الحب في زمن النزاع

 
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بقلـم خالد دياب

قرارات المحاكم الأخيرة في مصر وإسرائيل تُظهِر مدى الشك الذي وصل إليه اليهود والعرب الإسرائيليين

سبتمبر 2010

EN version

تماماً مثلما تعلّم روميو وجولييت الدرس بطريقة صعبة، فإن الحب والصداقة في زمن النزاع نادراً ما يكونا قصة بسيطة لشاب يقابل فتاة (أو أي خليط آخر يناسب توجهاتك). ففي أوقات كهذه، تصبح الأمور الشخصية أموراً عامة، وتصبح الأمور الرومانسية أموراً سياسية.

ورغم أن هذه سمة شائعة في النزاعات، إلا أن الحواجز التي تفصل بين العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين قد تكون، بطريقة ما، مرتفعة بشكل خاص نتيجة لطول فترة نزاعهم ومرارته. ففكرة الاتصال الإنساني العادي بين الجانبين، وخاصة تلك من النوع الجسدي الحميم أو العاطفي، تصل في أذهان الكثيرين من العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين إلى مصاف خيانة قضية وطنهم. لا تعاني علاقات كهذه من عدم الموافقة اجتماعياً ولكنها تستطيع أحياناً أن تحمل تداعيات قانونية.

خذ على سبيل المثال حالة صابر كشور، الفلسطيني البالغ من العمر 30 سنة من القدس، الذي اتهم مؤخراً بـِ “الاغتصاب عن طريق الخداع” لأنه، حسب الادعاء، كذب على امرأة يهودية إسرائيلية حول هويته الدينية حتى يمارس الجنس معها، رغم أنه يعترف فقط بأنه كذب حول وضعه الاجتماعي كمتزوج.

ورغم أن غالبية الناس يوافقون أن عدم الصدق ليس هو السياسة الفضلى، إلا أن الخداع يشكل تكتيكاً شائعاً في لعبة العشق والغرام. ولو كذب السيد كشور حول مهنته أو ثروته أو تحصيله العلمي أو عمره أو طبقته الاجتماعية أو نواياه على المدى البعيد، لكان الحادث قد مرّ وذهب طيّ النسيان دون خيبة أمل شخصية. بدلاً من ذلك، ولأنه في أبسط الحالات لم يكن صادقاً بشكل كامل حول هويته الدينية والعرقية، فقد أصبح الأمر قضية ذات اهتمام عام وتداعيات قانونية.

“المحكمة مضطرة لحماية مصالح الجمهور من المجرمين الأذكياء ذوي الكلام المعسول الذين يستطيعون خداع الضحايا البريئة بكلفة لا يمكن احتمالها: قدسية أجسادهم وأرواحهم”، حسب قول أحد القضاة الثلاثة الذين استمعوا للقضية، وقد أوجد من خلال ذلك سابقة خطيرة.

يثير الحكم تساؤلات حول ما إذا كان هذا الخداع العاطفي يشكّل فعلاً قضية ذات “اهتمام عام”، بدلاً من قضية تتعلق بمصداقية أخلاقية شخصية. وبناء على ذلك، إلى أي مدى يتوجب على الدولة أن تذهب في حماية مواطنيها من “المجرمين الأذكياء ذوي الكلام المعسول”؟

قد تجد امرأة أخرى على سبيل المثال كذب كشور حول كونه متزوجاً مزعجاً أكثر بكثير من كذبه حول انتماءه الديني. هل كانت امرأة كهذه، إذا تقدمت بشكوى شخصية للمحكمة، تحظى بنفس ردة فعل القاضي المعني؟

غني عن الكلام أن القضية أثارت ضجة ليست عالمية فحسب وإنما في الأوساط الإسرائيلية الليبرالية، ويجري الآن استئناف الحكم. “ماذا لو كان هذا الشخص يهودياً ادعى أنه مسلم ومارس الجنس مع امرأة مسلمة؟ هل كانت ستتم إدانته بالاغتصاب؟ الجواب هو: بالطبع لا”، حسب رأي جدعون ليفي، وهو معلق إسرائيلي ليبرالي.

ولكن إسرائيل ليست هي وحدها المذنبة بالمعايير المزدوجة عندما يعود الأمر إلى مضاجعة العدو أو الوقوع في حبّه. بالنسبة للكثير من الفلسطينيين والعرب فإن فكرة أن يعشقوا أو يعشق أحد يعرفونه يهودية إسرائيلية، أو أحياناً يهودية ببساطة، هو أمر يُنظَر إليه كلعنة محرّمة.

ويمكن في بعض الأحيان أن تحمل هذه “الجريمة الاجتماعية” نتائج قانونية، كما حصل مؤخراً في مصر. بعد ردّ استئناف حكومي لقرار محكمة سابق، حكمت محكمة مصرية في حزيران/يونيو الماضي بسحب الجنسية عن جميع الرجال المصريين المتزوجين من إسرائيليات وأبنائهم (بغض النظر عن قلة عددهم).

