My Big Fat Palestinian Wedding or How I Became a non-Palestinian Bride
By Irene Archos
If someone had told me a year ago today that in the near future I would be married to a Palestinian and living in Al-Quds, I would have told them to go jump off a cliff and stop wasting my time. But, as fate would have it, ladies and gentlemen, fact is stranger than fiction. How could have anyone expected it? I had come first to Jerusalem to celebrate Pascha 2006. I’m a Greek American girl from New York City who wrote the book and the website (www.greekamericangirl.com). The experience changed my life. I had come sick, tired, broken, and after witnessing the miracle of the Holy Light and living the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, I too was born again. My mother was healed of cancer. I travelled through my first desert in Jericho. I had a shopping frenzy in Ramallah and ended it with a cup of Rukab’s ice cream. I fell in love with Palestine. So I made a vow, I was going to come back. And so I did, in the summer only three months later.
Everything fell into place. I asked for a six-month leave from my job. I got assignments to cover culture, religion, and tourism from at least three journals and magazines. And so I was off. And one fateful day, on a sunny, hot day, a few feet down from the 6th Station of the Via Dolorosa, I did something I normally do not do. I asked for directions to find a church from two shopkeepers who were smoking and sitting down playing a game of chess. And there he was-THE ONE. I always had a liking for Palestinian men, but this one made my head light. I got that flutter in my stomach and began to giggle. We started talking and then I did another thing I normally don’t do: I gave him my business card and number. I asked him (on pretence, of course!) to call me because I needed to interview him for some research I was doing on Arabic and Western conceptions of truth. (He used to be a broadcaster/cameraman). The rest, as they say, is history.
For better or for worse, I am an American married to a Palestinian. This arrangement has created many cultural conundrums for me because, as with anywhere in the Middle East, you don’t just marry the person, you marry their family and, for me, their culture. As a “tourist bride,” an outsider who has come to live in Jerusalem and “work” in the West Bank, I have had some difficulty getting used to things or else I have questions about how people view me here. As you can imagine, whenever two radically different cultures come together, especially in marriage, you are bound to watch a very funny movie. Here are some scenes from my movie, “My Big Fat Palestinian Wedding,” except that it isn’t a movie, it’s really my life:
“You met an Arab?” my mother screams into the phone long distance (although I can’t see them, her eyes are popping out of her head). “And he wants to marry you?”
“Yes, he’s very serious.”
“You sure he doesn’t want to marry you just to come to America?”
“No, Ma, he’s lived here already. He prefers Palestine.”
“You’d better watch out-he better not be marrying you for money.”
“No, Ma, he has more money than I do.”
“Are you sure he won’t marry another woman while he’s married to you?”
“No, Ma, he’s promised.”
“Your eyes 14, my unfateful one,” she says (it’s a Greek expression).
“How are you going to live in a foreign land all alone?”
“I’m not alone. I have over 300 relatives I haven’t met yet. Plus, there are many Greek women married to Arabs in Palestine and they are living just fine.”
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” she cries into the phone, her voice on the verge of tears, “Why couldn’t you just find a good Greek boy?”
“Because that was not my fate.” (Greeks believe in fate, so this silences her.)
“When are you going to get married?”
“Well, Ma,” I explain apologetically, “we kinda already are married . . .”
“What! But you just met him!”
Because I am a non-traditional American coming into a traditional Palestinian culture, I couldn’t follow the normal way that leads to marriage. I found out Arabs don’t live together before they get married, so well, I had to get married right after I arrived from the airport (actually the second day after I arrived from the airport.) I would not look “honourable” if I were living in his house without a marriage paper, either for him or for me. So, I had to fast-forward the courtship period to a span of just two weeks. Because I was non-traditional, he was non-traditional too. As a matter of fact, he did a big no-no in his culture; he married out of love, not family agreement. He did not have to ask permission from my father or my brother to marry me. I did not have to go through the scrutiny of mothers, sisters, sisters-in-laws. We just fell in love and there it was.
As a Palestinian wife, I have had to give up my idea of the word “privacy.” I don’t know what it means anymore. There is no near equivalent of the word “privacy” in Arabic; the closest translation would be “loneliness.” I did not know when I met my husband that he was yoked to one of the oldest, noblest Jerusalemite families. His genealogical tree can cover the entire house. I, being the new tourist bride, would be at the tips of many a relative’s tongue. So, I have branches and offshoots of branches of that tree come over to the house on any given day of the week, without notice, at the drop of a hat, curious to see the new bride. I don’t speak a stitch of Arabic so I go around smiling and saying the only snatch phrases I can, “Salam aleikum,” “Ahlan Wu Sahlan” “bidek kawah, tsai, aseer, Coca-Cola?” I go around taking coffee orders, sweet - not sweet - low sugar - 3 tablespoons of sugar, and then carefully stand watch over the slowly frothing coffee getting it just right, because as I later find out, if I mess up the coffee, it means that I have insulted my guests! Coffee without froth on top means “OK, nice to see you, but you have to get going now.” No coffee means “get lost.” And these guests, they don’t just drop by for a quick coffee, they stay for hours! I did not know all this, but there is a certain ceremony, a series of events that happens when guests come to visit. First I am supposed to bring out a cold beverage, Coca-Cola or orange juice or soda. Then, I bring out sweets or dried fruit. Then after the third round of emptying the silver tray, I bring the precious coffee. But it’s not finished yet. Fourth round I have to make mint tsai, gobbled with sugar the way the guests like it. Then I bring individual plates of unpeeled fruit such as banana, orange, apple, pear with an individual cutting knife nestled between the fruit to each and every guest. By the time the guests leave, two to three hours later, I am exhausted. And then I have to do the mountain of dishes all these guests accumulated for just dropping by to say hello. And the questions they ask! My husband’s sister’s daughter asks, “Do you love your new son the same as your daughter?” (Both my husband and I have children from previous marriages). How do I answer without being impolite as I am a host and she the guest and as I later found out, a host can never talk badly to a guest no matter what off-the-wall comment he or she has made?
