Posts Tagged ‘Cross Cultural Marriages’

Book Review ~ The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

May 28th, 2012 4 comments

In the opening scene of Keija Parssinen’s novel, The Ruins of Us, we meet Rosalie, a red-headed Texan who has been living in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. In these first pages, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband of 28 years has taken a second wife.

Later, we meet Rosalie’s husband Abdullah, a man who keeps secrets, the biggest of all: his second wife of two years lives in a villa down the street. Abdullah explains to a friend why he’s grown apart from his wife Rosalie: she has become “too Saudi” for him. If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one.

At the center of the story is the Al-Baylani villa, grand and garish, located in a neighborhood called The Diamond Mile, where Rosalie and Abdullah host vast family meals on Friday.  The home may look impressive, but inside is a family collapsing. At one point Rosalie says, “I’m disintegrating in that house.”

The solution to Rosalie’s problem is not simple. She has transformed herself to fit into life in Saudi Arabia—“The Kingdom,” as it’s called. Rosalie has so entangled herself into Saudi life that returning to the US presents its own challenges: she has no professional skills and she has even forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, a Saudi divorce ultimately means a mother’s loss of her children.

And then there’s the teenage son Faisal, who has his own set of problems, less captivating than Rosalie’s, but still compelling. Faisal is a young man who copes with his bicultural background by rejecting one side of his identity (American) and embracing the other (Saudi). His confusion and self-hatred leads to new, bigger problems for himself and for his family.

The novel has four plot lines, some more convincing than others. My favorite chapters are about Rosalie. I would have been content if the book were entirely about her—this American who speaks fluent Arabic, who does daily yoga practice, who dons all the trappings of a Saudi wife but who slips into her Texas dialect whenever she’s upset.

The Ruins of Us is a story of not only one lovers’ triangle, but two—overlapping and intersecting, set against the dusty, grim backdrop of Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around the themes of cross-cultural marriage, expatriate life, betrayal, polygamy, religious extremism, midlife dissatisfaction, and cultural identity.

Many books have been set in Saudi featuring the same clichéd images, and Ruins of Us has some of that, too. Yes, it would be easy to criticize Ruins of Us in this regard, declaring this scene as unbelievable or that character as stereotypical. However, to do so would miss the point. This is a worthwhile novel, a new take on an old setting—with authentic details throughout. In the end, it’s a story about a cross-cultural family falling apart and trying to come back together.

Question: Have you read The Ruins of Us? What are your thoughts?

Our Desert Dog

October 12th, 2011 35 comments
       Our Desert Dog

When I married my Palestinian Muslim husband way back when, I accepted from the start that a pet dog would not be part of our future. I knew that dogs were considered unclean by most Muslims, and particularly by my husband. Even though I grew up having  dogs as a child, I accepted this. Just another cultural compromise. I decided we would have cats.

Of course, in Seattle, many people we knew had dogs. Every few years our children would beg for a dog of their own.

“Give it up,” I would say. “We’re cat people!”

Then we moved to Dubai. Living in this hot climate, in a Muslim country with my husband’s family regularly around, I knew that—more than ever—a dog was out of the question.

Then our villa was burglarized. Twice. While we were sleeping.

“These windows,” the policeman said, pointing to where the break-ins occurred, “they are just for show.”

We experimented with window bars and locks. A raised fence and barbed wire were installed. Still, I didn’t feel safe. I began throwing around the idea of a dog. This was met with a cold stare from my husband. Out of the question.

Months later, I received a shocking email from him: What do you think about this dog? Someone at work is looking for a home for him. Attached was a photo of a greasy-looking terrier.

I told him I would love a dog, but not that dog. My kids and I got busy pouring over the pet page of The Gulf News. Within a week I was  ready.

When my husband saw the red dog dish in our house, he stopped in his tracks. “Hey, we haven’t decided yet.”

“I made an appointment,” I told him. “We’re choosing a dog tomorrow. K-9 Friends is expecting us.”

“Let’s not rush.” He looked a little panicked. “Let’s think about it.”

Jessie, the Outdoor Dog    

I reminded him the dog would be an outdoor dog and that we had already agreed. Then I stepped back and allowed the kids to work their manipulative magic. “Oh please, Baba!”

Somehow the kids and I held our ground until the appointment the next day. K-9 Friends, a dog rescue center, requires that the entire family selects the dog. The volunteer explained to me that they didn’t want any dog returned because of a mismatch with a family member.

So, we all trekked over to K-9 Friends, minus one, that is.

“My husband couldn’t come,” I told them. “He’s travelling—out of the country.” I lied.

All the dogs there had a similar look: a mixture of saluki, the tall, slim dog native to the Middle East and revered by many in the UAE. The dogs at K-9 Friends looked so much alike, it was as though they each had the same father, one feral dog who had impregnated all female dogs in Dubai.

Still, we found one that was distinctive. Our chosen saluki mutt was golden in color and sweet in nature. More importantly, he had excellent dog manners due to his former owners, a South African family who had left the UAE.

“Do not keep the dog outdoors,” the K-9 volunteer warned me. “He needs to be in the house around the family. In fact, he will be a member of your family.”

Yeah right, I thought.

At home, we named the dog Jessie, and I quickly realized the outdoor thing was not going to work. Jessie barked too much. Plus, it was nearly summer and way too hot. We dabbled with the idea of an air-conditioned dog house and priced them at Ace Hardware—absurdly expensive.

