True story: my mother has friends that, by osmosis, are my friends also, who are kissing cousins. No, theyre not stereotypical American hillbillies or poor white trash or Dixie good ol backward wife-beating two-dimensional lower-class sharecroppers". Theyre the most intelligent and sweetest couple you ever want to meet. They went to college. Theyre upper-class. Theyre very demure and reserved, and they dont understand the stigma of marrying one's cousin. Incest is to have sexual relations with your brother or sister, father or mother, aunt or uncle, step-children or foster-children. That would be al-maharim (forbidden for marriage) and haraam (prohibited in Islam).

You see, they are Muslim. They live in Saudi Arabia. When I heard that they were first cousins, I was a bit uneasy. Was that the reason why their sixth and last child was retarded? Was that the reason why they looked so similar? After all, the judgment hadnt come back completely about incest

American culture and Middle Eastern culture is strained -- to say the least -- because of the politics that are linked irrevocably to said cultures. Now, the new racial discrimination in America is not African-Americans, Mexican-American, Asian-American, etc. Its anyone wearing a headscarf.  Its anyone appearing at all Arabic. 

 However, there were other aspects of everyday life that went much deeper than simply wearing a hajib (veil), as I soon found out.

 I thought I was very liberated in my views toward other religions. Im friends with a fundamentalist Christian, a Wiccan, a Hindu, an orthodox Jew and just about everything in between. We argue philosophically about the convictions that each one of us has, but we can put it aside when things get too heated; we can still remain friends because we have cultural similarities that create our familiarity. Could I do the same with my inherited Muslim companions?


The first idea that I had to understand is that Middle Eastern culture is different in regards to religion. American principle relies on the church and state being separate. Theres a number of different reasons behind this attitude even if George W. doesnt think its necessary the main reason (in this article, anyway) is that there are many different religions being counted. Although Christianity is number one in America in 2000 with a whopping 76.5% (1), the Constitution prohibits any religion from taking the upper hand. Well, at least in theory.


On the other hand, Middle Easterners are mostly Muslim, although, in certain small sects, the Jews, the Druze and the Christians predominate. However, unlike America, they have Sharia (Islamic Law) throughout the most of the land. Many countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, have such strict guidelines about Islam being the only religion, and people are penalized for displaying crosses, the Star of David, praying in public and punished or put to death if they dont observe the Islamic tenants (2).


Life and religion are synonymous to most Muslims in the Middle East; there is no church and state. The church (or mosque) IS the state. Still, could I find similarities in other things?


I picked them up at the airport -- since my mother has a fear of freeways -- and we all crammed into my little car. The two older children that came with the couple were very well behaved, one in college, one in high school, speaking English perfectly. It put me to shame to hear that most individuals in the Middle East can speak at least two languages apart from their native tongue.


The girls had never been to America before and wanted to see everything, and my mother decreed that I was one to drive them to the coffee house to pick up some Turkish coffee. I was surprised to learn that, in Saudi, women aren't allowed to drive and so have to rely on a

chauffeur to take them everywhere. However, they cant be in the same room (or car) with the male chauffeur individually; they have to be in groups of two or more. In fact, in many countries, women cant travel overseas without permission of their mahram (father, brother, husband or uncle).


But, the older of the girls confided in me, I am about to get a new mahram!  She was engaged. She would be married as soon as she finished her undergraduate program. 


Shes already touched him! said the younger one.


I found out that young men and women that arent married and arent related cant touch or even look at each other, though it was accepted if they were engaged and had a walee (guardian) watching them.


Some people go on the internet to meet, the younger girl continued, though that is haraam because they are thinking lustful thoughts while typing! Both of them giggled.


So? I wondered. Teenagers will be teenagers, right?


The next day, I came over to the house again for brunch, bringing my six year old daughter with me. The whole family was sitting around the table drinking you guessed it coffee. The mother had just gotten off the phone with her father, who lived with them in Saudi. It seems that most of the elderly live in the same home as their adult children, unlike America that sends twenty-four percent of the elderly (aged 85 and older) to live in nursing homes (3).


Of course my daughter is used to all the attention lavished on her, seeing as shes the only child and only grandchild thus far, and so she took the presents (childrens books about Islam) and sweets (candied dates) in stride. Nobody said anything about my lack of wedding ring. As far as they were concerned, my mother told me later, I had been married in Islam code, because I had been together with my daughters father for decade.


Because there werent any al-maharim men, the kids and the mother had their hijabs (veils) off and they were very relaxed as a family. The father looked on happily, drinking his coffee in silence while the mother and daughters bustled around him, filling his cup and talking openly. Most Muslim families are patriarchal, though nowadays, the mother works outside the home if need be or if she chooses to. Almost all Muslim couples in the Middle East stay together less than one out of a thousand divorce compared to American couples 54% divorce (4). If Muslim couples do talaq (divorce), however, the mother inevitably loses custody of the children, either right away or at a certain age, unlike American divorcing couples that have the children predictably go to the mother -- roughly 80%(5). Muslim women do have a hard time suing for divorce if the man doesnt want it. However, the man can just utter the words, I divorce you and wait three months. If he is still committed in divorce, and if the woman isnt pregnant, then he man pronounces the sentence two more times, and theyre done, with or without the womans agreement.


