When I was 19 I did the unthinkable to my Egyptian parents – I fell for an Egyptian man.
We met at a gathering of family and friends the day I arrived back in Egypt for the first time since childhood. He was 26, a man compared to the boys I was friends with back home. I was flattered by his attention. Within weeks of meeting, we were a couple. He wanted me to move there and marry him. When I told my parents, they were heartbroken. My whole life I’d had the impression that an Egyptian husband was their biggest dream for me. Someone who shared our values, language and culture. Apparently not!
For my parents, who had given up everything to migrate to Australia, the thought of me staying in Egypt would make their sacrifice useless. Their move was years in the making and angst ridden. They loved their life in Egypt with the comforts of middle-class, friends around them, and successful careers. They gave it all up for a life of learning a new language, assimilating into a new culture and struggling financially for years.
Their children’s freedom was the most important thing in the world to them and it was for our freedom alone that they left their beloved Egypt.
For my parents, who had given up everything to migrate to Australia, the thought of me staying in Egypt would make their sacrifice useless.
I was five-years-old when my family migrated to Australia in 1978. We settled in the working class Melbourne suburb of Altona, and I found my place at school – with the children of European and Asian immigrants. None of us were allowed Barbie dolls, sleep overs or to go anywhere without our families. We longed to be like the Aussie kids with their tight Faberge jeans and studded belts, bike riding in the streets, and blue light discos.
There’s a perception of Arab Christian girls having a less strict upbringing than their Muslim counterparts, but in my Christian home, anything I wanted to wear or do was either ayb (an embarrassment) or haram (a sin). Amal Awad, a daughter of Arab Muslims, wrote in her memoir that she was only allowed to wear leg warmers over pants. At least she was allowed to wear leg warmers at all. In my house, they were ayb!
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I desperately wished to be more Australian.
My family travelled back to Egypt when I was 19 and finally everyone else was just like us. When my parents spoke to each other in Arabic in the street, nobody stared. My “weird” school lunches of ful medames were the most common street food. I was euphoric at first, but the longer we stayed in Egypt, the more it dawned on me that it was my parents’ home, not mine. The homeland where I’d imagined I belonged, turned out to be a fantasy.
I’d always thought I wasn’t Australian enough. But in Egypt, I couldn’t have felt any more Australian, from my accent, to my mannerisms, my taste in music, my clothes, even my sense of humour. I didn’t fit in with the other Egyptian girls.
In fact, I had very little in common with my new Egyptian boyfriend too. But he was chivalrous and doting, he serenaded me with French songs and I got swept up in the romance of it all.
We longed to be like the Aussie kids with their tight Faberge jeans and studded belts, bike riding in the streets, and blue light discos.
But my parents were thinking about my future should the romance continue. My mother sat me down and educated me about the lack of rights for married women in Egypt. These included never being allowed to leave Egypt without a husband’s written permission. Also, if a woman divorced and remarried, she’d lose custody of her children. Those were risks I wasn’t prepared to take.
I told my boyfriend that I wouldn’t move to Egypt, that my life was in Australia. He was equally unwilling to leave his family and career behind to follow me. The relationship ended.
Eighteen months later, I became engaged to an Australian man. We dated in secret for some time and it was only when I knew that this was the real thing, that he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, that I nervously brought him home to meet my parents.
I never would’ve imagined how much more willing my they were to accept an Australian husband for me over an Egyptian one. I’d somehow attributed an attitude of racism to them that they never had. My kind and gentle fiancé was welcomed into the family with open arms from the day my parents met him.
And now, after 23 years of marriage and raising two children, the culture divide persists. My husband’s Australian ways drive me crazy, like how he doesn’t care if the neighbours see him outside with bare feet. If that happened to me, I’d be so mortified we’d need to move house. I cringe when he ruins my cooking by adding tomato sauce.
Never will I agree with him that camping is a civilised way to vacation.
Don’t even get me started on gravy. Never will I agree with him that camping is a civilised way to vacation. Much to his amusement, I relentlessly stalk our teenagers on location apps.
Growing up, all I wanted was to be more Australian, but now I look back with fondness at our big family Easter and Christmas celebrations when the women baked butter cookies, at summers on the beach when we’d rock up en-masse, twenty Arabs flicking sand with our thongs at the poor sunbathers, setting up eskies and tables and umbrellas like we owned the beach.
In Egypt, I felt undeniably Australian. In Australia, I’m reminded of my Egyptian blood every day. I over-cater, over-share and over-think like all Arab women but I still feel as different to them as I do to my Australian friends. I doubt I’ll ever feel like I fully belong anywhere. But in the end, who cares! Two equally wonderful cultures have made me what I am. And what I am is lucky.
Tess Woods is the author of Love at First Flight and Beautiful Messy Love. Her latest novel, Love and Other Battles, is due for release in June 2019. Tess lives in Perth with her husband and two children.