A cultural melting pot, a rich social tapestry, the expatriate motley crew – whatever you want to call it – if ever there was a platform for people from different nationalities, cultures, religions and backgrounds to meet, mingle and marry, the UAE would be it. Schools boast having more than 70 different nationalities and many large companies can claim the same. In 2006, there were apparently more than 200 different nationalities living in this country, and while old-timers will say that back in the day people tended to live within segregated cultural groups, that is clearly not the case now. Cynthia Grguric, a counselling psychologist at LifeWorks Counselling and Development (lifeworksdubai.com), says, “I would say that about 80 per cent of the couples I see here in the UAE are from two different nationalities. It can be really romantic at first but, as with any relationship, once you start getting into the more serious side, issues can arise.”
Nahla*, 29, from Egypt married Lance*, 41, from Scotland two months ago after a two-year relationship. Although neither of them had experience in having a relationship with people from other cultures or religions, from day one, they say, theirs worked. Nahla says, “In the past, I had relationships with people from the same country as me, the same background, the same religion... and it never worked out. But with me and Lance, it just comes naturally. It’s about us being compatible as individuals. We want the same things, we have the same values, we don’t have to work at it. We’re just on the same level.”
Interviewed separately, Lance answers pretty much identically. He says, “Having a relationship with someone from a different culture is definitely more interesting. I think the most important factor in determining the success of a relationship is not based on where you are from, but compatibility. I’m sure any number of factors contribute to that, including having a similar mindset, patience, understanding and shared interests.”
Nahla and Lance are happy and lucky in love, which is fabulous. But the reality for most relationships is that, even when you deeply love your partner, there are hard times; very few couples are spared that, whether they share a cultural background or not. Cynthia says, “When you think about it, families from the same country are like little individual cultures of sorts – each family has its own way of doing things, its own values and its own expectations of each other. The only thing for cross-cultural relationships is that these differences can be more dramatic. The best way to deal with these contrasts is to talk about them.”
A little more conversation
Jessica*, 32, from the UK has been in a relationship with Daniel*, 30, from Nigeria for six months. Jessica and Daniel openly discuss the differences in their cultures when they arise and, so far, these differences haven’t caused them any issues. “It’s quite interesting talking about the differences in our cultures,” says Jessica. “For instance, gender roles. In Nigeria, it seems as if the men look after the women... they pay for everything, like the house and the holidays. This is unusual for me because, in the UK, we would share the bills and payments.” Sometimes a situation will bring a differing cultural norm to the forefront, such as when Jessica started renting a car. She says, “Daniel said it felt strange that it was me driving us around and not him. It made me laugh – it might have been like that in the UK in the Fifties but it certainly isn’t like that now. So there are definitely differences... He believes that men should honour their responsibilities and their relationships. I think it’s lovely that he’s gentlemanly, but at the same time, I’m not the type to be the little wife sitting at home – and he knows that. But we are in the early stages of a relationship, so it’s not like we are talking about these things in terms of our own future.”
Relationship coach Michelle Burton-Aoun (www.r-a-eonline.com) says, “It can be difficult for couples to have these conversations early in the relationship because they feel they may scare the other person off. But it’s necessary... A simple, subtle way of bringing up discussions is by getting involved in the other’s culture. Learn about the culture’s customs, so you can talk informally about them. Such as, ‘In your culture, do children always take their father’s name?’ That way you can learn not just about the culture, but about your partner’s thoughts on their culture’s rules and how involved they are. If they are heavily involved, be prepared that somewhere down the line, you and your kids will be heavily involved too.”
Dealing with in-laws
All may be well in the land of love for the happy couple – you may have come to an understanding about how you’ll intertwine your different customs and traditions, and you may not even be that invested in your own culture’s rules. But that doesn’t mean that your family will be able to accept your new way of doing things as easily. Cynthia says, “Cultural values are pretty ingrained. People don’t realise how much they affect our morals, our values, our thoughts.” Cynthia explains that parents often react to cross-cultural relationships negatively at first, mainly because when they envisioned their child’s future, they didn’t expect them to deviate from their society’s norms. But, she says, they usually come around to the idea. Their biggest concern will be that they want to keep in contact with their son, or daughter, especially once there are grandchildren involved.