أثار القرار خلافاً في مصر، حيث أثنى كثيرون على “وطنية” المحكمة، بينما ثارت ثائرة الناشطين المصريين الليبراليين ودعاة حقوق الإنسان. “ينص القانون المصري على أنه لا يمكن سحب الجنسية المصرية إلا إذا ثبت أن المواطن يتجسس على بلده، لذا فإن هذا القرار يعتبر الزواج من إسرائيلية ضرباً من ضروب التجسس”، حسب قول نجاد البرعي، وهو محامٍ مركزه القاهرة وناشط في مجال حقوق الإنسان.

ما تظهره هاتان القضيتان بوضوح هو مستوى انعدام الثقة وجنون الارتياب والحقد بين العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين، الذي تعاظم مع تدهور الوضع في السنوات الأخيرة. وهو يشكّل على مستوى آخر أداة مناسبة لإطالة أمد النزاع. يجعل تحديد، بل وحتى منع التعامل والتفاعل مع الطرف الآخر من الأسهل بكثير كراهية “عدوك” بل وإضفاء الشيطانية عليه. من هذه الزاوية، ترتكز حقيقة أن معظم الدول العربية لا تسمح أو لا تشجع مواطنيها على السفر إلى إسرائيل، دعك من منع الإسرائيليين من السفر إلى المدن الفلسطينية في الضفة الغربية وغزة، جزئياً على الخوف من أن يُفشِل الحب الفردي الكراهية الجماعية.

جمعت المأساة التي وقعت لروميو وجولييت في نهاية المطاف أسرتيهما المتناحرتين معاً، ولكن القضايا المأساوية أعلاه من المستبعد أن يكون لها نفس الأثر. وبالرغم مما قد يؤمن به بعض الرومانسيين بسذاجة من أن الحب يتغلب على كل شيء، من المؤكد أن هذا ليس صحيحاً، ولا يستطيع الحب عمل شيء يُذكر لحل القضايا الحقيقية جداً التي تذكي نار النزاع.

بغض النظر، فإن جميع الصداقات وقصص الحب والزواج بين الإسرائيليين اليهود والعرب تتحدى ثنائية الـ “نحن” و”هم” المدمرة. ورغم أنها قد تكون علاقات شخصية، إلا أن العلاقات الخاصة بين العرب والإسرائيليين تثبت أن الذين يعيشون عبر خطوط العداء المفترضة قد يتشاركون أكثر بقضايا مع بعضهم مما يتشاركون به مع أناس من جانبهم، ويوفرن الأمل بمستقبل يسوده المزيد من التفاهم

This article, which was written for the Common Ground News Service, was originally published on 2 September 2010.

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Love in times of conflict

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arabs and Israelis tend to view personal relationships that cross the divide between them with suspicion, perhaps because individual love has the power to undermine collective hate.

14 September 2010

AR version

As Romeo and Juliet learned the hard way, love and friendship in times of conflict is rarely a simple story of boy meets girl (or whatever other combination suits your orientation). At such times, the personal so often becomes public, and the romantic, political.

Although this is a common feature of conflicts, in some ways, the barriers separating Arabs and Israeli-Jews may be especially high owing to the long duration of their conflict and the bitterness of the feud. In the minds of many Arabs and Israeli-Jews, the idea of normal human contact between the two sides, especially of the intimate physical or emotional variety, is tantamount to a betrayal of their people’s cause. Such relationships do not only suffer from social disapproval, they can sometimes carry legal consequences.

Take the case of Saber Kushour, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, who was recently convicted of “rape by deception” for having allegedly lied to an Israeli-Jewish woman about his religious identity in order to sleep with her, although he only admits to having lied about his marital status.

Although most would agree that dishonesty is not the best policy, deception is a fairly common tactic in the dating game, and had Kushour been lying about his profession, wealth, education, age, social class, or his longer-term intentions, the incident would have passed into the obscurity of personal disappointment. Instead, because he, at the very least, was not entirely truthful about his religious and ethnic identity it became an issue of public concern with legal repercussions.

“The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” said one of the three judges on the case and, in so doing, set a dangerous precedent.

The verdict raises the question of whether such amorous deception is actually an issue of “public interest”, rather than one of individual integrity, and, if so, how far should the state go in protecting citizens from “sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals”?

For instance, another woman may have found Kushour’s lying about being single far more distressing than his religious affiliation. Would such a woman, had she also submitted a private claim, have had the same reaction from the judge in question?

Needless to say, the court case has caused an uproar, not only internationally, but in liberal Israeli circles, and the verdict is already being appealed. “What if this guy had been a Jew who pretended to be a Muslim and had sex with a Muslim woman? Would he have been convicted of rape? The answer is: of course not,” observed Gideon Levy, a liberal Israeli commentator.

