Rana Shubair

Love in Palestine

I was interrupted in the middle of teaching my English language class today by a knock on the door and a voice calling for “Sana.” My student rushed to the door and, to her astonishment, was met with a special delivery: a bouquet of roses. She frowned in puzzlement as she opened the small card, then her face relaxed into a sweet smile. The other students, whose eyes were bulging with anticipation, screamed with excitement and their clamor vibrated within the room. Sana revealed that today was her wedding anniversary. Upon hearing this news, the students’ oohs and ahhs filled the room.

We all wished Sana a happy anniversary, and many of the girls praised the romantic husband. Sana’s marriage was a traditional, “arranged” union. And she wasn’t a newlywed. In fact, she’s in her 30s and has children. But I could see that romantic love was still very much alive in this marriage.

I remembered when I was my students’ age—how I’d dreamt of Prince Charming and pictured him like a movie star. I’d daydream about him for long hours, thinking about how he would sweep me off my feet like in a fairytale. When one of my friends got engaged, my heart would beat in yearning for my turn. I could see my younger self in the faces of my students, and I wished them all a magical love life. They responded with pleas of “inshallah” (God willing).

Can love develop over time?

In Palestinian culture, at least here in Gaza, parents act as a sort of “introduction service.” A man wanting to get married visits the home of a woman who appears to be suitable, along with one or more close family members. The families meet, the woman and man chat with each other to decide if the “fit” seems to be good, and if so, they agree to be engaged. During the engagement period, they may do activities together alone (which not socially permissible otherwise) to get to know each other more deeply. The engagement may be ended if one or both decide not to go ahead.

Among the many misconceptions about my culture is the notion that in arranged marriages, mothers choose who their children marry, that such unions are forced and that true love doesn’t exist. This is untrue; both the woman or the man can turn down proposals or break an engagement for any reason. A girl can tell her father she doesn’t feel warmth toward the guy and he can do the same. (However, a man must prove he is worthy of a woman; it is not considered acceptable to go out with her one day and desert her the next. If he breaks off the engagement, he and his family forfeit half of the dowry they paid to the girl’s family.)

My own story

With my husband, Samih, on my right, at the publication of my book, “I Dare to Dream”

Although many of my classmates married during high school, I waited until after I graduated. When I was 19, Samih (who would become my husband) visited my home with his mother. I can’t remember what we talked about exactly, except that he asked me whether I wanted to attend college (I did!). I also learned he was an ex-detainee in an Israeli prison, which I found inspiring. As we chatted, I felt ease in my heart and I warmed toward him. I told our two families “yes.” A month after our introduction and engagement, we were married.

I never regretted my decision to tie the knot at such an early age. Instinctively, I knew Samih would give me stability, comfort and love. You might ask: “But you didn’t know this man well; how could know he was the right one?” Well, it’s not that much different from what happens all the time all around the world. Two strangers meet in a bar, a café or a park and they are attracted to each other. One of them approaches the other and…the rest is history. Love can be spontaneous, and it can also grow deeper over time. Although the visit to my parents’ house was arranged, the two of us felt that spark.

As I grew older, I realized the fantasy world of love fades and it can feel like the magic is no longer there. But when you take the time to nurture and rekindle it, the feeling returns. Love is sort of like a giant rock that keeps getting hit by the wild waves and torrential rain of life. Going through so much together—both happy and devastating moments—may wear at it, I have found that the “testing” also makes it stronger.

Love that knows no barriers

The most recent epic love story I’ve heard involves a couple from Hebron, in Palestine’s West Bank. The husband was imprisoned by the Israeli occupation forces two years ago. It was two years before Maher’s wife, Bahiya, was allowed to visit her husband and hug him once again. This is what she had to say: “On September 14, I was allowed to see Maher without any barrier and have my picture taken with him. I’d expected to go through long corridors just to see him, but then suddenly, as the door opened, there he was! I ran to him like a child runs to his father or like a person who was lost and had just found home.”

Bahiya and Maher al-Hashlamoun

“I couldn’t believe he was before my very eyes. I embraced him and at that moment, he told me he saw the same spark of love and joy in my eyes as he always had. He told me to fix his shirt before we got our picture taken, the same way I used to at home before he went to work. The jailer took a picture of us and we smiled because we are adamant in our belief he will be freed.”

I don’t think anyone can dictate how people should fall in love; each culture has its own way. To me, what matters most is love signifies a lifetime of mutual commitment, respect and acceptance, rather than a temporary whim in which one member of the partners can merely walk away, leaving the other with a broken heart. Yes, divorce is sometimes necessary and perhaps even the best solution. But there also must be a commitment to the promise of being there “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, until death do you part.

Originally published on We Are Not Numbers

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