This was the case for Nahla and Lance. Although they are relatively liberal, Nahla’s family were unsure of her decision to marry a British man. But Nahla smoothed things over by being communicative and resolved. She says, “My mother met Lance before we got hitched and she’s been supportive of me and respected my independence. It’s not been entirely easy, but it’s been easier than it might have been if my family were more conservative. I’ve been living in Dubai by myself for five years – a really conservative family wouldn’t even allow that to happen. I’ve been making my own decisions for a long time. Some friends were surprised, but there was no negativity from close friends. I had no issues in this regard, probably because I don’t let people interfere in my personal matters so no one had a say in anything. I make my own decisions and if anyone had opinions that were negative they didn’t say it to me.”
The way Nahla handled the situation was perfect in Cynthia’s eyes, who says that when family members don’t accept your relationship, or your choice of partner, it is down to you to make sure they support your choice – don’t leave it to your partner to convince your family of your decision. She says, “Communicate your love, commitment and concern for your partner but respect your family’s need to adjust. It may take them a while – but that’s normal.”
For some cross-cultural couples, it isn’t their families who raise an eyebrow, but society as a whole. Jessica and Daniel have found that, although their families welcomed the relationship with open arms, here in Dubai, strangers are quick to pass judgement. “I noticed a white woman giving us a disgusted look the other day and I was shocked. I mentioned it to Daniel and he said that it happens all the time, but I just don’t notice it. Since then we have had a couple of incidents where people have reacted negatively to us, or jumped to conclusions about our relationship. Being the victim of racial prejudice is a new experience for me and makes me feel really angry.”
Cynthia says, “If you’re going to be an inter-racial couple, you have to accept the fact that people will have a judgement about it. You have to just make peace with that. It becomes part of the journey of being racially aware... noticing how people start treating you differently.”
It’s interesting how, despite the fact that the UAE is so culturally diverse, there seem to be more preconceptions about inter-racial, and cross-cultural marriages here than in other countries. But are there? According to Cynthia, in some parts of the southern states in the US, inter-racial relationships are still taboo. Jessica says the same thing about Britain. She says that although in London, most people wouldn’t look twice at a couple where one partner was white and the other black, in some areas – like the small countryside town where she is from – she thinks they would definitely get a few curious glances in the street.
Lance believes that discrimination is not just about race and culture, but also about gender. He says, “It’s clear that, regionally, a foreign girl with an Arab guy is way more acceptable than a foreign guy with an Arab girl. No one mentions religion when the guy is Arab. When the girl is Arab, religion is the first topic that arises.” Cynthia says, “There are certain combinations of cultures that aren’t accepted as well as others, and this will differ depending on where you are in the world. And in Dubai, there may be certain unions that aren’t accepted as much as others. For some couples, this can be an issue. For others, this can make the bond stronger. But either way, you need to talk about it. It really comes down to your happiness and acceptance rather than anyone else’s.”
It’s all about you
Despite potential pressure from family and friends to conform to their own ideals, and dealing with the disapproval of certain blinkered people in society, the success of a cross-cultural relationship comes down to just one thing: the strength of your bond. On this point, both Cynthia and Michelle are united. Cynthia says, “We all enter relationships with preconceived notions about what we expect from a relationship, involvement from extended family, how to raise children... these are things all couples should discuss to ensure that your ideas fit in with the other person’s.” Michelle says, “Culture plays a role, but not as much as how the two people communicate, relate to each other and respect each other. How involved are you in each other’s cultures, and how involved are you in your own? You both need to be willing to make changes while not asking each other to sacrifice too much and, above all, know yourselves. Remember there’s no such thing as the perfect person, or the perfect relationship, or the perfect cultural mix, so stop looking for it. If you fall in love, work at it. Stop looking for Mr Perfect and, instead, look for ways to find harmony with the person that you’ve found.”