But it is not just Israel which is guilty of double standards when it comes to sleeping with – or falling in love with – the enemy. To many Palestinians and Arabs, the idea that they or someone they know could get intimate with an Israeli-Jew, and sometimes even simply a Jew, is often viewed with anathema.

In some instances, this ‘social crime’ can carry legal consequences, as was recently demonstrated in Egypt. After rejecting a government appeal of an earlier verdict, an Egyptian court ruled in June that all Egyptian men married to Israeli women (however few they may be), and their children, should be stripped of their citizenship.

The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while Egyptian liberals and human rights activists are up in arms. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli [to be] an act of spying,” said Negad al-Borai, a Cairo-based lawyer and human rights activist.

What these two court cases clearly illustrate is the level of mutual distrust, paranoia and hatred between Arabs and Israeli-Jews which has intensified with the worsening situation in recent years. At another level, it is a convenient tool in perpetuating the conflict. Restricting, and even forbidding, interactions with the other side makes it a whole lot easier to hate and demonise your “enemy”. Seen from this angle, the fact that most Arab countries do not allow or discourage their citizens from travelling to Israel, not to mention the ban on Israelis travelling to Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza, is partly founded on the fear that individual love will undermine collective hate.

The tragedy that befell Romeo and Juliet eventually brought their feuding families together, but the tragic cases above are unlikely to have a similar consequence. Despite what romantics may naively believe, love certainly does not conquer all, and it can do little to resolve the very real issues fuelling the conflict.

Nevertheless, all friendships, love affairs and marriages between Israeli-Jews and Arabs challenge the destructive “us” and “them” dichotomy. Though they may at heart be personal affairs, private relationships between Arabs and Israelis demonstrate that people living across supposed enemy lines may share more in common with one another than with their own side, and provide hope for a future of greater understanding.

This article, which was written for the Common Ground News Service, was originally published on 2 September 2010.

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Love and loathing in the Middle East

 
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By calling Egyptians who marry Israelis traitors, Egypt has betrayed a group of vulnerable people who are guilty of little more than loving across enemy lines.

10 June 2010

Loving someone against the will of your family is tough enough for many people caught in such a predicament, especially in close-knit societies. Being in an international relationship can pose certain challenges, particularly if the couple do not keep an open mind and fail to live by a spirit of compromise and accommodation. But even when a couple live harmoniously and are completely compatible, the outside world may still not leave them alone, especially if their relationship bridges the unstable fault lines of a conflict.

I know of some Palestinians and Israelis, those most intimate of enemies, who have braved the risk of ostracisation and rejection by their respective communities for the sake of love. But I can imagine that keeping the toxicity of the bitter conflict between their two peoples from seeping into their private lives and poisoning their relationship can be a tough mountain to scale.

Although I know and have heard of a number of Egyptian-Jewish couples, I’ve never actually come across any Egyptians who are married to Israelis. This is hardly surprising as there is minimal contact between the two societies as a cold peace continues to reign between them.

But they do exist and, rare as they are, they’ve become the target of a high-profile hate campaign playing itself out in the Egyptian courts, instigated by Nabih el-Wahsh, that crusading Egyptian lawyer who has brought, mostly unsuccessful, morality cases against Egyptian intellectuals, including Nawal el-Saadawi, artists, religious leaders and government ministers.

The self-righteous lawyer turned his attention to this new demographic group  last year, and launched a law suit to demand that Egypt implement an obsolete 1976 article of Egypt’s citizenship law which revokes the citizenship of Egyptians married to Israelis who have served in the army (i.e. pretty much all Israelis).

A lower court had ruled in favour of el-Wahsh but the Egyptian government appealed the verdict. Last week, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the appeal and called on the Ministry of Interior to take the necessary measures to strip Egyptian men married to Israeli women, and their children, of their citizenship. The judge who issued the ruling made an exception for Egyptian men married to Palestinian women with Israeli nationality.

The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while others believed that the government does not and should not have the right to strip an Egyptian of his or her nationality.

Against the backdrop of worsening ties with Israel due to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the Israeli blockage and Israel’s ever-tightening grip on the West Bank, some were somewhat shrill in their applause of the verdict. Sahar el-Gaara, a secular Egyptian columnist, condemned every Egyptian married to an Israeli, even Arab Israelis, as a “potential spy, since he stamped his passport with an Israeli visa”.

By this flawed logic, although I am not married to an Israeli nor did I allow Israeli immigration to stamp my passport, the fact that I visited Israel and Palestine would also makes me a potential spy, even though I was there on a personal peace mission.

I always thought that the basic principle of the legal system is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. So, call me gullible or something, but I thought that, for someone to be guilty of spying, they have to actually be caught in the act of espionage – which, in this case, would be very difficult considering that most Egyptians married to Israelis don’t live in Egypt.

Besides, and more fundamentally, marriage is not a crime, and especially not one so serious that it would entitle the government to strip you of your most fundamental right, the right to nationality. A person’s choice of life partner is theirs alone to make, and society or the government, no matter how much they disapprove, should not have the power to limit that choice.

