My husband was born in a refugee camp for Palestinians in Amman, Jordan. One of his earliest childhood memories was his house getting blown up, as his family fled for shelter in a nearby school where he clung to his mother’s leg while she tried to shush and feed her second child, still a baby. Until he was 11 a cinder block house in a crowded camp surrounded by dusty hills littered with old landmines was his stomping grounds. He is the oldest of 8 children, his mother, barely a child herself when he was born. He used to go to the well once or twice a week with his aunt to carry water back to the house. If you ever have the chance to sit down and chat with him, he will share with you the picture of a happy childhood, running wild and free and surrounded by dozens of loving family members. You would idolize and love his gentle and kind grandfather who indulged his clever mind by letting him disassemble every household item to see how it worked. Saliva would form in your mouth as he described his grandmother’s date cookies and her rooftop full of tomatoes drying in the sun. As he told you these stories he would not be sitting still, he would likely be tossing pizza dough and laboring over a lavish meal to serve you, prepared in the huge brick oven he designed and built. He would be pouring you glass after glass of wine that he carefully crafted in his garage, long days and late nights laboring over fermentation and doting, fatherly patience as his juicy baby matured into something he could be proud of. When our paths first crossed, a great gift of serendipity, he was doing exactly this.
His mind is sharp and inquisitive and he questions everything and always has. In a culture mostly steeped in Islam, he somehow came out free of dogma. Religion never made sense to him despite many desperate attempts by his family to bring him back in. Even to this day the debates continue although they have learned to turn a blind eye and accept this anomaly of a man who answers only to science and his own conscience. Many assumptions are made about Arabs, mostly about their religious affiliations. I think anyone who hasn’t spent time in that part of the world, auto-assigns Islam to anyone who looks the part, oblivious to the diversity of the Arab world. I have been asked many times, upon learning I married an Arab if I converted to Islam. I often find myself explaining that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arabs.
We have children now and trying to figure out a way to raise them in a way that honors and respects their father’s culture while incorporating our liberal, western values and lifestyle has been a game of give and take and a real lesson for me in compromise. We own a winery, and seeing it through is a dream we can’t give up. But giving up pork was easy. It’s not that we had a formal sit-down with the family and negotiated these things; it was just something my husband felt was necessary, just a way to make our lives and the twins life easier. If the family saw them eating pork, it would be like we were deliberately feeding them poison. I have given up meat altogether before so this was an easy one.
The family in this area seems to multiply rapidly as the youngest of Khaled’s siblings get married, babies are born and more immigrate and weave into the fray. Since my husband is the oldest, our household has become the heart of the family, the place everyone gathers and where at any given time anyone can show up and make themselves at home. I’ve learned not to ask how long they will be staying because my husband will never know. Not because of piss poor planning, but because he would never dare ask, that would be beyond rude, inciting a karmic deficit too great to overcome. The Arab’s high regard for unconditional hospitality is alive and well in our little community, and as romantic and warm as it might sound on paper, in reality, it is a constant bone of contention and the most difficult for me to come to terms with. I’m from a very small family. I didn’t grow up around cousins because I don’t have any. It was always just me, my brother and my parents and the occasional visit from grandma and grandpa. I am accustomed to having my own space and I relish my privacy, or at least I did. I think it is a part of me that is dying a slow and painful death. My husband and I have never lived alone. There has always been some extended family in our midst. Currently, our immediate family of six, a sister in law and her two-year-old and the baby due any day and another sister in law finishing up a master’s degree share our 4 bedrooms 2 ½ bath home and next week my brother in law will join the mayhem. Another brother and his wife show up at least three to four times a week in the evening unannounced to visit and have tea. Every weekend we gather with all the family with includes the aforementioned plus another family of 5. I love them all, but this has been a hard adjustment for me, because, not only am accustomed to scheduling, as a working mother of four kids, I just don’t have a spare minute to think let alone time to waste when there is homework, laundry, dishes; and what if I had plans to work out or read a book? Forget about it! I can’t walk to the kitchen in the middle of the night in my undies to chug from the OJ container. When my husband gets home from work he is immediately sucked into a conversation in Arabic that I can’t understand and I get jealous. And having this many people in your house just adds to the daily chaos of life. A few weeks ago my niece got herself locked in a closet in the middle of the night. As she screamed and her mother cried and her grandma tried to calm her through the door, my husband was sawing his way through the wall to get her out. So now there is a big square hole in the wall that will likely be there for years. Reading this back I think I sound so spoiled, but I can’t apologize for the life I lived before and for the person I am. All I can do is voice my emotion and seek validation from my husband. As long as he understands where I am coming from and helps me through the mourning of a life I once knew, I think we will be ok.
For all the frustration that comes with adapting to being part of a very large family, there is also so much I have learned to cherish. When I let go of deadlines and the dream of a tidy house and a perfectly sculpted physique, I actually have fun. I belly dance on the patio with half a dozen family members in a spur of the moment party. I’m humbled when my two older daughters from another marriage are accepted into the clan without hesitation and are whisked away by aunts and uncles and cousins for sleepovers and pedicures! It is truly a comfort to know that I have an endless number of people in my life who would drop everything and help me at a moment’s notice, no questions asked. This is what I hold on too and come back too when I am lying in bed at night feeling taut and tense. It is easy to assign the blame of my stresses onto everyone else, it is self-preservation, and we are all guilty of it from time to time. I hope that I am overcoming my own ego and gaining wisdom and that someday this will feel natural to me. For now, I will cycle through the frustration, the venting, the guilt and the stubborn acceptance as is the normal process for enduring great change. At the end of the day, I have to remember what got me here in the first place, my husband, and the gift of love and friendship and the promise of a life less ordinary. The excitement and comfort in knowing that despite everything, we still share the same ideals, a life full of adventure and travel, of pushing our dreams to the limit and raising children who are open and accepting of all the cultures of the world who will in their small or big way, spread peace and love on their own journey.