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"By marrying into the local culture I found inner peace"
Five years ago, Amal Loring converted to Islam. A year later she became second wife to her Emirati husband and has never been happier. “I was born into a middle-class family in the UK. At 29 I moved to Dubai with my then partner to take a job for a multinational software company. We got married in 1999 and I decided to retrain as a counsellor. For many years we lived the typical expat life of Friday brunches and beach clubs. On reflection it seemed an empty existence.
“Our daughter was born November 9, 2001 and her birth coincided with so much negative press about Islam. As an expat I didn’t mix with the local community and had many preconceptions about Muslims – in particular about terrorism and the treatment of women. Yet my own culture was far from ideal. On visits back home I witnessed what I felt was a breakdown of society. I saw children with no respect for elders, binge-drinking, teenage pregnancy and increasing violence. It was not the life I wanted for my daughter or myself. I began to take more notice of the local culture and religion of Dubai, particularly the role of Islam.
“Word about my research got around and one day I received a call from Shaikh Saeed Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum inviting me to his palace to discuss Islamic theology. We talked openly for hours. I discovered that rather than women being repressed and controlled, they are respected and treated as a precious jewel. So many things fell into place that day. Shaikh Saeed asked me several questions and, on answering them, he declared me a Muslim. In his presence I recited the shahada, accepting that there is only one God and that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was his last messenger. From that moment my new life began.
“A Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim, which put an end to my already rocky marriage. Our then six-year old daughter stayed with me. In the beginning it was difficult. I never lost my faith but I did wonder if I’d done the right thing. I didn’t fit into my own culture but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in my adopted one either. So much was unfamiliar, I was always tripping over my abaya and I was constantly stared at wearing it, being pale-skinned and blue-eyed. I soon chose to also wear the niqab, the facial covering that reveals only the eyes. Non-Muslims think it is oppressive but I see it as the opposite. It’s entirely my choice and I wear it because it stops the stares and gives me a sense of freedom and dignity.
“The transition from my old life continued to be difficult. I lost most of my expat friends because I no longer drank and didn’t socialise in mixed company. Back home my family and friends assumed I was having some kind of breakdown. I was accused of being a fool, a victim of brainwashing, even a suicide bomber. In my full abaya my own mother wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street as me. People refused to serve me in shops. I was once asked to leave a park, even spat at. I dealt with each stressful situation calmly because of the new inner strength my faith gave me.
“As soon as you become a Muslim there is much excitement in finding a husband. The introduction process in Islam was completely new to me – you don’t go to the cinema or have meals alone with a man. Instead a prospective husband will sit and discuss your values and beliefs. I was introduced to Mohammad and we quickly fell in love. His family and most of his friends accepted me without question. We were married in June 2008. I am his second wife. He lives with my daughter and me three days a week and with his first wife and their children for the rest of the time. I don’t get jealous – a Muslim husband treats all his wives equally.
“The line between culture and religion can sometimes be blurred. I now realise I have lived much of my life in ignorance and I feel compelled to bridge the cultural divide. My husband is very supportive of this wish. In 2009 I began a degree in Islamic Studies to give me the courage and knowledge to answer the many misconceptions about Islam. I have set up a Facebook support group, the New Muslim, and I volunteer at a local mosque. A big part of my work at Mind Body Dynamixs is also dedicated to bringing Dubai’s many cultures together.
“As a therapist, people come to me every day searching for happiness. By embracing Islam and marrying into the local culture I have found inner peace. My faith, my husband and my daughter are my inspiration. I am now content with myself and have never felt more understanding towards others. What I would say to anyone considering marrying outside their own culture is to not make hasty decisions – thoroughly research the culture you’re marrying into and then focus on the good points of the other culture and blend them into your own.”