A Saudi And A Non-Saudi: So What’s The Big Deal?

A Love Story Of Sorts
By Alejandra of Chronicles Of An Overly Discerning Person
23 March 2011

One of my oldest memories of my father is of him pacing in the hallway outside my bedroom every night, praying with the rosary on the little decade he always carries in his pocket. My parents are both Cuban immigrants whose families lost everything in the Cuban Revolution and were forced to seek exile in the United States. My childhood was spent being carted to different events that all seemed centered around one thing: getting Castro out of Cuba. My father’s closest friends are a cornucopia of ex-political prisoners with heart wrenching stories of unjust incarcerations at the hand of tyrants.

My parents raised me to know my mind and to maintain my convictions at all costs, even in the face of adversity. Both of my parents are fiercely devout, for years I was coerced into participating in various doctrinal seminars and other religious events. I was groomed to be an educated and devout Catholic, who would value her faith and her relationship with God above all else. But somewhere along the line, I made up my own ideas about religion.

And suddenly I found myself in a situation that went against everything I had been taught. How could I ever dream of a relationship with a man who came from a world where women are draped from head to toe in black shrouds, where women are not allowed to drive, and men and women use different doors to enter the same building? Was that a sign of insanity? Here I was at 21, a Cuban girl from Miami and the sister of a Jesuit priest, utterly enamored with a 27 year old man from Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Islamic societies. I felt like I was caught in some cheesy cliché.

I remember vividly that night roughly a year ago. While catching up with an old friend, she told me all about her new friends from Saudi Arabia as we sat in my car parked outside her friend’s dorm in Orlando. Shocked, I asked her, “Where did you find Saudis in Miami?” To which she laughed and shrugged, she was already jaded. After the semester ended, I moved back home and back into her life. One night we ditched our plans and instead I went with her to her friend’s apartment which incidentally belonged to some Arabs. As we stood at the door, I remember feeling characteristically apathetic.

Then the door opened and her best friend, who I had heard was something of a rebellious black sheep from a wealthy and influential family in Saudi Arabia, let us in. As I walked into the upscale bachelor pad, I failed to recognize the other three guys from amongst the several Arabs I had met the summer before at a party she had thrown. That night, we hung out in a strikingly normal fashion with four very distinct characters. First there was M: long curly hair in a messy ponytail, equal parts standoffish and meltingly affectionate. Then there was T: in sweat pants and a scruffy beard, looking exactly like the Islamic terrorists that were all over the news a few years ago, but he was shy and sweet. Then there were the two As; there are a lot of them it turns out, not unlike the Joses and Juans of my culture. A1 seemed to have that slightly belligerent personality that was stereotypically attributed to angry, anti-American Muslims. A2 was the charmer in the group, who I noticed was decidedly housewife-ish.

Back then I scoffed at how dumb some girls are, the ones who fell for the charm of foreign men from romantic desert lands. Didn’t those girls know that they would inevitably only end up broken hearted? Those Arabic men were here for a few hedonistic college years and then would return to marry their own desert flowers. I laughed when my friend spoke about wishing to visit Saudi Arabia, after all, how crazy would a woman have be to want to go to such an infamously female-oppressive place.

I saw them again a few more times and the same four guys were always nice and hospitable. But there was something unsettling about the one with the long, curly hair who looked so elegant smoking cigarette after cigarette on a beanbag in a way that only he could. At that time, I was contently void of emotions more often than not. I was trying to piece my life back together after the apparent failure that was my brief stint at going away for college. I was unnerved by my reaction to that mysterious Saudi who was always equally polite and distant.

Months went by and I would sometimes run into him early in the morning when I was out with “the girls”, who were coincidentally close friends of his. He would always show up around 2 a.m. with a friend or two, looking slightly disheveled and absolutely not the way that the son of a foreign diplomat should look. Sometimes I would make weak attempts at witticisms and conversation, but he never gave me the time of day. Eventually I gave up, and adopted a new attitude of simple disregard.