Of course, in reality, societies do limit that choice unfairly: for instance, gay marriages are not allowed in most countries, inter-faith marriages are completely forbidden in Israel (ironically due to an obsolete Ottoman system which allowed each religious community to set its own personal laws and the disproportionate power of the Israeli rabbinate in this hybrid secular society), and Egyptian Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men (which is presumably why this court ruling does not apply to them). But revoking someone’s nationality is taking this to another level.

Egyptian human rights activists are up in arms at this preposterous verdict. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli an act of spying,” Cairo-based attorney and human rights activist Negad al-Borai told Reuters.

The head of the Egyptian expatriate community in Israel, Shokri el-Shazli, suggested that the verdict was hypocritical. “In Israel, there is an Egyptian embassy and consulate which welcome a continuous stream of visiting Egyptian delegations,” he told al-Masry al-Youm.

And I cannot help but think that these Egyptians – small and marginalised group that they are – constitute an easy and soft target to channel popular anger at Israel’s blockade of Gaza and Egypt’s complicity in it.

It is still unclear whether the verdict will be implemented, but el-Shazli doubts it will. “This will create social and political problems internationally, not just in bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations,” he opined, noting that the Egyptian community in Israel was considering its options and may raise the matter to the United Nations, including the Security Council.

While I’m personally against normalising economic ties with Israel until a comprehensive peace settlement has been reached, I welcome grassroots contacts between Israelis and Arabs, and believe that, if they so choose, couples who straddle the divide can help build bridges between the two sides and aid the process of humanising that we need to replace the current demonisation.

But whether or not they can bridge the gap between enemies is beside the point. The bottom line is that, whether you love or loath thy neighbour, you must recognise that individuals are not responsible for the group and are free to marry anyone they like.

________

Are marriages between Arabs and Israelis tantamount to treason? Vote now

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Why do men leave?

 
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By Evo Steele*

Marriage and fatherhood bring out the best in some. But for many its an unbearable weight, and so they leave.Why is this?

1 April 2010

“Oh, you know your wife won’t be interested in anything apart from that little one,” the maternity nurse blurted out during my first solo newborn bathing lesson. “So, I may as well take off until he’s finished high school,” I joked back. The laughing promptly stopped. She excused herself and left.

My first lesson in the secret society that is motherhood. Had I touched a raw nerve? Is it that common for new dads to do a bunk after having kids? Some simple research reveals it may well be.

In his essay, Why men leave – a hidden epidemic, Dr John Travis suggests that the birth of a child can trigger a withdrawal by men with tenuous emotional relationships or poor bonds with – wait for it! – their mothers, that Oedipal elephant in the room.

He suggests an “unbonded” man like this can manage pretty well in marriages for a while, but when “mommy” gives birth and shifts her focus from her man-child to her newborn, the nurturing they need is lost. Jealousy and alienation kick in and you know what happens next.

There could be something to this Freudian stuff. But there could also be deeper biological answers. Look at all the mammal species where the male doesn’t share in the parenting. Powerful instincts urge them to sow their seed in pastures new. Sure, there are species, especially birds, that do pair for life and share the parenting admirably. But the point is still valid.

Now add to this cocktail of psychology and biology, sleepless nights, very short tempers, raging hormones and emotions, and you have a less than harmonious household. Men have gone to war and found peace in the quiet of the trenches. Jokes aside, some seek jobs abroad, or turn to booze, other women and assorted distractions – just leaving by another name.

Of course, we mustn’t forget sex, or lack of it. Modern men pretty much know the days of conjugal rights are dead. But for some, the weeks of abstinence become months, and the months drag into years of interrupted sex – when tiny feet will patter into the bedroom at an awkward moment.

At the opposite extreme, you get husbands who struggle to find the ‘mother of their child’ sexy like before. Memories of the birth, breasts-as-food-not-fun, physical changes… you get the idea.

It’s impossible to get into the head of every man who contemplates leaving his wife and young child. Surely, it’s never an easy decision. Yet the silver lining in the divorce statistics is that, for every man who leaves, there is another who stays. He may experience the above instincts, toils and emotions, but the laughter and love of a child – his child – makes it worth sticking around.

More info:

Divorce statistics: www.nationmaster.com/country/be-belgium/peo-people

Why men leave: http://wellness.thewellspring.com/WhyMen

Oedipal Complex: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Oedipal_complex

*Evo Steele is a Brussels-based journalist.

This article first appeared in the March issue of (A)way magazine. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Evo Steele. All rights reserved.

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Polygamy for all

 
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By Khaled Diab

A Saudi journalist is demanding that women be given the right to four husbands. Should equality mean monogamy or polygamy for all?

6 January 2010

They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it does: the roaring rage of injured male pride. This was amply demonstrated in Egypt when a female Saudi journalist had the audacity to apply logic and consistency to challenge an area of traditional male privilege.

