I’ve been here in Korea for two weeks and I’ve been hearing quite a bit about cross-cultural relationships as there seem to be so many foreigners here dating Korean men and women.
Hearing about the cultural differences and challenges they face has really made me reflect a lot on what I learned from almost getting married to a girl while I was living in Egypt – a girl who didn’t speak any English.
Yea that’s right. Our relationship was entirely through my second language, Arabic.
I said I’d write about it eventually and here it is; forbidden love between a Middle Eastern girl with no English and a bloke from Australia learning Arabic, as well as the important lessons learned from the whole experience.
Well, not initially.
At first there was nothing forbidden about it at all – we met, we did the right thing and approached her father for permission, he gave us the green light, preparations for the engagement ceremony were made – everything was perfect.
That was until a bunch of unforeseen problems came our way that threw a spanner in the works and brought the whole thing to a halt.
A short-lived fantasy.
It was a heartbreaking end and one that neither of us wanted but in the end it wasn’t our decision to make.
Today I’ve decided to share a few lessons with you that I learned from the whole experience.
It should give you some idea of what’s usually expected in Egyptian society if you ever meet the man or woman of your dreams. Enjoy!
Note: This is what I personally learned from my own experience and those of my Egyptian friends. I realize that there may be slight differences depending on how conservative the family is, whether they’re Coptic or Muslim and what area they’re from.
If you’ve had a similar experience please share it below!
Learning Arabic? Take a look at my other site: TalkInArabic.com.
1. Shortly after you fall in love, the father’s permission to date his daughter must be sought
…with the expectation of marriage.
Some guys in the West still have the decency to talk to the girl’s father before asking her to marry him. I take my hat off to you blokes for doing that.
In Egypt (and I suspect all over the Arab world) this is something that needs to be done right at the start when you start dating.
I went on two ‘dates’ (by that I mean hanging out in populated areas getting to know each other) with this girl at which time she told me that I needed to meet her father and request his permission to continue seeing her. It was either this or we stop seeing each other altogether.
This carried the expectation that we intended to get married. I had to make a serious choice then and there, without even knowing this girl properly, about whether or not I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
Sounds crazy, huh?
Now, this may differ for others but in my situation I was told to dress nice, come to their home and sit down for a lengthy interview about myself, my plans and my intentions with the man’s daughter. It’d be an opportunity to make a verbal contract of sorts between the father and myself.
I was pretty scared at this point.
Traditionally, this kind of negotiation over a bride-to-be is done with both peoples’ parents there and I suspect in a lot of areas (especially rural places) it’s almost like a business transaction. For Muslims especially there’s the issue of a dowry which can be money, gold and assets.
Because I didn’t have family with me and no one present to confirm who I was or if I could be trusted, the father had to contact Egyptians who knew me back in Australia to verify everything.
I was fortunate that I had these people to back me up. I’m not sure how somebody else with no ties to an Arabic-speaking community could get around this.
He asked me questions about everything – particularly finances.
We put pen to paper about my present and future financial situation including debts and assets, details about how much the engagement ring and ceremony would cost, the wedding and gold, the honeymoon and then of course, where we’d be living and how much that would cost.
There were lots of questions about religion and family too.
This meant everything about my mother and father, what they do and whether or not they’re together, as well as the extent of my religious commitment.
At the end of the very long discussion the girl’s father concluded by simply saying “Tayib, ana mawafi2” (Okay, I agree).
From then on I was treated like part of the family.
Lesson learned: Guys need a serious set of balls if they want to pursue a girl in the Middle East and a good story to back themselves up when being interviewed by the father.
2. Blokes are expected to have a stable career and an apartment before marriage
Egyptian men marry late.
By ‘late’ I mean it’s common for men in Egypt not to be regarded as ready for marriage until they’re well into their mid-thirties.
The reason for this is that it’s expected that you’ll already have a stable, secure job and an apartment to offer the girl you want to marry. When you meet her father to request permission to see her right at the start, he’ll want to be confident that you can provide all this from the get-go.
This is not only for her comfort and security but for the kids you’re expected to have shortly after.
