Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Young love in Saudi Arabia: his and hers

The Times has two complementary pieces today on courtship in the Kingdom, one written by a man about the men and one by a woman about the women. (Katherine Zoepf, whose writing I always enjoy, did the women's piece).

The men's piece focuses on two cousins, one of whom is engaged to the other's younger sister. There is tension between them on the role of romance - is it enough to just wait until after you are married to be romantic, or are the young men missing out on the experiences that go with dating and falling in love outside of marriage?

Nader began.

“I am a romantic person,” he said. “There is no romance.”

What Nader meant was that Saudi traditions do not allow for romance between young, unmarried couples. There are many stories of young men and women secretly dating, falling in love, but being unable to tell their parents because they could never explain how they knew each other in the first place. One young couple said that after two years of secret dating they hired a matchmaker to arrange a phony introduction so their parents would think that was how they had met.

Now, in the desert, Nader’s candor set Enad off.

“He thinks that there is no romance. How is there no romance?” Enad said, his eyes bulging as he grew angry. “When you get married, be romantic with your wife. You want to meet a woman on the street so you can be romantic?”

Nader was intimidated, and frightened. “No, no,” he said.

“Convince me then that you’re right,” Enad shot back.

“I am saying there is no romance,” Nader said, trying to push back.

Enad did not relent, berating his cousin.

Under his breath, Nader said, “Enad knows everything.”

Then he folded. “Fine, there is romance,” he said, and got up and walked away, flushed and embarrassed.

Of course there is the Thomas Friedman technique of following around a couple of people and making generalizations about whole societies based on that understanding. Fine. But it seems that Michael Slackman here contradicts his own interpretations - isn't secret dating romantic? Isn't hiring a matchmaker to trick your parents into letting you marry the man you've been seeing behind their backs for years, and then living happily ever after, sort of Romeo and Juliet? Isn't Titantic, which the young men in the story seem to enjoy so much, a story of secret dating and breaking taboos and concealing love? Maybe this is crazy but it seems like what the men are really saying is that their experience is different from what they see in American movies ... and that's how they understand the idea of romance. These two individuals define romance differently, even, and see it as playing different roles in their own lives. Why efface that to make a point in this article?

Girls of Riyadh, which was by no means a literary masterpiece, in my opinion and others', at least took on the idea that individuals might approach love differently depending on their individual circumstances. Please - give the Saudis a little more credit.

The women's stories are ... I like it slightly better. I am not yet sure what I think about it.

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