In an article provocatively entitled My four husbands and I, Nadine al-Bedair quite sensibly posed the logical question: if Muslim men are entitled to marry up to four wives, why can’t women, in the spirit of equality between believers, have four husbands?

“I have long questioned why it is men have a monopoly on this right. No one has been able to explain to me convincingly why it is I’m deprived of the right to polyandry,” she complains.

The outspoken Saudi then goes on to deconstruct and question the traditional justifications for polygamy, including that, in a traditional patriarchal society, it is a shelter for widows, divorcees and women who can’t find a spouse; that men have greater sexual appetites than women and get easily bored; that women can’t handle more than one man; and that, if women could have multiple husbands, determining paternity would not be possible (an excuse made obsolete by modern science).

“They tell me that I, as a woman, can’t handle more than one man physically. I say that women who cheat on their husbands and the ‘sellers of love’ [ie prostitutes] do much more,” she counters.

Unsurprisingly, the article’s honest tone and irreverence has triggered a furious response from the traditional male establishment. Some Islamic clerics have denounced the article and promised the “blaspheming” author divine retribution, while an Egyptian MP has decided not to wait that long and has already brought a lawsuit against her.

While few have openly voiced support for al-Bedair’s call for this kind of equality in the Islamic marriage stakes, some Islamic authorities have defended her by saying that her true purpose was to highlight how badly some women are treated by their husbands, especially those who take on second or third wives, despite Islam’s demand that a man treats all his wives equally.

For her part, al-Bedair ends her article with a call that society either allows polyandry for women or comes up with a new “map of marriage”. One Cairo imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, believes the way to go is to confine polygamy to the scrapheap of history. “In our world today, polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa,” he opined.

And his view corresponds with that of the Egyptian mainstream. Although Islam permits polygamy, most Egyptians are jealously monogamous, with men who take on more than one wife often mocked or marginalised by the community and the first wife often so full of shame that she requests a divorce. Nevertheless, the question remains: which is fairer and more equitable – monogamy or polygamy for all?

Even in monogamous societies, informal polygamy is a reality. In Europe, for instance, though most people, myself included, are serial monogamists, many men and women have multiple partners or lovers simultaneously, and there is a growing tendency to be open about this. However, the law has not kept up.

“A man can live with two women in Britain perfectly legally, but if he marries them both it’s a crime punishable by up to seven years in jail,” Brian Whitaker observed on CiF. “If a man wants to have more than one wife, or a woman to have more than one husband, and everyone enters into the arrangement openly and voluntarily, what exactly is wrong with that?” he asks.

Of course, traditional models of polygny (and polyandry, in a minority of societies) tend to reflect social inequalities, both between genders, generations and classes. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships not only receive a small fraction of a man, but that some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But there are perhaps more equitable modern models of polygamy and polyandry emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family through which they hope better to fulfil their emotional and physical needs.

Of course, as my wife points out, marriage is becoming, in many ways, obsolete, as fewer and fewer people choose to take that path, and European largely have the freedom to choose the living arrangement that best suits them. But to my mind, it’s a question of principle. For example, gay people don’t need to marry to share a life together, but that should not mean they have no right to.

In my view, if the institution of marriage is to survive, it should not be so limiting and be made flexible enough to enable people to customise it to their unique needs.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 2 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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All tied up in knots

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt, getting married has young people all tied up in knots.

December 2008

Egyptian crooner Hisham Abbas entertains wedding guests

Egyptian crooner Hisham Abbas entertains wedding guests

No matter how grand or modest, the vast majority of Egyptian weddings have a number of things in common: the bride and groom are the constant centre of attention, and the music is invariably so loud that it could make your ears bleed.

And my brother’s wedding, which I attended in Cairo recently, was no exception to this time-honoured tradition. From the moment his bride, trailed by a lacy white dress, and he, decked out in a black suit and bowtie, entered the ballroom preceded by a loud fanfare of drummers and dancers, to the end of the party in the wee hours, the happy couple did not get a moment’s rest. They had to have the first dance, and then dance until they were quite literally about to drop.

When they weren’t strutting their stuff, they had to sit on two raised throne-like seats where everyone could see them, and eat first while everyone watched them. And it is the glare of this constant spotlight that I regard as the most horrifying aspect of Egyptian weddings.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of a wedding in Egypt for Europeans is that Egyptians overcome their inhibitions and go wild without the need for alcoholic lubrication. Hakim, one of the country’s favourite singers who mixes modern pop rhythms with traditional working-class shaabi music, whipped the guests – women and men, young and old – up into a frenzied storm of pulsating hips, trembling bellies and shuddering shoulders and chests.

As a gift from my brother’s father-in-law, this wedding did not cause the happy couple undue financial pain. Whether they can afford it or not, most Egyptians drag themselves over hot coals in order to put on the grandest wedding they can. After all, getting married is a life-defining moment, so the justification goes. But why should people spend a big chunk of their lives paying for the excesses of that one night?

