• The happy couple: At Amman Citadel, during a trip to the Middle East in 2016. (Supplied)
Amal Awad never imagined she would bring home a non-Muslim-but-soon-to-convert-Anglo guy to her parents. She further never envisaged the eventual acceptance of this union. But like gluten-free diets, interracial relationships in multicultural Australia are ubiquitous, even if they’re not always easy.
By
Amal Awad

6 Mar 2017 - 1:01 PM  UPDATED 16 Feb 2018 - 3:32 PM

Back in my carefree days of university, where I first began to interact with members of the opposite sex and, in a more meaningful way, with Muslims from different communities, I couldn’t have imagined dating someone from another race or religion outside my own.

In the interests of full disclosure, I wasn’t technically allowed to date, so it might seem like a moot point. But at university, I had male friends who shared similar backgrounds and restrictions. This helped a great deal in navigating interactions.

In a practical sense, my family’s "no dating" rule also meant that anyone I was “getting to know” (the halal Muslim version of dating, still discreet but easily explained) had to be someone my parents would initially approve of, at least on paper.

Forget taking a non-Muslim guy to my parents; I was never supposed to look further than the Sinai for a partner.

You see, 20 years ago, as the generational products of Australia’s new multiculturalism were beginning to show, “interracial relationships” meant getting to know someone from a different village in the homeland (in my case, Palestine). It rarely meant falling in love with someone whose parents came from a different country and spoke a different language.

Forget taking a non-Muslim guy to my parents; I was never supposed to look further than the Sinai for a partner.

But readers, this ideal – while culturally appropriate to my parents - was not sustainable in modern day Australia. Raised on a diet of western culture, it slowly but surely became apparent that the already shallow waters I was swimming in would soon become a trickle. For a stretch of time, potential suitors were guests in my parents’ living room. For a multitude of reasons, they never worked out. Then I spent a long time not getting to know anybody.

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When the inevitable occurred – I outgrew my boundaries (sometimes even self-imposed) – I became more of myself. And I attracted into my life lots of strangers whose ancestry stretched far and wide. I began to understand more fully how important it was to align myself, not only in love but in friendship, with people who were an “energetic” match.

This was a new kind of tribalism for me – a chosen family, and in the case of a partner, selecting a mate on the basis that they were someone I just wanted to be with. In most cases, the challenges were apparent – I still had a lot of boundaries when it came to dating Anglo men as an Arab-Muslim woman. Cultural and religious aspects that were thrown in the “too-hard” basket for men who wanted sleep-overs and so on.

I began to understand more fully how important it was to align myself, not only in love but in friendship, with people who were an “energetic” match.

Eventually, I found someone who was comfortable enough with himself, at a time when I was comfortable enough with myself. This alignment was fortuitous. One day, I told my parents that there was a guy I rather liked. He was not Arab, but he was going to convert to Islam.

My parents’ initial relaxed reaction demonstrated the mercy of time. By then I was well into my 30s, showing no inclination towards getting together with someone who shared a cultural cuisine in common. As my mother later commented, “I always knew you weren’t going to be a housewife. I can’t imagine you spending hours cooking … You’re rebellious.”

Rather than be offended, I was chuffed by my mother’s observation of my non-traditional approach to life.

But it was a long road to approval. I can’t say that my parents easily accepted my choice of partner, even if, in the depths of their inner beings, they kind of understood it. You bring up a kid in the West, they’re very likely to attract someone who ticks different boxes to the ones you brought with you from the homeland.

Word to the wise

Herewith, I offer some advice for those struggling with parents who think true love can only come in similar packages.

Do:

-Give it time. Preferably a few years. (Grandkids are always helpful, but not necessary.)

-Expect things to go south quickly in the early stages. Think of a bell graph that goes up and down all the way across and you will have a sense of interracial family politics in relationships. With time, things will likely even out.

-Trust in the power of food. Everyone likes ethnic food, even if they don’t like ethnic people.

-Research – don't go in blind. Get advice, even it’s from Islam for Dummies

Do not:

-Fall into the trap of believing that differing cultures prevent in-laws from getting along. My now-husband warned me that our mothers were like twin souls. He was right.

-Freak out when you get rejected. ‘No’ may not necessarily mean ‘no, forever’. (See earlier note about family politics bell graph.)

-Be surprised when a well-meaning sibling sits your partner down for a friendly, but thorough, three-hour chat. Although unnerving at the time, this will help more than hinder with the folks in the long-term.

-If your family is freaking out, forget about the fact it’s because they are in a totally different space, and they are reacting to change – it is a natural human response. Acceptance and approval are two very different things. The former might be what you settle for until the latter falls into place (and it does, usually, fall into place).

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