Oh my God! As I am the woman of the house, I am the de facto housekeeper. The work in the house doesn’t end. I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner (some holidays you take with you wherever you are). I was trying to stuff the oversized turkey with the rice stuffing. It so happened that the man from the telephone company was there in the living room connecting the phone and Internet service (Hamdulalah! It only took three months for the phone company to install it, and in one month it was off because a cable went down in a rainstorm.) “Honey,” I called my husband, “Can you come and help me for a minute?” Now, some of the time my husband helps me around the house. I would like that he helps more, especially since I am the one working outside the house more often. But I hear from other women that I can’t complain; he is a very helpful husband by comparison. The telephone man and my husband then proceed to talk about something I know would bother me. It’s funny how I don’t understand a single word, but I understand when people are talking negative about me. After he left, I asked my husband, “What were you talking about?” He said, “Don’t get angry, but the man asked me if he could ask a personal question. I told him, ‘Go ahead,’ and he said, ‘Do you actually help your wife around the house? I would never do that.’ I answered ‘Of course I do.’ ” Ooohhh I was so mad. If only I could speak Arabic, I’d tell him a thing or two about helping out women in the house, especially if they made twice as much money as he did by hanging up telephone wires! This is something I will never get used to. Because in America, everyone works, it is not fair to leave one person who is exhausted after a day of work responsible for all the housework. But the sex roles are so rigid in Palestine it is going to take a long time for men and women to nurture children and roost the nest equally.
Although I don’t dress provocatively, I have had to get used to the Arabic standards of “decent dress.” Sometimes, especially in the summer, I really miss wearing my knee-length skirts and yes, kill me if you want, showing off my boobs (not a lot, just enough to know they exist). I brought a whole luggage of summer clothes that I have not been able to wear, not once, because according to my new husband, “You have to cover yourself as I don’t want anyone talking about my wife.” “Honey, they are gonna talk about me whether I wear a long skirt or a mini,” I say. But, he insists, don’t add fuel to the fire and tempt the evil eye.
That’s another thing I had to get used to living in a Palestinian Arab society, the differences in doing business and sense of personal space. I am always clobbered, jostled, and nudged on that gruelling walk from the top of Bab El-Amoud to my house on the Via Dolorosa. The sea of people constantly breaking like never-ending waves against me, with the cardboard merchants shouting “Ashara, ashara, ashara shekel” I never, repeat never, get a rightful seat on Service bus 18 to Ramallah, because a line of overweight sittis, obnoxious teenagers, and hordes of little girls cut in front of me. Arabs have no idea how to form a single line; people cut in front of each other willy-nilly. Half of my stay in Palestine I have spent just waiting, waiting, waiting - on line at the bank, at the post office on Salah Al-Din, at the Basic office, at the Austrian-Arab clinic, at the Ministry of the Interior, at the checkpoints, etc., etc. Waiting has become a way of life. I have waited more than four weeks for the telephone company to fix my broken Internet connection (I’m still waiting...).
Time in general beats in a new rhythm in Palestine. “Please go do the photocopies for the paperwork for the visa,” I tell my husband. “I’ll do it bukra,” he responds. A letter takes three weeks to arrive. A travel agent takes two weeks to call and give me a quote. In New York City, I could not hold on to the days; they slipped away like little ants. I remember sitting on the couch one late afternoon and realizing, “My God! The day is long!” I was intimately aware of the passing of time here because it slowed down enough that I could feel its passing.
And then there are the scenes in my movie when the entire family is crammed elbow to elbow around the dinner table (there are so many people they have to sit on plastic white garden chairs) happy to stuff their faces with mansaf and rice and leben and pita and stuffed grape leaves. One person passes the new member of the family, the pudgy beautiful baby boy that looks like those cute Norwegian troll dolls, from one arm to another and he coos and giggles at you. And the children run around laughing and playing tag around the table, and you think, it is a blessing to be married to a Palestinian.
There is the scene where people you hardly know embrace you passionately in the street and say, “Allah mach.” When little children you teach run to embrace you and give you flowers they picked for you from their sitti’s olive grove. When your new sister-in-law sends over a steaming, brimming pot of molochiya and a tray of freshly-made knafe. When a considerably older man on Service 18 to Ramallah taps you on the shoulder and says, “Fadaleh,” pointing to the seat he just gave up so that you, as a lady, could sit down. And the scene where you gaze into your husband’s eyes and realize that all the gold of Arabia and the sacrifice of a thousand sheep, all the bright lights of Times Square and all the stars in the American flag are not worth the integrity, the honour, the dignity present in one drop of Palestinian blood.
The movie, I think, ends happily ever after and the bride in the film actually wins an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Irene Archos is a writer, editor, teacher trainer, and tutor living in Jerusalem. She is looking for investors who would want to help produce the movie that has become her life, “My Big Fat Palestinian Wedding.” She welcomes all comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.