Intermarriage often gets a bad press. But you just can't beat fusion love.
Alex Stein and Seth Freedman have both written comments on the insularity of different religious communities and how they frown upon intermarriage. But neither touched on the beauty, variety, richness and excitement of the kaleidoscopic world of mixed or multicultural pairings.
Dismiss me as a hopeless romantic, if you want, but I happen to believe that love is blind to race, religion and social class – and if it isn't, it ought to be. I believe that cross-cultural pairings have much to recommend them, which may go some way to explaining why, over my life, I have rarely been involved with anyone of the same ethnicity or faith.
For about eight years now, I have been in a loving multicultural relationship. Our diverse backgrounds and very different but compatible personalities have enriched us both beyond measure. As a couple, one plus one, for Katleen and I, equals at least five languages, three different cultures, two religious heritages, and a secular, humanist outlook on life. Over the years, we have challenged each other to see things from multiple perspectives and I believe our claim to being multicultural is not a hollow one. Our long debates have had a profound influence on our worldview, politics and social outlook.
Our own individual diversity and flexibility has aided us and our understanding of the other's background has helped us to make allowances and accommodations. Although Katleen is a fair-skinned, blue-eyed northern European and I am a brown-skinned, curly-haired North African, our cultural differences are not as great as they might appear at first sight.
Katleen speaks fluent Arabic, studied Islamic history at university, did a master's in Middle Eastern politics and her current job regularly takes her to Arab and Muslim countries. As for me, I have a strong European side – I partly grew up in the UK and have now lived in Belgium for the last six years and speak fluent Dutch and a smattering of French. In addition to the Middle East, I write about the EU and Belgian affairs.
Geography is a challenge and we find ourselves constantly wondering whether we should stay here or go there and for how long.
In mixed marriages, families are often the greatest barrier, usually out of distrust or fear of the “other”. Again, we have been fortunate in this regard. I get on very well with my in-laws and my family adore Katleen and the fact that she can joke with them in Arabic.
However, such pairings as ours are much-maligned in the western and Arab media, with coverage focusing on kidnapping of offspring, corruption of values, domestic oppression or, even worse, brainwashing, as the case of Muriel Degauque, the Belgian suicide bomber, illustrates.
Some years ago, when I was working as a wire journalist, I had to fly down to Luxor to cover a hostage crisis in which an Egyptian was holding four Germans as bargaining chips for his children whom his German wife had smuggled out of the country. This made headlines around the world and probably elicited knowing shrugs from those who oppose such mixing.
Admittedly, cultural differences can be an obstacle in mixed marriages, but that's only in the cases where the couple allows them to be. Inter-cultural relationships more often fall apart for personal reasons, but people find it easier to blame it on culture. Besides, monocultural relationships are hardly roaring successes. After all, just because you speak the same language, that doesn't mean you can communicate.
“Why does the media have to portray women who marry Arabs or Muslims as weak-willed, oppressed and downtrodden? Why can't they come and see people like us for a change?” Katleen – who goes to conflict zones for a living and manages an international group of older men at work – once asked after reading an unfavourable article in the press.
And why can't they? After all, our relationship is no exception. A significant number of our friends have got themselves mixed up in the same dizzying cocktails, with combinations including Egyptian/English, Egyptian Muslim/French Jewish, English/Turkish, Palestinian/Scottish, Algerian/Belgian, German-Egyptian/American, Senegalese/Belgian, American/Egyptian, Indonesian/Belgian and more.
At a dinner in London hosted by our Japanese-Egyptian friend and her German boyfriend, it suddenly dawned on us that just about everyone at the party was in a mixed relationship and we privately toasted the brave new world of fusion love.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 September 2007.