An Arab divorce can be damaging but here’s what I learnt

Nadia Amer shares her experience of coming from a broken home, what she learnt about the layers of divorce and asks the question – why are Arabs afraid of the big D?

Illustration: M J Sulaiman

by Nadia Amer

Culture 11 June 2018

I grew up in London, a city where almost 50% of marriages end in divorce. 

In fact, by the time I was 12-years-old, most get-togethers were determined by custody agreements and whether or not my friend Charlotte was at her mum’s or dad’s house that particular weekend. 

Falling out of love in London was easy. 

My parents’ marriage ended after twenty years in London, and it wasn’t because it took that long to realise they weren’t happy. 

My parents are Lebanese and even though my mum is half English, she was brought up in a traditional Arab household. For this piece, Lebanon means a small country in the Middle East, but it also implies pride, tradition and honour. 

Rather than be seen to have failed or to have given up on their marriage, they spent years living on militant parallel lines. My brother, sister and I lived out our childhood in a volatile Gaza Strip that ran between them. 

As children and shared property, we were a favourite territory for conflict; they threw rocks at each other across the abyss, and we would hide in a cupboard in our spare room eating biscuits in the dark. 

In war, people call this friendly fire. In marriage, people call this war because you shouldn’t set your friends on fire. 

I spent two years in counselling, suffering from crippling panic attacks because I was so disturbed by their arguments. 

Why couldn’t we live like Charlotte? Why couldn’t my parents move into two different houses and share us amicably as British people do?  

I’m going to say it’s because they are Arabs. I’m also going to say it’s because nine years ago when they stood in court and separated, there was still a waft of familial shame in the air. 

Why in the 21st century is it still so difficult for us to acknowledge and talk about divorce amongst Arabs? 

My parents own marital problems were like vicious cancer that would go into remission and appear somewhere else, more damaged and tumorous than the last time. Both their families regularly intervened on their behalf and offered up emotherapy that only ever staved off the big D * a little longer. 

*I wish this were a Nicki Minaj reference, but it’s just a long-winded cancer analogy.

My mum was 27 and naive and as an Arab and a Muslim, already far too old to be single. She turned down a spot at University in favour of my father’s wedding proposal.

My mum was told to calm her rage. 

My dad was told to be more patient. 

My mum would retreat into the garden and take out her anger on nature. She had a giant axe that she used to wield like a lumberjack. I once saw her hack a 10-foot-tall conifer tree to pieces. I watched her uproot it from the ground with her bare hands. She would traipse into the house at sunset, baptised in her sweat. 

My mum’s frantic commitment to levelling the garden was a mad sort of therapy that induced anxiety in everyone around her. I wondered what would happen once she’d flattened the garden entirely. Were the secrets to a happy marriage buried underground?

Perhaps if she exorcised the soil, marital bliss would be released into the air. 

Would she breathe it in and be calm? 

Would her life be beautiful and brown like the earth? 

My dad would escape to our double garage and feed the 52 canary birds he kept in a home-made aviary. He spent hours wiring tiny nests to its walls and would take out the sick birds to tut over their health. He cried when they died, and when I was a small child, I told my friends at school that my father planted birds in the garden. 

If love was a garden, then my parents plundered their plot with aggression. Dead trees and dead birds were not going to make the Chelsea Flower Show that year, or any year after that. 

Why did they do it? 

My dad had to settle because as an Arab and a Muslim in his early 30s, his lifestyle was at odds with his parents’ traditional views. 

My mum was 27 and naive and as an Arab and a Muslim, already far too old to be single. She turned down a spot at University in favour of my father’s wedding proposal.

At the heart of my parents’ unhappiness is a sad sort of ignorance that overshadowed even their earliest memories as a couple. Though I am now old enough to understand the complexities of marriage, I still struggle with the nuances of being an Arab woman, and I am happily married to an Arab man. 