Marriage is popularly believed to be the better half of faith and a rite of passage into the world. But as the prerequisites for tying the knot and the cost of living keep on rising, and people stay longer in education and work on building careers before marriage, many young couples find themselves in danger of losing the other half of their faith and are stuck for years in limbo between the two worlds.

My sister’s approach of getting married without a large wedding raises eyebrows in Egypt. My own approach of living together unmarried in a furnished apartment, and then building a life together from the bottom up while moving gradually towards marriage, is out of the question for most Egyptians. That said, there has been a massive trend in recent years in which unmarried couples have been living together under the guise of so-called urfi marriages, which are unregistered, informal contracts they enter into for the sake of social decorum.

Recent research by the Brookings Institution reveals that the Middle East has the lowest rate of marriage in the developing world, because a large percentage of people don’t take the leap until their early 30s. While settling down late is not seen as a major issue in the west, the key difference is that most unmarried Arabs are in that situation involuntarily and sex out of wedlock, while quite common, remains frowned upon.

In Egypt, economic challenges and the housing shortage make up part of the equation. But another significant factor is the inflexibility of familial demands. Few families are willing to allow a marriage to commence without a fully furnished flat in an appropriate neighbourhood being ready, not to mention the additional expense of a glittering jewellery set and a large wedding.

Needless to say, given the massive extent of the marriage crisis, it is a popular topic for the media, dramatists and comedians. Films, TV soap operas, newspaper caricatures and popular jokes delve into the various aspects of this phenomenon.

For instance, a short story by the satirist Ahmed Ragab, who is a national institution in Egypt, explores both the housing and the marriage crisis. It features a young couple who have had a “stay of execution” imposed on their marriage because they cannot find a flat and are each still living with their parents.

In a desperate bid to consummate their marriage and start their new life together, they agree to take part in a shrewd developer’s “affordable housing” scheme in which would-be residents have to work on the construction site of their future apartments. The extended families of the DIY residents pitch in to help out in this collective barn-raising effort. They endure sweltering heat, hard labour and humiliation, only to discover that the developer has gone and sold the tiny apartments in which baths are installed vertically to other buyers.

An increasing number of young people are beginning to challenge these dated and rigid attitudes to marriage, in which what should be an emotional alliance is often more akin to a business partnership. A nascent singles pride movement is growing and women are trying to purge the Arabic word ‘Aanes’ (which means spinster, but applies to both genders in Arabic) of its negative connotations.

Abeer Soliman writes a blog called The Diary of a Spinster. “My aim is not to lament my lot as an unmarried woman but to open a window on to my generation (both women and men) so that society can gain insight into our situation and stop labelling us ‘aanes’,” she writes in her Facebook group.

Another popular blog on the subject by Ghada Abdel-Aal, an Egyptian pharmacist, has, with its blend of humour, honesty and insight become a best-selling book. “The problem with Egyptian men is that half of them are like molasses, all gooey, and the other half are hard taskmasters. I suppose the best thing to do would be to put them all in a blender,” she jokes.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 13 December 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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What’s love got to do with it?

 
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By Osama Diab

For Egyptian marriage offices, the search for profit has replaced the search for a perfect union.

June 2009

It was a story of would-be love gone horribly wrong. Alaa El Din Mahmoud went to Al-Alamiya marriage office to find a suitable wife. The office made him a match, Mahmoud proposed and she said yes. He bought her gold, he bought her gifts, but every time he tried to talk about actually getting married, she evaded the topic. Finally the suitor sought help from lawyer Mohamed Konsouh. Together, they discovered that the woman was already married to the owner of the marriage office.

“The owner of the office listed his own wife as a potential partner for his customers until one of the customers got involved in a relationship with her,” Konsouh says.

Matchmakers, both formal and informal, have existed for as long as the concept of marriage has been around. But modern marriage offices have seemingly strayed far from the path of traditional matchmaking, often arranging temporary summer marriages for wealthy Arab tourists, or serving as a sort of immigration service by promising to match clients with partners of dual citizenship.

Aside from diminishing the sanctity of the act of marriage, it seems that the profit potential in this industry has led many businesses to take advantage of their more socially and economically vulnerable clients. Given the somewhat secretive nature behind this business, it can be difficult to determine which offices are legitimate and up front about exactly what services or partnerships will be arranged and which are promising something they can’t deliver in an effort to make a quick profit.

In the Al-Alamiya case, the misdemeanor court of Heliopolis sentenced the marriage office owner Abdel Naser Attia Abdel Kawy and his wife Thoraya Ref’at Hamed to one year in jail for fraud and using fraudulent means to achieve material gains; the victim was awarded LE 5,001 in compensation.

Other potential clients have had similar experiences with matchmakers. A 26-year-old journalist, looking for a husband who would be understanding of her long hours and occasional nights away from home, says she turned to a marriage office because it is difficult to find a man who shares her passion about her job.

