Opposites Attract: How I Made My Intercultural Marriage Work
Posted on Sep 08, 2018
What do you look for in a spouse? Someone who’s genuine and kind? Funny and caring? Smart and God fearing? Easy on the eyes? In my experience, when talking about marriage with friends and colleagues, these are the typical answers I hear. It's rare nowadays to hear someone mention a specific nationality they'd like their future spouse to be. Why is that? I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me that our generation is realizing that someone's race or cultural origin is not an indicator of how worthy they are as a potential spouse. The world is becoming increasingly connected, and many of us here in the U.S see each other as Muslim Americans with a shared culture; therefore, we enter our marriages with a common ground regardless of the color of our skin or native language.
Our parents' generation, however, can sometimes see things a little bit differently. Take me for example: I was born and raised in Charlotte, NC, but my family immigrated here from Palestine. My husband was also born and raised in Charlotte, but his family is from Egypt. No big deal right? WRONG! When Kareem first proposed, his nationality as an Egyptian was a huge deal breaker in my mom’s eyes. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. It seemed like nothing else about Kareem was more important than him being an Egyptian. This would have been the case if he was any other nationality but Palestinian. Why though? At the time I didn’t understand. I didn’t see her frustration or where she was coming from. All I could see was that Kareem was an amazing guy with a bright future ahead of him. He checked all the boxes I had wanted in a potential spouse, and so with a lot of persuading, my mom came on board and here we are five years later! My family – and my mom being the first – would vouch for Kareem before me in a heartbeat!
I know many people who have struggled or may be struggling with getting their family on board with the person they believe is the perfect spouse. So here are some tips and things to remember based on my personal experience:
1. You are going to have to stand up for this person. They are the ones under the microscope and will be feeling very vulnerable, so you need to have their back in front of your parents, your extended family, your friends, and sometimes in front of judgemental strangers. You need to be willing to fight for them and show everyone why their nationality is irrelevant.
2. Kill them with kindness. Let his personality and character speak for themselves and your parents will see what you see in him.
3. Have a mediator between you and the person in your family that is opposed to the idea. In my case, it was my dad. Baba understood me and was able to see what I saw in Kareem from day one. He knew how to talk to my mom and change her perspective.
4. Shut out all the noise. You’re going to get rude and unwanted comments from extended family, you may even get comments from total strangers. Always remember... THEY DON’T MATTER. Believe it or not, I still get comments to this day, the most recent one being, “What made you leave all the Palestinian men for an Egyptian?” …uhmm what?!
No matter what type of marriage you are in – be it multicultural, multiracial, or not – I think we can all agree that it comes with some degree of hardship. It’s not all butterflies and roses like the movies make it out to be. However, trials can bring you closer together as husband and wife. It was only after Kareem and I got married and lived under the same roof did I realize why marrying outside of our Palestinian culture was such a big deal for my mom. The way we spoke Arabic was different, the way we prepared traditional foods was different, our traditions were different, all of the things that played a role in our identity and upbringing were so very different…
For example, now that we have a daughter, we make it a priority to speak Arabic in the house. Although they're both Arabic, the Egyptian and Palestinian dialects are very different. Many of our friends ask us which dialect she will be speaking, and the truth is, she'll speak whichever one she picks up – most probably a mix of both. Children are smart and if they are able to learn multiple languages at a young age, I am sure our daughter will manage to understand and speak both dialects. She’s almost two and has already picked up words and phrases from both sides and knows that when she speaks to her maternal grandparents she uses phrases and words from the Palestinian dialect, and when she’s speaking to her paternal grandparents she switches over to her Egyptian dialect. It’s fascinating!
On a larger scale, Muslims who choose to marry non-Muslim spouses face bigger obstacles regarding practicing their faith, especially when children are involved. Questions like, what religion will the children practice or how to incorporate both religions and traditions without undermining one or the other may cause tension even if the couple has come to an understanding. Grandparents, uncles, and aunts may feel the need to step in, causing a strain on the husband and wife’s relationship. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, remember that this journey is a work in progress and there is no such things as a “perfect marriage”.
Kareem and I had a very interesting conversation earlier this summer that brought into perspective the cultural differences we both bring into our marriage. We came to the realization that our perceived differences are ingrained in us and subconsciously molded our perception of culture all along. Egyptians take pride in their rich history of ancient civilization and the arts. For Palestinians, our land very much defines who we are. The olive trees, the zaatar, and mint, the farmland, and the thoub – a traditional handmade Palestinian dress embroidered with intricate cross stitching. All these things come in to play when we think about our identities.
But so what? Who cares? That’s the beauty of marriage, isn’t it? Two completely different souls coming together and building a new life based on what matters most; serving Allah (S), honesty, trust, loyalty, good manners, and character. I will admit that it took some getting used to, and even to this day we poke fun at certain aspects of our cultures, but it’s always from a place of love and respect.
I will leave you with this verse that is mentioned in every Islamic marriage ceremony, yet so often forgotten:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” (Quran 49:13)
Danah is wife to Kareem and mama to their daughter Kinzah (aka Kiki). She was born and raised in Charlotte, NC, and loves all things food, fashion, photography and home decor. After having Kinzah, she created her blog, Mother of Pearl, where she shares a glimpse into her life as she navigates motherhood and hopes to build a safe space for other mamas to connect. You can follow her on Instagram.