Ellen of Australia (and of the excellent blog Steadily Emerging with Grace) and M of Saudi (now a student in Australia), are approaching M’s graduation and a new phase in their relationship. They are sharing with us now to gain some guidance from the expertise of readers on the marriage permission and Iqama processes in their particular situation of M being currently on a Saudi government scholarship, and the 2 having an Islamic marriage. Ellen’s story is in Part I. Here, in Part II, is M in his own words.
I was born in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, in a smaller suburb about five to ten minutes away from the main city. My family are Shia-Muslim. My parents are from different families, but before they married there were some marriages between the families so they are distantly related. I attended a public school, where the language of instruction was Arabic, and I completed my Bachelors Degree in Al Hasa. I am the oldest of my family and the first to study abroad.
Before I came to Australia, I thought that people in the West spent more on drinks than anything else; and, that they liked themselves better and spent more on themselves than on their children. I believed that many, when their children reached 18 years old, wouldn’t let them stay in their house any longer. I also had the impression that their relationships depended on mutual benefits, and that they didn’t have a concept called family. Those ideas were all just based on what you hear in Saudi Arabia– it’s exactly like the Westerner’s oil well misconception, that every Saudi has an oil well in the back yard. When you’re young, people like your school religion teacher tell you such things, and you believe it. My view has since changed for the better, as I came to live in the "West", and built a life with a "Western" woman.
I met Ellen in her aunt's house, where I was living in a home stay arrangement. I lived there while studying English in preparation for my Masters. I wouldn’t recommend a home stay if you like your independence, but it is a good way to transition from living with your family to living on your own.
My family refused our relationship in the beginning. After a lot of time went by, they realised that I was serious about it, and then they gradually accepted it. My family was concerned about the children that we may have and how our differences would affect them. One of my sisters definitely helped in them coming around.
Our future marriage plans depend on whether I can get a job here in Australia after my degree. If I can, then we'll move forward in Australia. However, if I find one in Saudi or Bahrain, then our marriage plans will change to suit that. It's difficult to give a definite answer right now to how things will go in this regard because I haven't yet finished my degree.
Ideally we would live in Bahrain, which is near my home city. I would like to live in Saudi Arabia because of my family and also because the job opportunities can be a lot better (higher salary, etc). However, the marriage permission and the residency visa (Iqama) are challenges. The next challenge would be how the conflicting cultures Saudi/Australian would affect our children. We would just have to blend the best of our cultures for the children. So that might mean living in Qatif but going back to Australia once a year, or it might be the reverse. Otherwise we could live in Bahrain or any other Gulf country and do the same thing. The main difficulty is finding a job as unemployment is very high in KSA and the Gulf. That's the challenge that we can't really fix ourselves.
After Ellen and I married our relationship became more stable, and we were able to depend more on each other emotionally and financially. If I had had the option of a legal marriage, which I still don’t, it obviously would have taken months, or years, to persuade Ellen to marry me. I don’t believe that she would’ve jumped into a legal marriage straight after we met. A religious marriage was a combination of a marriage in the eyes of Islam, but also a marriage that Ellen could accept in the beginnings of our relationship. I believe that her family would have had difficulties accepting a legal marriage so quickly as well, so this way has been the best for their acceptance of us.
Regarding children, it is my responsibility to teach them Islam, as well as to respect other opinions. I don't mind what country we raise them in, it's about what we teach them. To respect other opinions would that include, for example attending Australian family events, the Church service for a family wedding, Christmas dinner, Christmas presents, Easter egg hunts. Ellen’s family are very big on Christmas and our children should know that there’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. Often the women in Qatif will celebrate it together because it’s the birth of Prophet Isa [as], so our children could celebrate it in KSA, too. It’d be a smaller celebration, but it’s important that they are aware of it. It’s the same as the Eids. They are very important in Saudi Arabia, and the celebrations are bigger than any Christmas one I’ve seen. Obviously in Australia they’re a lot smaller, so our children would be able to experience both ways of celebrating.
I don't want to give any serious advice to other Saudi/Australian couples about future directions as we're still waiting for me to finish my degree. In that sense, it's hard to give advice to others about where to live, etc, while our own lives are still unsettled in that way. However, I would say that meeting the Saudi and Australian extended families is really important. If you move to KSA, chances are you'll live with your husband's family, either in the beginning or for the whole time, so making a good relationship with them is particularly important. Recently Ellen met my family and the visit went well. I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better. It made everything easy for us. We didn’t have to worry about their acceptance anymore, and the only difficulty left is the permission/visas for KSA. We are both very relieved at how well it did go, and that we have only this difficulty left.
I would also recommend that other mixed couples focus on a lot of communication. If there's something wrong, then talk about it together. You have to “be on the same page" with issues especially in a relationship where there are two different cultures. Mixing two cultures means taking the best of those cultures and applying them to the relationship. We haven’t had any difficulties in communication in terms of different gender styles, and have handled our communication in this open and positive focused manner.
I would like to thank both M and Ellen for sharing their stories. I repeat here the questions Ellen asked on both their behalves in Part I:
We’d like to ask how old any of the readers were/are when their permission was granted, and how old they were/are when they applied?
Should we start with the Saudi Embassy in Australia?
What main differences can Ellen expect between what Ellen saw of life in Bahrain, and life in the nearby Eastern Province, or the rest of Saudi?
Any further recommendations for M and Ellen on how to best carry out the marriage permission process in their circumstance of being young students?
What can they do now to facilitate an eventual transition to life in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf?
Any other comments, thoughts, or similar experiences?