So, last week my friend American Girl over at Under the Abaya wrote two excellent posts, one directed to Saudi boys who are pursuing relationships with Western girls, and one directed to those Western girls who love them. Although I obviously did eventually marry my Saudi, I recognized so much of what she was saying in both of them, and in this post I’m probably going to end up expounding a bit upon (and perhaps reiterating some of) what she said.
When I met my husband, he was still very much a kid. Even he admits this. Here’s the thing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Saudi males generally take longer to grow up than their Western counterparts. This is not due to some inherent defect in Saudi culture (although I’m sure that point is arguable)–it’s just because life in Saudi Arabia is different. Sons and daughters generally don’t leave their families until they marry. They don’t get jobs until they graduate from college. They don’t have to work their way through college–tuition is free for Saudi citizens at colleges in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi students who are studying in them also receive a stipend from the government while they are studying (yes, even though they are usually living at home, just like when they were in high school).
By the time I met my husband, he was a little more mature than the average Saudi student studying abroad–he was working on an MBA, not a bachelor’s degree, and he had a job before coming to the States. But he definitely still had growing up to do. As he puts it, the first few years of working, after a Saudi guy graduates from college, are years to mess around, to enjoy having a lot of money, their own money, for the first time. So by the time he met me, he was still in this phase.
I suppose I had growing up to do, as well (I mean, aren’t we technically growing up until we die? There is always more to learn, more ways to get better), but I had been out of my parents’ house for a good six years when I met him. I was a full-time elementary school teacher who had just finished her second master’s degree. I was a little bit further along in my adulthood journey than he was. We were both kids, but we weren’t kids, if that makes any sense at all. And I was a little bit less of one.
Like American Girl, I often get emails from girls who are in the situation of being in love with a Saudi while he is in her country studying, girls who are in the situation that I was once in. Sometimes they are happy in their relationships and are just reaching out to make contact with someone who understands where she’s coming from, like I did with American Bedu (because one of the things about being involved with a Saudi is that sometimes it can feel like you have absolutely no one to talk to, because no one understands the unique particulars of your situation). Sometimes they want information about how my husband and I obtained the marriage permission in Saudi Arabia (which I have been writing a post about off and on for some time, and intend to get around to posting someday. But it was pretty much all hard work and luck). And sometimes things are difficult and they want advice about how to proceed in their relationship with a Saudi…although they rarely like to hear what I have to say. Since I did end up marrying my Saudi, moving to the Kingdom with him, having a (really cute, if I do say so myself) baby with him, etc., I think they sometimes expect advice from me that is all rainbows and rose petals–which I can understand. After all, the word “rainbow” is in the freaking title of the blog. But if you’ll notice, there are clouds next to the title, too.
I also occasionally receive criticisms about the blog, and the main one (aside from the gripe that I make Saudi Arabia sound “nice,” which is not wholly unrelated but is beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here, so that is another story for another post) is that it is “unrealistic”–that women who are in love with Saudis abroad will read my blog and get the wrong idea of the likelihood of a Saudi being a good boyfriend, a good husband, an honest person, etc., and think that everything is going to be great with their Saudi, that there will be marriage, a successful move to the deserts of Arabia, supportive in-laws, babies. We all know that this is unlikely. And even if all of that does happen, marriage, parenthood, life with a Saudi–or, from the Saudi perspective, with a non-Saudi–is fraught with its own challenges that lead to a very high likelihood of divorce, custody battles (which a woman in Saudi Arabia will rarely win), and general unhappiness.
Anyone who is even thinking of marrying a Saudi should do her research and be well-informed all about these things, of course. But the fact remains that I knew about them long before I married my Saudi, and I still did it. Here’s why.
In this post, I do not want to generalize about how terrible Saudi men are. Lord knows there is enough of that going on in the great wide internet, and it shouldn’t be difficult to find blog posts along those lines, if that’s what you want to read. (In fact, here…let me help you.) However, I do want to be brutally honest about the perfect storm of cultural miscues that has the potential to happen between a Saudi man and a non-Saudi woman. Because from what I’ve experienced, it all pretty much goes the same way.
I think that essentially, all men are mostly the same. Lots (perhaps even most?) of Saudi men abroad are just like Western men; they want to hook up, and they will say whatever they need to say or hide whatever they need to hide to make it happen. (When my–American–dad would talk to me about guys, he would sometimes say, “I know how young guys think; I used to be one.”) But when it comes to the differences between Western men and Saudi men, there are undeniably some cultural differences that make a major impact on their interactions with women.
A Western man doesn’t have a mom who is waiting back home to choose a wife for him. A Saudi man does (and even if he has a “liberal” mom who ends up letting her son choose his own wife, rest assured that she is ready and willing to go the traditional route and find a wife for him should he give her the go-ahead). A Western man is certainly bombarded with the cultural conviction that a guy who has a lot of girls is a pimp (in the good sense of the word), but he knows he can’t get really serious with more than one girl, because he doesn’t live in a culture where polygamy is legal. A Saudi man does. Western men have been hanging around girls their whole lives, and can date whomever they choose. A Saudi man usually hasn’t, and can’t.
