Posted on September 9, 2011 - by mira
Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and cruelties; it accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap.” – Herman Hesse
(I would say, when two cultures and religions clash.)
I was in a coffee shop in Sanaa Trade Center, locally known as Markaz al-Leeby, or the Libyan Center – at the time the only modern semblance of a mall in Sanaa.
Two young women sat at the next table. They wore the traditional black balto and had Yemeni features. Their faces were exposed and their hijabs hung back a little on the head, revealing the highlights in their hair. They stood out because most Yemeni women covered their faces, and those who didn’t still constantly, almost obsessively, made sure that not one strand slipped out from under the hijab.
I kept getting distracted by their conversation, all in English, and by the fact that they both spoke English with a perfect American accent. Eventually, I couldn’t help but ask them where they were from.
“We’re American,” one of them said. “Our parents are from Yemen, but we grew up in America.” She was the older sister.
We got to talking and they soon told me the real reason they were in Yemen. They were open about it.
The younger sister had been seeing a young American man in secret. One day, her brother followed her and caught the two together in a restaurant.
“We hadn’t done anything wrong,” she explained. “We just hung out together. But it turned into a huge deal. He told on me, and my parents were furious.”
The two sisters were immediately shipped off to Yemen to get married.
“We can’t go back until we’ve found husbands,” the older sister said. They were staying with relatives whose Arabic they couldn’t understand. “Our Arabic is so weak.”
We parted after having a pleasant conversation. But as luck would have it, I ran into them again several months later. Sanaa having so few places for expats to hang out in, it seemed almost inevitable. I was shocked to hear the news.
When my aunt immigrated to North America during the Lebanese war, she took with her a package of Lebanese values and beliefs, not the least of which were ideas she grew up with in the first half of the 20th century. Upon visiting Lebanon nearly two decades later, she was bewildered to see how Lebanese society had been transformed – namely, how much more freedom young Lebanese women had. Her personal, packaged Lebanon clashed with the actual Lebanon. It was reverse culture shock. As if the Lebanon she once knew had been carefully stored in Tupperware and put in a freezer in North America.
Many Arab immigrants to the West expect their children to grow up with the same values they were raised with – which is what parents do in any case whether the culture they live in is their own or not. But if the parents are Arab, does that mean that their children are also to be considered Arab when they grow up in America? And if the children of immigrants identify themselves as American, does it mean that they don’t have any “Arabness” in them?
The answers might seem obvious.
“It’s selfish of parents to immigrate to a country – that they chose to immigrate to, not their children – and then expect their children to adopt a completely different culture from the one they’re growing up in: that of their parents,” said an acquaintance whose parents were immigrants to a Western country.
The main clash of cultures in Arab immigrant societies occurs when their children become adolescents – and mainly more so for the teenage girls than the boys. Then, all the tight rules and restrictions begin on what they can wear, how much makeup they can put on (if at all), who they can talk to on the phone or online, who their friends are, and whether or not they can go out with their friends. Dating, in all cases, is out of the question.
Teenagers growing up in a shared culture, such as in Lebanon, face the same kind of parental rules, of course. However, they tend to have more freedom to challenge their parents and their own culture, and the parents there are often more lenient and give in to some of the social trends of the youth, when they find that they are incapable of opposing those trends.
The teenage children of Arab immigrants, on the other hand, do not always seem to have the same leeway. They are made to feel as if the values of their parents are sacred and non-negotiable. And the parents often return to Lebanon to experience the same form of reverse culture shock that my aunt felt when they see that young Lebanese women have a bit more freedom in Lebanon than their daughters do in the West.
Do immigrant parents really expect their children to be cut off from the environment that they grow up in? And in trying to protect their children from a culture that’s alien to them, do they not do more harm than good?
It was a Christmas-less December in Yemen when I ran into the two sisters again. The younger sister said that she missed how in America Christmas decorations would be going up and there would be a festive mood everywhere. I could relate.
She said she was now married, and reached into her handbag and pulled out a small photo album to show me her wedding pictures. Her husband didn’t speak any English, and she was still having trouble understanding his Arabic.
She wasn’t the same as when I first met her. Her hair didn’t push back the hijab. She now covered her face with the niqab, the face veil, at her husband’s request.
She looked awkward, less sure of herself. She peered through the narrow opening, tried to open her eyes wider and moved her head entirely to look in one direction or another. She was trying to leave to the U.S. in March, if her husband got his immigration papers by then. She said her older sister was still looking for a husband.
“Only in Yemen; I’ll take it off in America,” she said about the face veil. She sounded more like she was trying to reassure herself. “I always flip it over my head or take it off when he’s not around,” she half-laughed.
“I don’t care if people see my face.”
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen, to be updated every Tuesday and Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them.
Leave a Reply
Here's your chance to speak.