As Arabs, we come from a culture where we still find value in closed doors and kept secrets. We take pride in the old ways and still raise eyebrows over what the neighbours may say. It’s a staunchly gendered space where men don’t cry, and women are meek, and at the core of an Arab divorce are concepts of value that can be culturally unforgiving. 

Being a divorced Arab man leaves no visible mark, the idea of being a divorced Arab woman can be stigmatic and alienating. Young Arab women of marriageable age are, to this day, defined by their virginity. An Arab woman’s currency is her virtue, and if she does get divorced, she will likely live out her remaining days single and alone. 

As Arabs, I maintain that our closed-door policy on relationship issues needs air.

Arab women of my mother’s generation rarely worked, and many stayed at home as housewives. By the time my mother had gotten divorced, she was too old to get back into the workplace or forge an independent life. 

In this way, Arab divorce became a lovely trap for my parents and so many before them. Though a lifetime of heartache was lifted from them both, there remained uncertain aftermath which created fresh turmoil.

My father remarried and even went on to have another child. My mother is still at home cooking meals, giving hugs, wiping tears, and looking after the children that she and my father once shared together. Their story isn’t a sad end, nor is it a bad end. My mother and father are happier separately than they ever were together. My relationship with both my parents is stronger than it has been in years, but I am an engaged spectator in the painful reality of life after divorce, and there is a depth of pain in separation that aches beyond the years of anger that my parents once shared.

You cannot conserve anger the way you might save energy for a run. If you don’t eat the anger inside you, it pickles within you as you age. Bottled up inside your heart, it takes on a bitter flavour that matures into things like regret and resentment and these are words with edges that cut deep into the core of who we are. 

Today, I am happily married and currently nursing within my belly the beginnings of a tiny life. 

Being pregnant is a strange feeling for me because I am so afraid of the parenthood that my mother and father created within the chaos of their marriage. My husband and I had completely different upbringings. He came into our union from a stable, traditional Arab family with parents who are still happily married. I entered into our marriage from a broken home that followed me into my adulthood. My husband’s family consider the word ‘divorce’ taboo, and the mere use of the word divorce used to make my husband feel uncomfortable and stressed. I, on the other hand, am completely immune to the terrible glamour of uttering the d-word, and matter-of-factly bring it up whenever we talk about a relevant topic. In this way, I think that my parents’ divorce gives me an edge and understanding that has oddly, helped us. 

I’m not afraid of divorce. I understand separation, and because I have lived divorce, I confront conflict with determination and a compelling need for resolution and closure. Of course, my husband and I sometimes argue, but I know where my parents went wrong, and it has armed me with a brand of knowledge that only broken people come to know. 

I am glad of the different lives my husband and I have lived, and I think the wholeness of his own familial experience has helped to create a balance between us. 

On a societal level, I believe that there is wisdom in education. Divorce is painful regardless of your race, religion or culture, and I’m sure behind closed doors, even my friend Charlotte’s parents felt pain. 

As Arabs, I maintain that our closed-door policy on relationship issues needs air. 

We cannot expect to instigate change from a dated and gendered space. Many Arab men are expected to stoically marshal their way through life, primed to believe that apologies and self-reflection are somehow more obscene than the ego-driven behaviour that leads down that road in the first place. Arab women should make education and financial freedom their priority over child-rearing and housekeeping. 

We need to switch up the lens through which we filter marriage as an institution. Marriage is about the joining of lives; this does not mean subservience. Marriage should be a bond we create through individual emancipation from the dated traditions, roles, practices and beliefs of the parents who raised us. 

We must marry ourselves before we marry other people, we must practice sologamy of the soul and become whole in our oneness before we enter into any type of twoness. 

Nadia Amer is a word-slinging copywriter, blogger and personal development coach, when she grows up she wants to be J.K Rowling. Nadia is currently working on her first novel; Harry Botter and the Bhilosober’s Stone. It’s a story about magic and the voiceless bilabial stop.

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