I was lucky enough to have a rare instance where her father gave me his approval even though I didn’t have an apartment or a stable job at the time but this was only after I explained my short to mid-term plans in extreme detail.
Even then he was hesitant and had to phone an Egyptian friend of mine in Australia (the woman who taught me Arabic who I also call my second mother) to verify that I was telling the truth.
I have Egyptian male friends whose fathers actually saved up for years to buy their sons an apartment (usually in the same building as their parents) to make it easier for them when they wanted to marry.
Lesson learned: Start getting your act together big time (settle down and find a stable job) if you want to find love in Egypt.
3. There are lots of terms of endearment (pet names) in Egyptian Arabic
Every language is full of pet names people give to one another when they’re in love.
Here are just a handful of common Egyptian Arabic expressions that we used to say to each other a lot:
(Note: The numbers used in the transliterations represent sounds in Arabic that have no English equivalent. (E.g. ‘3’ = the guttural ‘ain sound (ع)). For the rest, read this for an explanation.)
7abibi – 7abibti (حبيبي – حبيبتي): This is the most common term of endearment right across the Arabic-speaking world. It simply means my love or my darling.
The man should use the feminine form when addressing his girlfriend/wife.
7abibi is also frequently used between friends, members of the family or young children. Sometimes, particularly in songs, you’ll hear the masculine form used toward women as well.
ba6a – (بطة): Duck. I’m not sure if this just an Egyptian thing or if it’s common in other places but this is one way to call somebody cute (ya Bata!).
My girlfriend used to call me this one a lot, especially when I said something silly (i.e. frequently).
7abib 2albi – 7abibat 2albi (حبيب قلبي – حبيبة قلبي): Love of my heart.
This is another way to use the word 7abib. In Egypt, the word for heart is pronounced 2albi whereas in the Gulf it’s pronounced qalbi.
3omri / 7ayati – (عمري – حياتي): My life. These two words can be used pretty much interchangeably.
When used in a vocative way (ya 3omri), it’s just a short way of calling someone your everything. You can also use it with 7abib to mean love of my life.
mozza – (مزة): Sexy, babe. Be careful using this one. It can be taken as really rude if you say it to a girl who doesn’t have a playful nature or the right sense of humor. Never say this to someone you don’t know for obvious reasons.
We actually made our own hybrid word where we took the ending off the English pet name sweetums and attached it to mozza – mozzums. 🙂
bamoot feek / feeki – (بموت فيك): Literally translates as I’m dying in you. It basically implies something like I love you to death.
It’s a strong, emotive statement that you hear in songs a lot.
ba7lam bik / biki – (بحلم بيك): I’m dreaming of you. Self explanatory.
ba7ebak 2ad il-2amr / il-dunya kulaha / il-ba7r – (بحبك قد القمر – الدنيا كلها – البحر): I love you as much as the moon / the sea / the whole world.
We used to playfully argue with each other about who loved who the most while trying to find bigger things to compare our love to (yeah I know it’s lame, right!)
I love you as much the sea… Then I love you as much the moon. Well, I love you as much as the whole world!
You get the idea.
bitganini – (بتجنيني): You’re driving me crazy. It doesn’t need much explaining as it works the same way in English.
I could easily list off a dozen more terms and expressions but I think this will do. 🙂
Lesson learned: Being in a relationship with someone who speaks another language teaches you a lot of their romantic terms and expressions.
4. Even in a poorer society people can be very materialistic
I used to have this romanticized notion that materialism was something that only Western and East Asian societies suffered from, and that eventually I’d marry someone from a poorer part of the world where it’s not an issue.
Money and assets would never come between us I thought.
Given the fact that most people in the Middle East are quite religious and a huge emphasis is kept on one’s spirituality as more important than anything else, there’s still a heck of a lot of status given to people with wealth.
Let me tell you something – in poorer parts of world it can be just as much of a problem as it is in wealthier nations (sometimes much worse).
Now I’m not trying to generalize at all (apologies to anyone if this comes across as offensive) but one thing I did learn in Egypt is that it can be a huge obstacle for couples.
