Monday, March 15, 2004

Multicultural Marriages

Nazli asked about the cross-cultural aspects of marriage to an Egyptian and the changes that are involved in moving to another country. In one sense, every marriage is a cross-cultural experience in that every family in the world has its own culture. No two American, Canadian, Egyptian, or Iranian families are exactly alike. Every family has its own traditions and beliefs, and every marriage involves the melding of these beliefs into yet another tradition. When you marry outside of your religious or ethnic group, this process is just amplified. Being the child of a mixed marriage myself (my mother was British while my father was American), I was somewhat aware of the process already. My educational background in the social sciences increased my awareness as well. My late husband was also the child of a similarly mixed marriage between an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father. The differences between Sudanese and Egyptian cultures are very similar to the differences between US and British, but being closer in proximity, the marriages are more common possibly.

Starting from a perspective of already mixed cultures, my family didn't find it terribly surprising that I chose to enrich the mixture. From one point of view (one that is of importance in traditional spouse-choosing in Egypt), my husband and I were very similar. We were both the oldest of four children, we both had graduate degrees from the same university in Canada, we both had Canadian citizenship, we both spoke more than one language, our fathers were both senior civil employees who had to struggle somewhat to provide for their large families, and our mothers had lived in the culture of their husbands.

But there were differences, obviously. I was from an Anglo-Irish tradition with some ties to the Anglican church, however weak, and my husband was a Muslim Arab, however liberal. After spending a number of years in anthropology and philosophy courses, I'd become interested in Islamic culture even before I'd met my husband. A course in mystic traditions in the history of Christianity and Islam had introduced me to Sufi tradition, and the very personal mystic approach to spirituality appealed to me. Thus, although it would be a very serious faux pas for a Muslim to ask someone to change their religion and my husband never did, I found that the change from a mystic Christian aspect to a mystic Islamic aspect was very little change in fact. I made the choice myself, feeling comfortable that the relationship I already had with the Almighty (however this entity might be named in another language) was one that fit as easily within the framework of Islam as it did within whatever framework had existed previously.

When we moved to Egypt, I made the Islamic label a legal one as well, since once religion mixes with law, it becomes something rather different. Had I not done this, the custody of my children might not have been with me at my husband's death. Although it is my personal belief that one's religious beliefs are the business of the person and God, it would be foolish to ignore the possible impact of the law on a family. Because there are both Christian and Muslim traditions in Egypt, there are legal differences in inheritance and such that reflect these traditions. A family that straddles the divide is likely to fall into a hole if disaster strikes, so we chose where we wanted to stand.

I raised my children in the Islamic tradition, but, like every mother anywhere, I put my own spin on things. We followed the traditions of fasting during Ramadan and so on, but for me the important aspect of any spiritual life is not the following of certain rules of when and where one prays or what one eats or drinks, but it is the deep knowledge that one is behaving in a moral and ethical manner with the other inhabitants of this planet, whether they are human or not. I honestly believe that the basis of every religion is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you can live by this rule on a daily basis, you are living a correct religious life whatever the label may be. Thus, the particular decisions as to how closely one wants to adhere to a tradition are personal ones that do not really touch the essence of religious life. In fact, I have met more rule-following Christians and Muslims that have no more connection with the deep demands of spirituality than house sparrows. They have on occasion lectured me on my dereliction of duty in certain regards. For example, my husband never made it to Mecca, preferring to spend his time on his businesses that were employing people and making it possible for them to raise their children and educate them properly. He took great pride in the fact that he provided people with the means to live and took that responsibility seriously. We both felt that this act was more important than a trip to Mecca.

The main challenge that I see in a cross-cultural marriage is in the raising of children to embrace the best aspects of both cultures. In our case, this involved placing them in French schools when they were young so that they would have the English/French bilingual tradition should they want to live in Canada, and then giving them daily Arabic lessons here to ensure their ability to get along in Egypt. At times they were a bit lost, as might be expected and they had to find their own identities within the mish-mash that their father and I provided. They are more Canadian than American or British and sometimes more Sudanese than Egyptian. Having attended French and American schools and an Ivy League university, they have a pretty good handle on North American culture but they each have a definite culture of their own. Most of their friends are similar cross-cultural offspring, not surprisingly. To imagine that a cross-cultural marriage will produce uni-cultural kids is rather silly, and it also denies that richness of life that I believe such mixtures engender. Cross-cultural marriages are not the easiest sort to cope with, but I believe that if you go into it with your eyes open to the difficulties and with a determination to create something new within your marriage, you will have a more interesting life than otherwise.