The journalist, who declined to give her name because her job is in the public eye, says that she thought a marriage office would function like an online dating website or the matchmaking offices in American and European countries. “My only criterion was that I wanted to set rules for the person I am going to marry, demanding [that he] never comment or disagree with my work requirements,” she says.

It turned out that the matchmaking service was more interested in their own criteria than in hers. “I went into this office and found a [male] reception[ist] interrogating me with bizarre questions and getting trivial, insignificant data from me that they’re going to use in God knows what. It turned out to be a scam.”

al-Waleed al-Adel is the owner of Universal Marriage Office, the only marriage office that is closely supervised by the government and certified by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Universal has been in business for 14 years and also has the approval of the Grand Mufti of Egypt. al-Adel advises people to scrutinize the way the offices advertise their services to avoid scams.

“We show all the applicants our official documents and give them receipts with an official stamp,” says al-Adel. “They should feel okay to ask for the documents that show the legal status of the marriage office.”

Also an English literature professor and radio and TV host for shows addressing social topics, Al Adel says Universal Marriage Office tries to provide a social service rather than simply make money.

“We are a charity organisation and we, for example, help single mothers, among other services, by giving them skills that would help them make money legally rather than resorting to crime or stealing to survive.”

Since economic difficulties are often a barrier to marriage, Universal teaches poor men willing to get married skills that will enable them to make money and support their future families.

“Our scope of work is family welfare, but one might ask what does matchmaking have to do with family welfare. The answer is that we care about the family’s welfare even before the family starts,” explains al-Adel. “Therefore, we do our matchmaking from a socially conscious approach and we do everything that is in our power to facilitate marriage, to reduce the unaccepted forms of marriages that have spread in society lately.”

A good last resort?

Within a few seconds of the doorbell ringing at al-Nil for Marriages, a young woman opens the door and once the visitor cites the reason for coming, she invites the client inside and explains how to apply for a partner. The marriage seeker pays an initial application fee of LE 100 and then an additional LE 25 per match. al-Nil promises to find the applicant a life partner on his or her first visit to the office.

Some clients are looking for a partner, but not necessarily for life. Islam not only prohibits premarital sex, but also encourages marriage as early as possible to prevent Muslim youth from fornicating. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “when a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half” (narrated by Anas).

Articles 274 and 275 of Law no. 58 of 1937 criminalises adultery (sex between a married person and someone other than their spouse) for both men and women, punishable by a sentence of up to two years in prison, says Konsouh. The religious punishment for fornication or adultery can be a lot more severe than the civil punishment: the Qur’an says unmarried women and men who have sex should be flogged with 100 stripes in front of a group of believers; the prescribed punishment for adulterers is death by stoning.

In addition to being prohibited by Islam, premarital sex and relationships are also considered extremely taboo, especially for women, by society as a whole. With such societal and religious constraints, marriage is the only acceptable means of having a partner or engaging in a sexual relationship.

Economics also plays a factor. Marriage offices capitalise on this by advertising potential partners who have both wealth and dual citizenship: highly attractive qualities to those trying to travel or work abroad.

“Marriage to foreigners is a fraudulent behaviour to obtain legal documents that would allow the person to travel, [and escape his] daily suffering,” says Nabil Abdel-Fattah, head of the Sociological Research Unit at the al-Ahram’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He adds that deteriorating standards of living have led to a return of the ‘khawaga complex’, where people perceive anything foreign as better than anything Egyptian. “This has happened because of the feeling of being held back and the wide gap between us and the developed world,” says Abdel-Fattah.

Not all applicants use marriage offices to find a wealthy mate, a ticket out of the country or a temporary summer arrangement; some really are hoping to find a compatible life partner. Zeinab Abdel-Metawakel, a 45-year-old government official, tried to consult a marriage office in hopes of finding an “understanding husband” after a divorce.

“I’m a woman and I have needs. I have been divorced for 12 years and that’s a very long time for a woman to stay without a man,” she says. “It’s not easy to find a partner here in Egypt, especially when you are divorced, and I thought that a marriage office that could arrange for me to meet a decent man would be the best idea.”

The kind of marriage she wanted was apparently not what the office was offering. She was quick to change her mind after being asked questions such as whether she was a virgin (and if not, if she would have an operation to restore her virginity). Another question put to her: If her husband requested a divorce, would she agree to it peacefully, without legal trouble?

“Once the [woman in the office] started asking me these questions, I felt disgusted, denigrated as a woman,” Abdel-Metawakel says, “and I regretted going to that place.”

Contemporary ‘el-khatba’

A rise in Islamic conservatism that restricts interaction between men and women may be at least partially responsible for the growing popularity of marriage offices, says Abdel-Fattah. Before 1980, the country was arguably, at least in urban areas, considerably more liberal.

“The emergence of the new political radical Islamic movements in the late 1970s, the Egyptian mass migration to conservative oil-producing countries of the Gulf, [and] the spread of the veil changed Egyptian values regarding family and marriage,” says Abdel-Fattah. “The focus of these groups was on the female body and veiling it. Then, instead of love, friendship and respect, marriage became a means of reproduction and a legitimate framework for sexual relations.”