My daughter was playing dress up with the younger girl and the father sat, read the paper and drank more coffee, while everyone else piled into the kitchen to make food. The mother was talking candidly to my mother about her medical practice back home shes a womens doctor. In Saudi, the jobs women can have are limited because of interaction with men; they have to segregate themselves for fear of unchaste contact. She must have the consent of her mahram before working at all.


We made pancakes and eggs. Muslims, like Jews, dont eat pork, carnivorous animals, (except fish), shellfish or other split-hooved, bottom-feeding animals, insects, reptiles, or anything that is considered repulsive that would be haraam (prohibited). The way the animal is humanely slaughtered, the washing of the animal, the kind of preparation ingredients, the storage, the manufacturing equipment, etc. are also all very important to a Muslims diet. In fact, many Muslims look for a halaal (permitted) logo before buying any food, especially packaged. There were countless rules that made my head spin (6), but what with free roaming chickens (giving the eggs), and free roaming cows (giving the milk) plus health-food store pancake mix added up to a very tasty meal.


The women cleared the table.


Tell me something, I blurted out, after the family was drinking coffee again (they love their coffee, as I could see), is it true that men can have more than one wife or is that a myth?


Everybody laughed. I blushed.


Yes, the mother said, in Sharia. But hardly anybody practices it anymore. Its discourged.


And only if the man can support his wives, the father said, and only up to four wives.


You see, the mother continued, it started when the men were getting killed in war and the widows with children were suffering. Nowadays, Middle Eastern countries usually have a backup plan though, such as your governments financial aid.


The Old Testament approves of polygamy as well, the older girl spoke up, and the New Testament doesnt say that its wrong either. She was very sure. Besides, I wouldnt mind It would be sort of fun.


Okay, I said, feeling braver, If I had the money, could I marry more than one husband, especially if he was a widower?


Everybody was shocked.


Sweetheart. Why would you want to? said the mother.


We have to perform wudu now, the father said, if you would excuse us. He got up from the table and the mother and older girl followed. They all trooped upstairs, the younger girl trailing behind.


What is wudu? I asked my mother. "Sounds like voodoo."


Wudu (ablution) is the cleansing of the body and mind before Salah, before prayer.


My daughter plopped down in one of the empty chairs. She doesnt like dogs, Mommy!  My daughter was very offended since shes been wanting a dog forever. I told her that I wanted a either a Nufie or a little tiny dog and she told me that nobody in their right mind should own a dog!


Is that true? I asked my mom. Do all Muslims feel this way, or just her?


Most do, said my mom. Muslims can keep dogs as hunting animals, but not as pets.


I guess I wouldnt tell any of the family that I was thinking about a pet pig.


The next day, we marched down to the metro. We were going downtown to the museum. While we were riding the train, a young gay couple was situated across from us, obviously smitten with each other, sitting cozily, talking in low voices and staring into the others eyes.


Is that a man and a man? the younger girl asked, astounded, gaping at them.


I briefly looked up. Yup.


Shouldnt you shield your daughter from these things? asked the mother. She and her husband were looking away politely from this haram display.




Again, the look of shock.


Muslims, like most fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews, are dismayed by homosexuality. In most Middle Eastern countries, if the muttawa (purity police) catch homosexuals engaging in anything, the punishment can be severe, from five years hard labor to the death penalty (7).


The muttawa is very passionate to catch anyone engaging in the two kinds of zina as well: zina-adultery and zina-fornication. In some countries in the Middle East, the punishment is flogging and maybe banishment (for a man) or death by stoning. However, one has to either have the testimony of four (male) witnesses that saw the act of penetration, the husband who caught them in the act or by confession. The punishment for zina (sex by people who arent married) is almost as bad flogging and never marrying in the future. Again, one has to have the testimony of four witnesses, confession or pregnancy (8).  


It goes without saying that people from Muslim societies dont have the kind of high adultery or out of wedlock pregnancy statistics that we in the U.S. or the rest of Western society does.


So, I said to my new Muslim friends, after we finished touring the museum and were at my mothers home again, I know that we dont see eye to eye on Creation versus evolution, but did you enjoy the dinosaur exhibit at the museum?


It was very interesting, said the father. I enjoy different ideas, even if they dont match my own. The rest of the family agreed.


I was again reminded that they were first cousins by how closely they resembled each other. Yes, I would have to be careful phrasing my words sometimes while around them. No, I didnt agree with a number of things that were very significant to the Muslim culture. But the father was right: if you cant ease the tension between different ideas and finding similiarities, no culture will mesh with the other.


I smiled at them and took a sip of my coffee.




(1)   American Religious Identification Survey: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/aris_index.htm

(2)   The Peace Encycloedia: http://www.yahoodi.com/peace/christians.html

(3)   American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging: http://www.aahsa.org/public/nursbkg.htm#stat

(4)   World divorce rates. Researched and compiled 2002 by Gulnar Nugman of the Heritage Foundation: http://www.divorcereform.org/gul.html

(5)   U.S. Census Bureau Familie and Living Arrangements: http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html

(6)   Halaal food product guidelines:  http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/EnvironmentalServices/FoodHygieneandStandards/halaal4.asp

(7)   Utne: http://www.utne.com/web_special/web_specials_archives/articles/2624-1.html

            FIQH. The Islamic ruling concerning the criminal act  of  zina: http://www.islam.org.au/articles/31/english/e-fiqh20.pdf