Due to all of this, Saudi men are kind of on default Prince Charming mode when they meet girls, and Western girls should be aware of this. In Saudi Arabia, it takes a lot of effort and risk to interact with a girl, and it’s a huge risk for the girl, should she choose to respond to a guy’s advances. And a Saudi guy has to make that risk worth it for the Saudi girl. Thus, a Saudi guy’s upbringing has trained him to give out signals that we Western women take very seriously. Obviously, in the States (or Canada, or Australia, or wherever…I’m from the States), a lot less effort goes into it when a Western guy decides he wants to date a Western girl. There’s no need to convince her that he is serious enough that she should risk trouble with the law to interact with him. The flowery language, the surface chivalry, the romance…it just isn’t necessary with a Western woman. Not because we’re all just whores, but because in our culture, dating is generally not one bodice-ripping love affair after another, but rather a generally lukewarm process (perhaps over lukewarm coffee) of trying people on to see how they fit, perhaps eventually growing into a major romance.
Thus, when a guy goes full-on Prince Charming within a few days of meeting us (especially if he’s got a devastatingly adorable foreign accent), we pay attention. If we have any reciprocal feelings for him at all, it’s not a far leap for us to arrive at the conclusion, “He must be The One.” (I’m not going to get into the discussion about whether or not “The One” actually exists, because that’s irrelevant. The fact is that falling in love with a Saudi guy has the tendency to turn even the biggest skeptic into a believer, at least in the beginning.) And even if we’re not interested, we’re still impressed. We don’t ignore that stuff, whereas a Saudi girl might understand it as par for the course. She might be culturally trained to expect that flowery language, that chivalry, that effort from even the most mildly interested suitor, or even to roll her eyes at it if she’s not interested in the chase.
Meanwhile, once a Western woman is very serious about a guy and believes he is The One, our culture is such that she may do things with him that a Saudi girl would rarely, if ever, do with a guy before she married him. And then the Saudi guy may lose respect for the Western woman (or women) he is with, but hey, if she’s giving it up, why not take advantage, right? And in his mind, he hasn’t really done anything to indicate to her that he’s truly serious, so she must just be easy. And bam, there you go–now all Western women are disposable whores.
So, like I said, it’s a perfect storm–when a Saudi man meets a Western woman that he is interested in, he does what he has always had to do in the presence of a Saudi girl he wants to know; he offers up those signals that we as Western women have been culturally trained not to ignore. And thus, girls fall at his feet. He may think he’s hooking up left and right because he is just that awesome. Sometimes he’ll act like a snake (as all men, Saudi or not, have the potential to do) and use this to his advantage when he figures out how well his routine works with Western women, and he’ll have endless girls’ numbers in his phone, all of whom probably think that this Saudi guy is her Saudi guy.
And even if the Saudi guy really does love and respect one Western woman and does everything right according to both cultures, there is always the very significant chance that his family will refuse the match, and the Saudi man who will defy his parents, especially his mother, is about as common as the Saudi woman who will sleep with her boyfriend before she marries him (i.e., it happens…but rarely). Also, Saudi girls know that when a Saudi guy says, “I want to marry you,” that’s just the beginning (and it may even be just a part of the chase)–he has to get his family’s permission and hers. But a Western girl may not hear these words from a Western guy until he is down on one knee with a ring. So when a Saudi guy freely discusses marriage with a Western woman, he may not see it as a big deal, but obviously, it is to her. And if he ends up back in Saudi Arabia, never seeing his Western woman again, regardless of how much he had hoped and prayed it would all work out, it’s still going to feel pretty much like a broken engagement to the Western woman. (I didn’t get a formal, Western-style marriage proposal from my Saudi fiancé until a week before our–totally planned–wedding, but I–and he–considered us engaged long before.)
Because this post is mainly directed to girls who are in relationships with Saudis abroad, now I’m going to speak directly to you. Let’s proceed on the assumption that your Saudi is basically a good one, and you are the only girl whose number is saved in his phone (although now you should be aware of other possibilities). Even then, your relationship has the potential to be utterly exhausting, as I’m sure you know. Because you are so thoroughly convinced that he is The One, you’ll do anything to keep him happy.
Do you find yourself apologizing all the time, not even really knowing what you’re apologizing for, just so he’ll stop being mad at you? Stop it.
Do you find yourself spending your money, maybe even money you don’t have, to impress/help/take care of him? Stop it.
Do you find yourself doing his homework for him? Stop it.
Do you find yourself deleting people from your Facebook friends list because he doesn’t like how many guys are on it? Stop it.
Do you find yourself deleting people from your life because he doesn’t like them? Stop it.
Do you find yourself changing how you dress because of what he says? Stop it.
Do you find yourself reassessing your life goals either because he wants you to or because you think he is worth it? Stop it.