      Jessie, the Indoor Dog

And so, Jessie became an indoor dog. He was allowed in one room only: the sunroom, a casual room off the back yard, a room which doubled as the TV room. Perfect!

Word spread that we had a dog. Our Muslim friends and family stopped by to see the dog and give their opinion on the dog-in-the-house matter. I learned that some Muslims really don’t care. (Actually, there were few of these.) Most had very strong opinions. Some said that our house was contaminated. Several told me that angels would not enter our home if we had a dog in it. They emphasized the point that dogs were unclean. A few of my in-laws suggested that we were unclean as well.

What I gathered from these discussions was that it’s the dog’s saliva that is considered unclean. Any Western expat who lives in the Middle East may already know this. If you are in the cinema watching a Hollywood movie, and a heart-warming scene appears, one with a dog licking someone’s face (or worse, their mouth), every Muslim in the audience will groan and turn away in disgust. Ever notice that?

The standard Muslim practice seems to be: if you get dog saliva on your hand, you must wash your hand seven times. (In our house, this translates to “wash your hands really really well.”) Meanwhile, some Muslims—just to be on the safe side—extend this saliva taboo to the entire dog. They think if dog saliva is unclean, better treat the whole animal as unclean.

To compound matters, many people in this part of the world have dog phobias. For them, their only dog encounters have been with stray dogs eating garbage by a dumpster. Or worse, they were bit or attacked by a dog.

All of this meant that when we have Muslim guests over, we put the dog in the backyard for the duration of their visit. Sometimes a guest immediately clues into the dog in back yard.

“Barking?” I ask. “You hear barking? Hmmm. I wonder where that’s coming from.”

They know it’s our dog and right away they ask if we keep the dog in the house. “Just in one room,” I tell them.

They are appalled.

It’s not only the Muslims who are appalled. Some of our Western friends are shocked, too. They are dismayed that we restrict our poor dog to only one room. They are appalled that we leave the dog in there all alone and that we shout at him if he steps one paw out.

Just when I thought I had figured out the Muslim/Arab attitude toward dogs, I witnessed something last week that surprised me. I was at the vet’s clinic, where I saw a severely injured medium-sized dog. He had been hit by a car, the Emirati woman in the waiting room explained. I expressed my sympathy for her dog. She told me that it wasn’t her dog. She had seen the dog get hit. When the driver didn’t stop, she did.

Jessie …. What’s not to love?      

I love this story. Not because she saved the dog (well, that, too) but because it shattered a stereotype that I had held. I would never guess that an Emirati woman would get out of her car in her abaya and shayla, lift and carry an injured dog that wasn’t hers, put it in her car, and pay for its surgery. But she did.

Back to Jessie. After several years, he has given me peace of mind in the home. But, no, he’s not exactly a member of our family. In fact, my husband still threatens to get rid of him. However, when no one’s looking, he talks to Jessie and gives him an affectionate pat.


Do you have a cross-cultural dog experience to tell?

Friday Favorites: Guest Blogger Amanda Mouttaki Shares her Zeal for Morocco!

June 17th, 2011 11 comments

Amanda Mouttaki is owner of the blog MarocMama where she discusses Moroccan cooking, culture, and global food topics. It’s my hands-down favorite Arabic food blog for her stories and cultural discussions. Today Amanda shares some of her favorites from Morocco.

Amanda’s Favorite Book:

Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir

Seven years ago through a very strange twist of fate, destiny or divine intervention I met my Moroccan husband. Recently I wrote about how I found my way to Morocco. I owe a whole lot of credit to Moroccan author Malika Oufkir. Her book Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail was my first encounter with Morocco and to this day, it remains my favorite book about the country. If you’ve read it you might find this statement odd, but to a history nerd like me it was utterly intriguing. If you have never read this book, I’ll warn you, it’s not the romanticized version of Morocco. It’s the down and dirty version. Every country has its secrets and Malikas’ book shows the unsavory side of Morocco’s past. That being said, it is the story of a family and the story of many Moroccan families who have never spoken up about the injustices that occurred during the reign of Hassan II. I was drawn in within a few pages and could not put it down.    


Amanda’s Favorite Dish:

Moroccan Stuffed & Spiced Chicken

Aside from my husband, my next Moroccan love is the food. My very favorite dish is a whole roasted, spiced chicken stuffed with vermicelli noodles. It is so good.  The first time I ate this was at a small engagement party for my husband and me. I really wish I had a recipe to share with you but this dish is a specialty of my sister-in-law, and I’ve never been able to master it.  If you follow my blog I will be posting something similar soon. I don’t think I’ll ever get it exactly right, and it’s one of those recipes I’m not sure I want to replicate as it might take away from my enjoyment when I do get to eat it.  

Amanda’s Third Favorite…

Once you’ve got the man and the food, what’s left to love? Why the clothing, of course! The traditional Moroccan garments for women are caftans and takchitas. I’ve got half a dozen hanging in my closet. I should point out a caftan in Morocco is a single garment, that can be either long or short sleeved, though sometimes heavier winter caftans have two layers. A takchita is a more elaborate dress, almost always double layered with a belt around the waist. I really can’t have too many of these even though I rarely have a function fancy enough to wear one. I love the newer styles that are cut wider in the front to reveal a gorgeous under-layer. In Morocco, these dresses can be bought off the rack, custom made, or rented for special occasions, making them accessible to almost everyone. 

What is your favorite thing about Morocco?