One night I took a gamble and ended up hanging out with him, and two others, early into the morning after everyone else had gone home. That night we had our first significant, lengthy conversation. He half-teasingly mocked me for not knowing what they feed pigs, which is why pork is haram, or forbidden.

In the fall, I began to take Arabic classes, which proved far beyond my ability to BS. When the time came for the first exam, I used the opportunity to ask him for help studying. A few days earlier, while out shopping with my friend, she had mentioned that he had asked about me. He told her that when he spoke to me, it was like he was having a conversation with himself. I felt that unnerving warmth spread throughout my body and I struggled to appear nonchalant. She had made it clear that entertaining any silly romantic notions about this enigma was unacceptable, because he was bad news. When the time came for our study session, it was relatively uneventful. It was an obviously platonic dynamic and he showed no interest beyond that of friendship. In passing, he commented on his interest in another girl we both knew, who is ironically my polar opposite in every way.

As the weeks went by, we spoke every day on Facebook chat. Every night he would log in and we would chat until the sun came up. We talked about everything and anything, and we were obviously kindred spirits as Anne Blythe (nee Shirley) would say. Over a relatively short amount of time, we forged a deep and significant bond; one that I had convinced myself was hopelessly platonic. But as time went by, I began to be less sure.

One night, I came home from dinner with the girls and like every other night I logged onto Facebook. But that night was different, that night he confessed his feelings for me, that were decidedly not platonic, and incredibly unnerving for him. He had a terrible experience several years ago, when he was roughly my age, and he was scared to return to romantic territory. But we agreed to meet and test-drive these unsettling emotions.
Suddenly I was caught between feeling elated, that this man who seemed perfect for all intents and purposes could care like that about my ostensibly average self, and feeling incredibly anxious because nothing good ever came from a relationship between a Catholic girl and a Muslim boy from Saudi Arabia.

At first everyone around us was shocked at best, or disapproving, of our relationship. Our first few months together were marked with scandals and drama. My friend never spoke to me again after that first night she saw us together, she didn’t approve of our relationship. But somehow, that brought us closer together. I joked “it’s you and me against the world, kid” but he didn’t understand the colloquialism.

Today, my large and opinionated family has found out about my relationship with a Muslim. It has become quite the scandal. Nothing has been this big of a scandal since one of my aunts married a Jamaican in the eighties. My father seems to be in denial and my mother rarely talks about it. I wish I could just shout out from the rooftops of the Miami skyline and desensitize my world. I wish that this wasn’t about a Catholic and a Muslim or a Cuban-American and a Saudi Arabian. I’m a young American female undergraduate student who is in love with a Saudi male graduate student. But unfortunately, wherever we go, people stare at us. When we go out and he’s indubitably mistaken for a Hispanic, I’m not sure if my response in Spanish explaining that he doesn’t speak Spanish, irks him or the speaker more.

My hometown is in the American South, but our native language here is not English, and signs are always bi-lingual. I have yet to see a mosque in Miami and I have lived here my whole life. In my Saudi’s hometown, there are mosques on almost every corner and the entire country stops five times a day in order to perform the required salat, or prayers. There are no other religious edifices and foreigners are forced to practice their faith in private.

We come from worlds that are seemingly opposite from one another, and our faiths that define us in one way or another, are supposedly irreconcilable. But somewhere along the line that divides, we fell in love. Our deep-rooted respect for each other has created a formidable foundation upon which we have built our relationship.

Constantly, people ask me how it happened, how did I find a Saudi? I don’t quite know how to answer that question. Somehow a friend met a friend, that met a friend, who met me. We talked and talked and talked and talked. We developed a mutual respect and that respect turned to admiration. And the admiration turned into love. I wonder how it is possible for two opposite worlds to collide in such a way and what will come from all of this. The future is at times ominous and alluring. But I’m only 22, what do I know about life and where it will lead? All I can hope for is that one day, when I tell my story about how I fell in love with a mysterious man from a faraway magical Kingdom of deserts and camels, someone will say, “so what’s the big deal?”

Photo Credit: Alejandra

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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

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