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It was something most dating couples did — go for a drive together to sit, talk, and enjoy the scenery. In this case the scenery consisted of the ever-shifting sands in the Middle Eastern desert, and the topic promised to be a volatile one.
My parents, younger brother, and I had been living in the Middle East for approximately one year at the time. My father had accepted a job transfer there from Europe, and we were all still in the process of integrating into our new environment. My brother and I attended an international school where we met people from seventy-five different countries!
I had been seeing Hamed for some months. We had met at a social function and had felt an instant pull toward each other. Phone calls and gifts ensued. Eventually I received Hamed's fumbling request to take me out to dinner.
Looking out of Hamed's car window I was amazed by the silent, ominous beauty of the desert. I didn't quite know how to broach the subject that had been weighing on me so heavily. It pertained to my "silent identity."
Hamed decided to stop the car in the middle of the barren wilderness. He adjusted his ghutra and agal (Middle Eastern headdress) and looked me in the eye. "Habibi (darling), what is on your mind?"
Without any tact I blurted out, "There are things you don't know about me, Hamed. I know you have told me that I don't strike you as "typically" European. You see... that's partially because... I'm Jewish."
I breathed deeply and sighed. Hamed didn't move, didn't blink, and didn't speak. The silence was deafening. "Miriam, this explains a lot about you. About how you act, think and look. You seem familiar and yet strange. Now I know why."
Despite that exchange, our relationship continued to flourish and eventually led to our engagement, which was supported by both our families. My parents hold Jewish traditions dear, but aren't what one would call overtly religious. They liked Hamed's frank nature and amiable personality. My mother once told me that he struck her as a Bedouin warrior-poet, much as she imagined King David had been.
Hamed frequently shared Sabbath meals with my family after praying at the mosque on Fridays (which is Islam's equivalent of the Sabbath day). He often asked me to explain Sabbath rituals to him. In general though, our Jewish identity was something we kept to ourselves due to the political tensions of the region.
Hamed and I decided to inform his family of my heritage once they knew me personally, so as to minimize the awkwardness. After having been poked and prodded (literally and figuratively!) by the no-nonsense matriarch of the family, I was accepted as a daughter and taken in. Unfortunately, Hamed's father had passed away some years earlier, but I was frequently told how much he would have approved of me had he still been alive.
During Ramadan I was often invited to his mother's house for Iftar, or the breaking of the fast at sunset. After Ramadan there is a three-day celebration called Eid Al Adha, which is a time for family gatherings, trips, and clothes shopping. Hamed would spoil his sisters, cousins, and me with gifts. I especially enjoyed going to weddings with Hamed's three sisters, as these were lavish affairs. Women and men celebrate separately, but you would be hard pressed to notice with all the wonderful food, music, and dancing.
I was astounded by the amount of knowledge commonly held by khaleej (Gulf) Arabs about the Jewish religion, customs and traditions. Some of the information differed from Jewish sources due to the fact that much of it came from the Quran (Muslim Holy Text) or the Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet Mohammed who claims Allah or God revealed Himself and His desires for humanity to him). The Quran and Hadith are the foundation of Islamic law in much the same way as the written and oral Torah (the Torah and Talmud) are the foundation of Jewish law.
As a mark of respect I wore the traditional sheila and abbaya. (A sheila is a black scarf made out of thin material used to cover a woman's hair. The abbaya is a coat-like garment worn over a woman's clothing.) I noticed that both Judaism and Islam place an emphasis on modesty in all areas if life, with Orthodox Jewish women similarly wearing modest clothing and covering their hair with wigs, hats, or scarves. It was my personal decision to veil, as Hamed never requested that I do so.
Hamed and I loved each other, but when we discussed matters concerning marriage or child-rearing, we had disagreements. According to Islam, children are Muslims if their father is Muslim; according to Judaism, children are Jews if their mother is Jewish. Children of unions between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman can be considered to be both or none, if their environment chooses to stigmatize this union. It was clear that Hamed wanted our future children to be raised as Muslims, whereas I wasn't ready to concede the right to raise my children as Jews. I would have been able to teach about Judaism in the privacy of our home, but in the public domain they would have had to be Muslims (due to the socio-political climate).
We tried to refrain from discussing politics, as it put a strain on our relationship. When the topic of Israel did come up we sometimes had bitter disagreements, while at other times we came close to meeting each other half way. Hamed saw that both sides were responsible, which was something I appreciated. We tried to avoid the "blame game," but on occasion I did experience stereotyping of Jews (not, however, of Israelis). We were at the souk (shopping area) when Hamed's brother commented on a particular shopkeeper driving a hard bargain. He added that this shopkeeper must have Jewish blood! It was meant in jest, but it still stung.
Hamed's religion allowed him to marry any "woman of the book," meaning either a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim woman. Muslim men are also allowed to marry up to four women, as long as they can provide equal financial and emotional support for them. Most younger Muslim men marry one woman these days. Marrying for "love" (with its own drawbacks) is becoming more common, as opposed to arranged marriages.
The culture of the Middle East is rapidly changing due to the influence of the West. In many countries around the Gulf, women are finding their public voices for the first time and partaking in non-traditional venues. They are educated career or businesswomen and are starting to be taken seriously. However the ideal role for women is still seen mainly as a mother and wife (much as it is in Orthodox Judaism). Most women truly do rule their roosts, and men rarely interfere with the ongoing affairs of the household.
Once married, I would have been expected to have children soon, and sons are definitely highly valued. Traditionally, newlyweds start off living with the husband's mother. I have heard how difficult it is to maintain privacy or avoid interference this way. Many women fear that their husband might decide to marry another wife, and they live under this constant strain.
Realizing that this was what Hamed expected of our marriage unsettled me. I felt drawn to his culture because of the strong family ties but repelled by the societal expectations. I also did not know if I would want to permanently live in the Middle East. Hamed tried to reassure me, but the gnawing doubt remained. As time passed I realized that these doubts would probably never go away and that I would have to choose whether or not to live with perpetual ambivalence. It truly did tear at my heart. Hamed and I had a strong connection, but it was impossible to tell if it could survive in that environment. I felt somewhat isolated and weak because I was planted in the middle of his country, his culture, his family, and his religion.
In the end Hamed and I went our separate ways. Our relatively young age, ambitions, and societal pressure all played their respective roles.
Muslims as well as Jews believe they are "related" through the patriarch Abraham. According to the Torah as well as the Quran, Abraham had two sons. The oldest son, Ishmael, is considered the forefather of the Arabs. The younger son, Isaac, is the forefather of the Jews.
I end this article with a quote by Shimon Peres, "The sons of Abraham have become quarrelsome but remain family nonetheless."