Now I love them and they respect me a lot, but I don´t let them be a factor in the success of my marriage”.
“Family recognition and respect are two very important cultural matters that predict the life of the marriage here,” agrees Sara, a Lebanese-American woman who left everything behind in the USA to marry an Egyptian man whom she met at the airline they were working for. Both embarking into their second marriage, Sara and Ahmed faced family rejection, as his relatives feared she wouldn’t take care of the children he had conceived in his first marriage. “When I was in the USA and he told them he was going to marry me, there was a lot of drama, but he insisted and I didn't seek their approval; I respected him more because he wasn't swayed by his family,” she says. “Five years later, his mother explained everything to me and everything changed.”
A Global Negative Discourse
“I am always annoyed with the negative publicity that comes with this topic, as I have been married to my half-Turkish half-Egyptian husband for over eight years and we have a wonderful marriage with two kids,” observes Sina, a globetrotter and interior designer based in Alexandria, where she runs a small boutique studio.
For Claire, negative comments rained when she shared the news of her marriage amongst some friends in her home country of Australia. “There was a lot of negativity among my friends around the relationship; I got told I was stupid because he was using me, and his friends would tell him the same,” she recalls still in surprise. “We had to end up disconnecting from them.”
Claire’s story is familiar to many: while visiting Egypt as a tourist in 2012, her tour guide Ahmed and her ‘clicked’. “I had the idea the tour guide is always expecting for the next group of people to hook up, but we stayed in contact for six months every day, and that’s when I realised it was something more important than that,” says the 30-year-old woman, now married for two years and based in Australia, where the couple takes care of their little daughter.
Most women agree that communicating is key. “We had once an argument because he was telling me what to do and I said ‘you are not my dad’,” Claire exemplifies. “It took a while for him to realise he needed to share decisions, something which is very common in the Australian culture. But we have a lot of understanding about the cultural difference, and this helps us handle things in a better way.”
For Alexis, an American non-profit worker married for two years, talking and setting up common rules was essential to overcoming cultural differences. “Men in this culture are so focused on their friendship with other males, while I am used to being the center of a man’s attention at all times,” she tells CairoScene. “But I have been learning that it is ok for him to go out a few times a week to decompress and I try to take that time for myself too. He would like me to wait for him at home, but I guess I kind of panic and just need to be out too,” she laughs.
An Egyptologist from Cairo’s Korba, Mahmoud came into Alexis’ way while she was travelling for a film project about Gaza. Although she was not interested in meeting any men, a friend “ambushed” her to meet him, and after a bike ride across Cairo at sunrise, they never left each other's side.
“We have had other issues, such as his reluctance in me hugging my male friends. I have a hard time with this one as in America we are so much more open and affectionate. When we have been in the States and run into friends they just immediately go for a hug and I don't know how to say 'oh, sorry but my Egyptian husband is uncomfortable with this',” she says. “Sometimes I find this culture is such a man's world. For now we have ground rules of what we expect and we have even sat with a mediator and written them out so we feel the other really understands. That made a pretty significant change,” she concludes.
*In order to protect the interviewees’ privacy, all names have been changed.
Photography by Ahmed Alloush.