As I’ve already said above, men are judged quite harshly on what they own and what their status is. A man is even judged on how much gold he gives his bride at the wedding.
Even though my bride-to-be’s family knew I had very little at the time, to many of her extended family I was regarded as someone of a much higher status for the simple fact that I was from a Western nation.
In reality of course I wasn’t any different from anyone else.
Lesson learned: Even in a country like Egypt where religion and family are number 1, possessions and status can still be a huge factor.
5. You’re not just marrying the girl – you’re marrying the family
This is not unique to Egypt.
You have to accept the fact that this is not about two individuals tying the knot and living happily ever after alone together.
It’s about the union of two families – and this includes all the extended relatives as well.
This was one of my biggest concerns while I was planning to get married to this girl – neither she nor her family spoke a word of English and my family are monolingual English speakers with no interest in foreign cultures or travel.
My family criticized the hell out of me for my decision to marry this girl.
How would I introduce my family to these people? It had to happen eventually.
They’d never come to Egypt.
Who of my own family and friends could I invite to the wedding?
You can imagine the thoughts running through my mind. Even though it never got far enough for it to be a serious issue, it would have most definitely been extremely difficult.
Lesson learned: Unlike the infrequent visits to the in-laws that people are used to in the Western world, you can expect to see them constantly in Egypt.
6. Egyptians are generally very conservative
So you can’t even kiss her until you’re married?
As a general rule, for both Muslims and Christians in Egypt any kind of intimate contact before marriage is a big no no.
In more relaxed, less devout families, hand holding and one-arm hugs can be tolerated to a certain extent but that’s about as far as it goes.
This doesn’t mean that rules aren’t broken however.
Premarital sex does happen in Egypt and across the Arab world in secret (sadly this puts girls’ reputations and even lives in danger).
I was very reluctant to initiate anything more than hand holding in the early part of our relationship.
Lesson learned: Egypt is very conservative even though rules are often broken.
7. There are some feelings you can only fully express in your own language
Even at a high level of fluency in a foreign language as I have with Arabic, there is still so much emotion and thought that can’t be completely expressed without your native language.
I don’t care how fluent you say you are, you will eventually experience this.
I had so many times where I’d want so much to express a certain attitude or feeling to this girl – whether it was happiness, anger or sadness – but I couldn’t articulate it in a way that truly reflected what was going through my mind.
I’m not talking about being able to say I am happy or I am sad – I’m talking about all the various, detailed shades of those emotions.
It can be frustrating to be feeling something and not able to properly express it to somebody.
On the plus side it did teach me to express a lot of things that I previously didn’t know how to because I was always forced to search for ways to say them.
Lesson learned: Being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak your language really teaches you a lot about properly expressing yourself in their tongue.
8. Friends and family will often plant seeds of suspicion over the ‘green card’ fear
This annoys the shit out of me.
“Dude, she probably just wants citizenship.”
While it is a genuine consideration, hearing things like this really plants seeds of doubt in your mind and causes you to be overly suspicious.
If you can’t trust the girl then it’s over already.
I had made my intention known that I wanted us to stay in Egypt and she was fine with doing that. She was marrying me for me and didn’t care if we stayed put or ended up in Australia.
Now, I do actually know Egyptians who have done this (nearly all of them are men who married foreign girls). It happens.
You can ascertain fairly early on whether or not somebody truly finds you interesting and genuinely loves you or is just looking for a free ride.
Lesson learned: Some people are indeed exploitative but don’t let suspicions ruin your relationship.
9. The only place you’ll find a moment of privacy in Egypt is in the bathroom
…and no you can’t take her in there! 🙂
You think you’re going to take an Egyptian girl on a nice, quiet date somewhere and be left alone?
Hah, good luck with that!
There’s no such thing as privacy in Egypt (unless you’re in the loo).
We had a romantic spot in Cairo by the Nile where a lot of couples go but the place was supervised at all times by older Egyptian men.
The last time we were there they harassed my girlfriend and called her a prostitute because they thought it was strange that she was there with a foreign guy.
