With the well-deserved hype surrounding her first fiction novel, the name G. Willow Wilson is becoming increasingly well known. But what many do not know is that before ‘Alif the Unseen’ was her equally impressive memoir, ‘The Butterfly Mosque’. This book follows the journey of the author as a young American college graduate who, in the wake of 9/11, moves to Cairo to work as an English teacher. Despite everything, she finds herself in love with Islam, Egypt and an Egyptian. At its core, it is a book about finding one’s place in vastly different worlds at a time when many view them as incompatible.
So many elements of Wilson’s story resonated with me, particularly as a young, ‘post 9/11’ Western revert, the wife of an Arab man and a prospective migrant to a Middle Eastern country (inshaAllah). I would highly recommend this book to any ‘foreign wife’ but for now, I would like to share with you some of the issues it touches upon.
Beware the Middle Eastern Man!
“In the back of my mind was a lesson I’d learned watching the movie Not Without My Daughter and reading horror stories in women’s magazines: they always seem like nice guys”
By all accounts, the Western media does not paint a flattering picture of Middle Eastern men. So it is no surprise that many Westerners regard them with varying degrees of fear and distrust, particularly in the context of marriage to one of ‘our own’. Wilson describes her own struggle with this fear which sees her secretly devising escape plans in the event that the gentle and kind man she loved suddenly turned into an “honor-killing wife-imprisoning fundamentalist”.
This is something that will be familiar to many women in relationships with Middle Eastern men. While it is sensible to be aware that nightmare scenarios can and do occur, allowing this fact to dominate your thoughts and feelings about your husband and your life together is a one way street to resentment and a breakdown in trust and intimacy and eventually, your marriage as a whole. This is without mentioning how unfair it is to the average Arab husband who loves and cares for his wife as any other man does. Pity him because no matter how many compliments or gifts he gives or how often he takes her out for a romantic dinner, he will always be considered suspect because as Wilson says, they always seem nice…
Calming the fears of others
“Despite my anxieties, I couldn’t show any hesitation. My confidence was the only thing that would convince my friends and family that this was a good idea.”
Marrying someone from outside your culture, particularly from one as misunderstood as Saudi Arabia, can feel like a huge step into the unknown. For your friends and family whose main source of information about Saudi Arabia and Islam is likely the Western media, it probably just seems downright crazy and even masochistic.
Similar sentiments abound on the other end of the equation. Guaranteed, the Saudi side will know someone (who knows someone who knows someone…) who married a foreigner and it ended in a horrifically messy divorce, often with the wife fleeing to her country with the children who he may or may not have ever seen or heard from again. In some versions insult is added to injury with the woman returning to her former religion and raising the children as non-Muslims. This leaves the Saudi family and friends with the belief that anyone willing to take such a risk when they could ‘play it safe’ and marry a nice Saudi girl, is quite frankly, absolutely out of their mind.
The result is that the couple at the centre of it all are left to console all involved (including each other) and reassure them that their story will be different; he/she is not the typical Saudi/Westerner -their marriage will succeed! But the problem is that no one really knows for sure. Disturbingly high divorce rates among Saudi/non Saudi marriages on top of the fear and suspicion invoked by cautionary tales against marrying ‘the other’ will have made them wary and somewhat cynical. But with the approval of your loved ones hinged on your faith in the relationship, any sign of hesitation will immediately send them on a well-meaning path to derail your plans. So just smile and wave kids, smile and wave!
A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do
“For the first time in my life I became more passionate about what I had to do than about what I wanted to do…What I had to do was make my life work in Egypt and I stuck to this with a diligence I did not realise I had, and which manifested itself in ways I could not have anticipated”
Not long ago, I spoke with another ‘foreign wife’ who had recently made the move to Saudi Arabia. I was particularly interested in her story because, although her situation was what many would consider less than ideal (she lives with her in-laws and her husband is rarely home), she was extremely enthusiastic about her life in Saudi Arabia. Curious, I asked her what had driven her to succeed in creating this new life for herself. She told me that, not long after arriving, she noticed a great sadness emanating from many of the women she encountered. She immediately knew that she could not allow this to happen to her – she needed to be happy in her new country not just for the sake of her marriage and her young daughter, but for herself. This realisation propelled her forward, through the inevitable cultural obstacles and the delicate balances which must be made between respectfully yielding to cultural norms and maintaining one’s sense of self.
Wilson demonstrates a similar admirable dedication to her life in Egypt, going above and beyond what was expected of her as a foreigner and even of what would be expected of a young Egyptian wife. Some of these unique accomplishments include learning to speak Egyptian Arabic, fearlessly making the daily trip to the local markets for food (in the case of poultry; killed, de-feathered and gutted on site), successfully repelling the various insects and animals so prone to making appearances in Egyptian homes and gaining the ability to treat dysentery and other illnesses with herbal remedies. However, it’s important to note that while she respected and abided by many Egyptian cultural norms, she also remained true to herself in the things which were important to her, not least her career. In this regard, she worked as a journalist for the (now defunct) independent Egyptian news publication Cairo Magazine before pursuing a successful freelance writing career. As is evident in her writing, the result of this admirable effort and the balance she was able to strike meant that she successfully adapted to Egyptian culture and consequently earned an increased love and respect from both her husband and his family. Additionally, her time in Egypt evidently gave her a great insight into and love of Egypt and its people which has inspired much of her writing to date.
All the negativity surrounding marriage to Middle Eastern men and Saudi’s in particular, inevitably gets to you at some point. You get sick of being judged by strangers who know nothing about you, your husband or your marriage except that you fit within a label – ‘Saudi’ and ‘Non-Saudi’, ‘Westerner’ and ‘Middle Eastern’. However, the reality is that all anyone can do is cover all bases in case things do not go as planned, make a concerted effort to ensure the success of the marriage and place your trust in God.
“All love is risk. We could go forward and hope. The rest was written on our palms, an inscrutable poem known only to God.”