Abdel-Fattah compares marriage offices to the bygone role of ‘el-khatba’ (matchmaker), a woman who would find suitable partners for people, usually from the same neighbourhood or area. She would keep a small database of ‘good’ men and women willing to get married, carrying around their pictures to show to potential partners. The matchmaker’s role, the analyst says, was more limited during the 1950s to 1970s, when a liberal society allowed women greater freedom to mingle with men at universities and work.

While some may view modern marriage offices as society taking a step backward, others point to matchmaking services in the West, especially those based on the internet, as positive examples of companies helping people fill social needs. Gihan Abou Zeid, a human rights researcher and consultant for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), cautions against this sort of comparison, saying that marriage offices may also exist in the West, but the reasons that people there use them are quite different.

“In Egypt, such offices are taking advantage of the conservative climate, while in the West [they serve] people who may be [busy] and don’t have time for meeting others, or people who have psychological issues and are not able to take the initiative themselves,” Abou Zeid says. “Another difference is that such services in the West don’t arrange marriages. They just bring people together and then they decide how it goes for themselves.”

Summer loving

Lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and hotels, Gameat el-Dowal el-Arabia Street in Mohandiseen is a summer haunt for Gulf tourists. At 2am, it’s not uncommon to hear the giggles of teenage girls playing with fireworks while adults sit smoking shisha and watching the crowd. Away from this family setting, nightclubs in five-star hotels and on the Pyramids Road cater to Arab men who prefer to spend their vacation throwing cash at belly dancers and who often seek temporary wives to entertain them.

This spells profit for matchmaking services, which post ads directed toward local women on lampposts and walls, in public transportation and newspapers, offering Arab men for marriage.

“Style for Serious Marriages: Find the best life partner in the only office in Egypt where 22 marriages and six marriages to Arabs and different nationalities have been completed successfully in just one month,” reads a classified ad in Al-Waseet advertiser. “We are the future of marriage and matchmaking between people from all over the world.”

While these ads imply that the arrangements are lifetime commitments, they are often seeking to provide their rich Arab clients with a legal and religiously permissible cover for summer sex. Although prostitution exists, it is illegal, so those who want to engage in sexual relations need a front to keep the eyes of the authorities away and avoid (technically) violating Islamic law.

Marriage offices have gained a reputation for arranging informal unions that provide temporary, legal partnership status. One of the most common is the ‘urfi marriage, in which the couple signs a secret marriage declaration. Most hotels and many landlords demand proof of marriage before allowing an Egyptian to stay in the same room with a partner; the urfi contract gives the couple just enough legitimacy.

These summer flings are not as harmless as they sound. Since urfi marriages are unregistered, and thus not legally recognised, women have no rights to protect themselves or their children from being left to fend for themselves. “Urfi marriage is a way of satisfying needs in a way [the couple] thinks is legitimate,” says Konsouh. “[But] what if the urfi marriage results in pregnancy? Will the man bear the responsibility and acknowledge the child or just evade the problem and escape, which is what happens in most cases?”

The Combating Violence Against Women project, a survey carried out by the National Council for Women and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), looked at the ramifications of temporary unions. Among them is the “summer marriage, where a low-income family marries a young daughter off to a wealthy Arab tourist in return for a bride price. In the typical scenario, the man divorces the girl at the end of his visit.”

Abou Zeid, who contributed to the study, calls summer marriages “despicable”. She explains, “It is usually arranged by the family without the girl’s consent, [as] a deal between the old Khaleeji man and the brother or the father of the girl. This is almost a case of body selling, and it’s usually a short-term marriage with a decided price.”

For impoverished families, the financial payoffs are often more attractive than the sanctity of their daughters.

Marriage offices are well aware of this allure of escaping poverty through marriage. El-Maleka (Queen) Marriage Office advertises in the Giza-Shubra metro cars frequented by masses of young, underprivileged men on the way to their schools or jobs. “We find you a suitable life partner on the first visit, all ages and all levels,” the El-Maleka sticker reads. “Unmarried, divorced women and widows with a house for living. Ladies and businessmen holding two nationalities for traveling and residency.”

Matchmaking ads emphasise promises of wealth or better living conditions with words such as “businessmen”, “Arabs”, “aristocrats” and “civilised”, reflecting how marriage today is increasingly perceived as one of the few means of mobility in a society where social class is very significant.

In the process, the rite of marriage has lost much of its sanctity. These days, rather than finding a loving relationship meant to last a lifetime, it appears more important to check off the boxes: find a willing partner for sexual relations, gain access to money and status, and achieve a desirable level of mobility and social acceptance. While some offices may legitimately offer the opportunity to find love, it appears that many companies are taking advantage of their more vulnerable clients’ dreams, marketing a service that often ends up being nothing more than a scam.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Egypt Today. Republished with the kind permission of the author. © Copyright Osama Diab.


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