Are you married?
This was one of the first questions I was asked upon meeting my Arab co-teacher for the first time. Naïvely I answered that I was in fact, single and looking. This has resulted in her many failed attempts to get me ‘hitched’ over the course of three years.
I now realize that certain topics of conversation, which are not discussed with strangers in the West, are discussed freely in the Middle East – such as relationships. Culture plays a big role in perceptions of relationships, and getting married at a younger age is considered normal in the Middle East. It seems almost a tragedy not to be married by the time your thirty, as if there’s something wrong.
Consequently, I’ve learned to pretend to be married, because saying otherwise results in bizarre scenarios such as having to stand and pray in the rain. Now as much as I love the Weather Girls 1983 track, “Its Raining Men”, I’m certain the perfect man won’t drop from the sky. And, if by some act of fate one did fall from the sky, with my luck he would fall and crush me to death…..Not the romantic notion my dear colleague had in mind.
I tend to get the perplexing question: “Why aren’t you married…You-Are- Pretty”. The latter often said hesitatingly. Wait – is that an insult and somewhat of a compliment? So, if I were ugly, would they simply stop asking?
When I explain, I haven’t found the right guy, I have been focused on traveling and my education, and so on, I can often see the other person’s eyes glaze over with total confusion and boredom.
Once, stopping me mid-sentence, my colleague ran over to her purse, found what she was searching for and came back with a bottle of some sort of perfume. Without explaining, she poured a good bit into the palm of her hand and immediately slapped it against my neck. I wasn’t sure what was going on, until the pungent smells of the perfume made me want to gag. As I attempted to gasp for air, my college kept talking excitedly about how this wonderful smelling perfume of Arabic spices would lead men to me. If anything, I think I repelled almost everyone I came into contact that day…even the poor stray cats wouldn’t come near me.
Upon discussing the traits of an ideal with my colleague, I came to the conclusion that culture also factors into the adjectives used to describe the “perfect man”. These adjectives are, of course, indicative of which characteristics are valued in certain cultures:
For example, what I would define as being controlling, my colleague might define as “a strong man, who likes to protect his wife”. What I may describe as jealous, she may define as “a man who doesn’t like other men looking at his wife”. That last bit might make sense, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the women are completely covered in a black abaya.
When my colleague finally realized that we may never see eye-to- eye on preferable male attributes, her the last ditch attempt was to say, “well maybe you should try praying…pray every minute you are awake, and when it rains, stand in the rain and pray for a man”.
Three years later, four dances in the rain (yes, that’s how often it rains in the desert) I’m still traveling, learning, avoiding potent smelling perfumes, and looking for the guy that will dance in the rain with me.
Saliha Bazmjow wrote this piece for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She currently lives and works in the Middle East.