You really can’t get away from this.
In terms of size, Cairo has a population the size of the entire population of Australia. I can count on one hand the amount of times we were truly alone for a brief moment.
Lesson learned: There’s no such thing as privacy in Egypt. Dates always happen in groups.
10. Guys, be prepared to buy lots of gold if you’re serious about your bride
Egyptian women love gold.
These traditions actually go way back to ancient Egypt.
So after the scary talk you have with the girl’s father where he asks you a bajillion questions and finally agrees to allow you to see her, you head out and buy the first piece of jewellery – the dibla (دبلة).
This is basically what we in the West think of as a promise ring – engaged to be engaged.
For the engagement ceremony you’re expected to buy a much nicer ring – the khaatim (خاتم). This is what we in the West usually buy when we propose but in Egypt there’s a huge, planned ceremony that goes along with it.
Finally, there’s the shabka (شبكة).
We get off easy in the West only having to buy a wedding band. The shabka is more than just a ring – it’s a set of gold jewellery (necklace, bracelets, earrings, etc.) to go with the khaatim you buy for the engagement.
People judge the groom on how expensive and nice this jewellery is.
No pressure or anything fellas.
This is on top of all the other wedding expenses that the man has to come up with.
I bought my girlfriend the dibla but never made it as far as the khaatim. I’m kinda relieved!
Lesson learned: Egyptian women are high maintenance 🙂 Be prepared to shower them with expensive gifts.
11. Religion matters.
I realize that a lot of people reading this are non-religious.
Atheism and agnosticism aren’t really understood and certainly not respected in most parts of the Middle East.
In Egypt (and in pretty much every country in that region), Muslims marry Muslims, Christians marry Christians and Jews marry Jews.
Dating outside of your group can have nasty consequences for a lot of people.
If you describe yourself as having no religion, the reaction you’ll get varies from place to place and depending on who you’re talking to but you can be guaranteed that it won’t earn you any respect.
There’s also quite a lot of negativity toward other polytheistic religions (e.g. Hinduism) as well.
Lesson learned: Only date those with the same religious views as yourself and if you’re an atheist or agnostic then you’re probably best not to try.
12. Being in a monolingual relationship using your target language will catapult you toward higher fluency
As you’d expect it to.
I credit this girl as being one of the main reasons why I went from being an intermediate speaker of Egyptian Arabic to an advanced speaker. It changed me in so many ways.
See, I actually moved in with her family for a while when I lived in Egypt so I was with her and her family every single day from the minute I woke up till I went to bed.
It wasn’t your average immersion stay.
Rather than the usual, general topics of conversation when you stay with a host family, we were discussing our future together, all our engagement and wedding arrangements, our political and religious views, our feelings and so on. The content of our conversations was advanced and therefore I was forced to move up to a higher fluency level.
When I went home to Australia we maintained contact via Skype and telephone several times a day for a whole year.
I used to write her love letters in Arabic too.
I remember sitting in an Egyptian coffee shop once trying to come up with some lovey-dovey stuff to put in this letter for her and having the young Egyptian waiters teach me poetry to make it sound more romantic.
This kind of relationship does wonders for your target language skills. It really starts to become part of your identity.
Lesson learned: Not that I’d ever seek a relationship just to improve my language skills but it really does take fluency to a whole new level.
So what happened in the end?
Simply put: I was hit with a few financial obstacles back home in Australia that put a longer delay on our arrangements.
We could still have made it work but she would have had to sit around waiting another 6-12 months for me to return to Egypt and the family wasn’t happy about that.
In the end, her parents cancelled the agreement.
There’s no way around this in Egypt – when they say it’s over, it’s over.
It was a sad and abrupt end but she’s got a family of her own now and things have worked out well for me too.
Are you thinking about learning the Arabic language? I made a few recommendations in this post for what I believe to be excellent resources.
I also wrote about why Arabic is nowhere near as difficult as people say it is here.
Have you had a similar experience dating or marrying into another culture? Was it through another language?
Share it in the comments section below! 🙂
This was written by Donovan Nagel.