Sunday, January 24, 2010

Growing up with a mother of non-Saudi origin

By Reem Eskander
Kids of mixed marriages face a myriad of challenges

Saudi children of non-Saudi mothers live normal lives here as do those who are born to Saudi mothers since most foreign mothers are eventually granted Saudi citizenship. However, given their multicultural and multilingual upbringing, children of non-Saudi mothers are faced with a number of day-to-day challenges.

“I have a major problem in communicating with my maternal relatives who do not speak Arabic. I try to communicate with them in English while also learning their language – Urdu,” said Khalida Bin Mahfouz, a 13-year-old Saudi girl whose mother was born in India.
“My mother, who is Saudi now, is well aware of our culture. She speaks good Arabic. However, at times I feel sorry for not being in touch with my maternal relatives,” said Bin Mahfouz.

However, Abdullah Mandora, who has an Indonesian mother and a Saudi father, says he learnt his mother’s language as well. “I can speak Arabic, English and Bahasa Indonesian. This makes me feel intelligent and happy,” said Mandora, adding that understanding different cultures with a broad approach and confidence has benefited him. However, not all children of non-Saudi mothers think similarly. Mohammed Ahmed (family name undisclosed on request) does not want people to know that he can speak Urdu, despite the fact that his father and forefathers have Indian origins.

“I never heard my father publicly speak Urdu. It gives me the feeling that there is no pride involved in revealing to others one’s South Asian background. That is why I feel hesitant to speak Urdu – a language that is known to all the members of my family,” said Ahmed.

He said that most of the men in his family married Indian women since they are considered “good and humble wives”. But once married, the husbands leave no stone unturned to force them to adopt Saudi culture. Some of them are not even allowed to communicate with their children in their mother tongue, said the 14-year-old Ahmed.

In a study that appeared in the 2004 issue of the American Journal of Psychology and Aging, researchers said that bilingualism or multilingualism may counter the effects of aging and that it helps keeps the mind young. “People who are bilingual have an advantage over the rest of us, and not just in terms of communication skills. The bilingual brain develops more densely, giving it an advantage in various abilities and skills”, reported WebMD which provides health information. A slightly more tricky situation for children of non-Saudi mothers is when the mother comes from non-Islamic Western background.

Raghad Al-Salami, 14, daughter of an American mother, is proud of her fine English-speaking skills, but finds it difficult to teach Saudi ways to her mother. “Most of the time, me and my siblings correct the Arabic grammar and accent of my mother. She beats us if we criticize her harshly or laugh at her incorrect Arabic, said Al-Salami.
She said her mother was unable to speak Arabic to her, which became a ‘major issue’ for her in school.

“I could not communicate with my teachers and friends. Then with time I learnt Arabic but I am still not as confident as my younger siblings,” said Al-Salami. She said her 20-year-old cousin who was born to a French mother finds it difficult to visit in France. “The ban on Hijab is presently one of the most controversial issues in France. My cousin, therefore, avoids meeting her maternal relatives due to the cultural differences,” added Al-Salami.

Children of non-Saudi mothers face additional challenges because of the demands of both paternal and maternal relatives. “My paternal relatives remain concerned for our – me and my siblings’ – traditional upbringing, which annoys me. On the other hand, I am unable to adjust in my maternal grandparents’ house for a number of reasons, such as, I cannot eat spicy food, and I do not understand a single word of their language, which leaves me embarrassed,” said eight-year-old Khaled Omar (family name undisclosed on request), whose mother is a Pakistani national.

“My elder sisters and brothers can speak Urdu and manage well with my maternal kin. They always tell me that I will learn the language with time just like they did,” said Khaled.

Nawal, Khaled’s elder sister, said she is proud of her mother because she is an “educated, successful career woman”, while admitting that many Saudi children do not feel the same about their mothers.

“Some children do not want others to know that their mother is a foreigner, especially if they are from Asia or any under-developed country. When their friends come home, the children do not want them to see their mothers,” she said.

“Actually,” she continued, “children of mothers of South-Asian origin are worried about being laughed at when others call them ‘Ya Hindi’. The chances of this happening increase if the mother is uneducated, is not fashionable or attractive, and does not speak English.”

Usually, non-Saudi mothers learn Arabic because they are urged to learn Saudi culture. “According to my root culture and parents’ guidance, a good wife adapts to the culture of her husband and his family. As I have come to my husband’s place forever, I consider it my ethical responsibility to adapt to his way of life,” said a woman of Pakistani origins married to a Saudi. Dr. Hani Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi psychiatrist, family and social relationships’ consultant and president of the Arab Union for Social Advisory, said that usually children are popular for speaking a prestigious language, and are ragged or bullied for speaking one that is not. “However, now with the changed outlook of the modern world as a global village, a lot of people are demonstrating a secular attitude,” said Dr. Al-Ghamdi.

“Saudi society,” he said, “firm in its culture, tradition and language. A non-Saudi bride in a Saudi family is expected to learn and appreciate Saudi ways.” – SG