Cultural Insights on Marriage and Children

Today I had a nice long visit with a fairly new Egyptian friend. Her name is Suzi and she is the mom of one of Emma’s classmates at school.  This was our third visit together, once at our house and twice at hers.  The kids all have fun playing together – Emma and her school friend, along with my Hannah and Layla, and the friend’s little brother who is the same age as Hannah.  While they played, we mostly chatted about life.  I thought I’d record some of the things I heard today as they provide an interesting insight into culture here.

Marriage Differences

One of the topics we spoke about was marriage.  It is common here for a man to come to a woman’s house to inquire about marrying her.  He may have known of her for a long time, or perhaps a friend mentioned her or he saw her in some spot and asked others about her.  There are a variety of ways that this meeting can come about, but it is still a norm for marriages to be “arranged” this way.  In most cases, it seems that the woman has full rights to say yes or no, but it is often the way a relationship begins.

That’s not to say there aren’t many, many relationships that start because people work together or go to school together or whatever, but this man coming to ask for a woman’s hand, while basically absent from the American culture, is still very present here.  Suzi was asking if it was harder or easier to get married in America and I said that it was harder because of the absence of the arranged marriage.  She seemed somewhat surprised to know that it doesn’t happen in the states.  I couldn’t just wait at my parent’s house for possible suitors to come calling; I had to meet people and take initiative without being too forward.  I told her it was tricky as it is a bit of a game to let someone know of your interest without being aggressive (as the woman). And meeting potential spouses in general can be challenging.  While I appreciate the American dating system as a whole, I thought it might be a bit easier to find a husband in this culture.

That being said, she asked if the man must have a house or apartment already purchased and furnished before proposing to someone.  He sometimes must have a car and enough money for a good amount of gold jewelry as well, that will be shown off at the engagement ceremony.  In this way, I said, things might be easier in America.  Many couples will start off living in an apartment and work together to afford a house after getting married.  Whatever the particular timetable, it is not expected that a man have all the material goods before he can even look to get married.  This is one reason that Egyptian men are getting married later in life as it is getting harder and harder to earn enough money to buy a flat and furnish it before proposing to a future bride.

Suzi’s story itself was quite interesting to me, and perhaps bizarre from the Western perspective.  She is married to her first cousin.  Her mom and his dad are sister and brother.  We talked about this a bit as I told her it is illegal in the states to marry your cousin.  (I guess I don’t really know if it’s illegal, but I think it is.)  I tried to explain that one reason is the possible genetic problems with the offspring, but she said they just trust God for the health of their children.

I have encountered this frequently in this part of the world—the idea of marrying within the same family.  Suzi said it makes sense as you know where the spouse comes from if they are from your family.  It is a risk to marry an outsider.  Her sister also married a cousin, and they have already, somewhat jokingly, arranged for Suzi’s daughter to marry the sister’s son, which is many years down the road considering they are both five now.

Even though Suzi married her cousin, she had never actually seen him until the wedding day!  His family has lived in Cairo his whole life and she grew up about 8 hours south and at one point when they were very young they saw each other, but not another time until the day of the wedding.  They got engaged over the phone and spent the following year planning things, and getting to know one another over the phone, before Suzi came to Cairo to get married to her cousin whom she had seen once in her life!  They have been married 7 years now and seem to be happy with the arrangement.

Children Sleeping

Another topic we covered was children sleeping.  We’ve talked about this each time we were together as Suzi cannot get over the fact that my girls go to bed at 7pm.  In Arabic there is a word specifically for “staying up late,” and Egyptians, in particular, are known for their love of the late night.  Especially in summer when kids are off school and the weather is so hot during the day, the streets will be busier at night with people enjoying a walk downtown or the view of the Nile.  As such we have to miss out on some of these late-night activities if we want to hold to the regular bedtime.

Today Suzi was trying to figure out how she could get her kids to sleep earlier.  As of now, her six-year old daughter sleeps at 2 or 3am, maybe midnight on an early night.  Apparently, she doesn’t struggle with being tired during the day, and is not too difficult to wake in the morning, but Suzi complained that sometimes she, as the mom, would like to go to bed earlier but can’t since her kids won’t.

How the kids fall asleep is another factor.  Suzi couldn’t get over the fact that I put Layla in her crib awake and she would just fall asleep.  She mentioned that they would rock their kids until they fell asleep and then lay them down.  I assured her that even in America, moms do different things with their kids, but I followed others who had success with this method and I really appreciated being able to not take the extra time to put the kids to sleep.

There are some downfalls to this, however, as my babies have always been used to sleeping in a crib. The few times I have wanted them to fall asleep on me or in another bed often didn’t work.  One nice thing about the sleeping habits of babies around here is that they can sleep anywhere!  Sometimes that could come in handy.

Besides the time factor, they have been working on getting the kids to sleep in their room without the parents.  Emma’s friend is scared to sleep without her mom and so Suzi will begin the night in the kids’ room before moving to her own room.  They have begun rewarding the kids for sleeping on their own.  The parents are ready to sleep and stay in their own room and let the kids be in theirs!  I suggested using a similar reward system to slowly move up the bedtime to a more reasonable hour.  I can’t imagine how the kids function going to bed so late, but besides that, I cherish those hours in the evening when the kids are in bed and I am still awake.  Somehow Suzi is cheerful and full of energy even though it seems she doesn’t get much time to herself.

Potty Training

Once we exhausted the sleeping topic, I thought I would ask about her method of potty training since I have heard very different ideas in the Middle East than I have in the states.  I asked her when she began potty training with her children and her answer was when they were about eight months old!  I guess when she noticed them going to the bathroom, she would quickly strip them and put them on a small child’s potty so they got used to the idea.  At night, of course, they would wear diapers as they had no control over nighttime toilet needs, but during the day, slowly, slowly, they would get used to the idea of using the potty.  It seems it may have been a long process but by the age of 1 ½, the children would be fully potty trained.

I asked why she did it this way, was it because diapers are expensive?  This is one of the reasons I heard in Jordan when I asked a friend who said she begins as soon as the child can walk.  Suzi said this is the way her mom did it except that she would begin as early as five months!  I shared with her that in the states, people may begin the process at 2 for girls, and 3 for boys (as a general figure).  She pointed out that kids will do what they learn and get used to.  This is what I had told her about sleeping: my girls are used to falling asleep on their own and sleeping early.  Her kids got used to using the potty at an earlier age and needed no daytime diapers by age 1 ½.

Two different cultures; two different ways of doing things.  We share so many things in common such as marriage and child rearing, but our methods vary greatly.  Who has it better?  Who does it better?  What can we learn from each other?

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