Do you find yourself changing essential parts of yourself to make your relationship run more smoothly? Stop it.
Do you find yourself exhausted by your relationship? Stop it.
I won’t go into the issues I faced in my own relationship. Some of these come from my own experience, while others I’ve seen and heard mentioned more than once by women in relationships with Saudis. (However, one thing I will say is that I never, ever did his homework. He worked his butt off for that MBA.) But my point is that you are likely the one bending over backward to make him happy because you’re so sure he’s The One, rather than the other way around.
You really should stop that. Because if he’s The One, like you’re convinced he is, you should be able to be totally, completely yourself. The courting process you’ve likely gone through with your Saudi is one that you’ve probably been dreaming of your whole life (whether you want to admit it to yourself or not), and now because of it, you’ll cling to your relationship with him in any way you can, because you love him so much and you’re so sure he loves you too. But you’re going to live quite the miserable life if you continue that way. I lasted about sixteen months.
Again, I say all this from experience. Eventually, I got tired. After those sixteen months, I decided I’d had enough. I stopped being…well, whatever I was. I got to the point where I was totally ready to walk away from him and the mess that we were (a beautiful, wonderful mess, but a mess nonetheless). I slowly went back to being who I was before I met him, and as I did, the huge weight that was my relationship was lifted off of me.
But you know what? He stuck around. As I shifted back into my former self, he began to shift into someone willing help me carry the weight of life, instead of being more weight to carry.
In the beginning, he would get irritated if I was “too friendly” with the male cashiers at Walmart (in American culture, we call this “small talk”) or if I wore something that (he thought) caused people to stare at me. Now, here in Riyadh, I chat with waiters and I wear my pink abaya with black lace overlay with my green Moby Wrap over it and he doesn’t blink an eye. In the beginning, he despised my dogs and would not come to my house because they were there. Now they sleep in our bed with us.
I don’t share this advice and the accompanying anecdotes as a means of saying, “Look, I changed him!” I did not change him. You cannot change him. I just made the decision that I wasn’t going to let him change me. That’s it. He had to decide where to go from there. I reached a point where I was happy if he stayed, and happy if he left. He chose to stay, and even though we had been talking about marriage before (because Saudi guys will talk about marriage all day long, whether or not they are serious, even if that means talking about how difficult marriage to a non-Saudi is. That’s one thing I can say for Mr. Mostafa; he never tried to hide the fact that we needed permission from his government to marry, that it was difficult to get the permission, that he was not allowed to marry while on a government scholarship, etc. Of course, all of this marriage talk is wholly uncharacteristic of Western men, who will run away screaming at the word if they aren’t totally ready for it), it wasn’t until we reached that point that we really started building the foundation for a happy life together, when we really started to become partners.
If he hadn’t chosen to stay, to tackle that hard work that our relationship required to make it into something worth pursuing, I would have considered myself well rid of him. Because no matter how you feel, no matter how whirlwind and romantic the courtship is, no matter how much unconditional love you have for someone, if that person does not love you for exactly who you are, is not willing to be next to you as you both ride the rollercoaster of growth and change that life is, and does not make you feel wholly, completely yourself, that person is not The One. That’s all there is to it.
My husband is awesome, and my marriage is happy (I am writing this post with a healthy dose of mashallah, and I hope you’ll read it that way, too). But a happy marriage is just that. It is not necessarily easy, or perfect, or uncomplicated, and it doesn’t mean it didn’t take us a long time and a lot of hard work to get where we are. And it doesn’t mean that we aren’t continually growing and changing, because that’s what marriage is. But neither of us are trying to force the other into a mold in which we cannot fit.
We had love from the beginning, but that is never enough. The main reason why my marriage is happy is because we had to earn one another’s respect, and it was a long, grueling, sometimes ugly process. Occasionally it still has the potential to be. But the difference between now and when I first met him is that now, it’s worth every second.
Today we went to the American embassy here in Riyadh to submit Lavender’s citizenship and passport paperwork. At one point, as we stood at the customer service window, with a room full of irritated people sitting behind us who had zero patience with fussy babies, Lavender started to cry. Mr. Mostafa picked her up and went out into the hallway and left me to finish up our business. When I was done, I walked out into the hallway to see him walking up and down the hall, gently bouncing her, and singing a lullaby that he made up for her as the security guards watched, amused.
Later that night, the three of us were laying in bed, and again, Lavender started to fuss a little bit. Mr. Mostafa grabbed a Hello Kitty puppet, put it on his hand, and began to speak to the baby in a high-pitched voice: “Hi, Lavender! I’m Hello Kitty! Do you want to count with me? One, two, three…” After he got to ten, he started counting again, this time in Arabic. Lavender focused on the Hello Kitty puppet, enthralled.
Little moments like this are constant reminders that our life together, although fraught with struggles and compromises that a monocultural couple would not encounter, was absolutely the right choice. Now, more than ever, I am convinced Mr. Mostafa is The One. And I hope he feels the same way.