x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fathers, daughters in a relationship close to the heart

While Arab fathers may often seem distant, daughters always look to them first for approval.

Birthdays have been celebrated for as long as there have been calendars in one form or another, often public commemorations for influential figures. These days pretty much everybody, regardless of background, age or religion, celebrates their day of birth.

This week, I celebrated two very important birthdays on the same day for two of my revered fathers. One is the father of all Muslims, Prophet Mohammed, whose sacred message is carried and cherished in every Muslim's heart. The other father is my own, whose private messages are held dear in my own heart and have been reflected throughout different stages of my life.

"Happy birthday, father! Would you like anything special this year?" I ask each year over the telephone, a ritual established since I left home for education and work.

His reply has been the same for as long as I can remember: "No, thank you."

My father doesn't ask for anything - ever - and tries his best to suppress a smile when we remember his birthday. Typical of an Arab father, he is shy to show his emotions, and gets embarrassed if we joke or say: "We love you!" Many Arab fathers will just grunt in return and maybe leave the room.

Arab fathers and their daughters generally have a distant relationship, yet they are very attached to each other. It is rarely expressed in words, but just understood.

It is very rarely the case in Arab families, particularly traditional ones, for a daughter to say she is "daddy's little girl".

There are clear roles for each family member and fathers from the older generations, and even some today stick to it. They are "providers" and "protectors", roles that often come at a personal cost to their own dreams and desires. They are often kept out of personal and emotional issues in the home, which mothers get involved in, and children can grow up before their fathers really get to know them. Sometimes they even get our ages wrong, thinking we are younger than we are.

I was reminded of this relationship recently while I visited the home of a childhood friend from Saudi Arabia. Her daughter came home from school at the same time as her husband. When the father picked up his daughter and gave her a hug and kiss, my friend and I couldn't help but comment how different this scene was from our own childhoods.

A typical day in my childhood would involve spending time with my mother and siblings in Saudi Arabia, while my father was in a far corner of the country, working hard to provide us with a comfortable living. We barely saw him and, when we did, I am ashamed to say I would ask for something, a toy or some money, a gift for a friend or even just to go out for a drive. He would make a grunting noise here and there, but never refuse.

The joke goes that fathers are our personal ATM machines. They say it themselves, but I am pretty sure that deep down it hurts that they don't have a relationship with their children that doesn't involve finances.

Most of my female Arab friends feel the same. It is difficult to explain: while we barely spend time with our fathers, they are always somehow in the background of our minds. We all share our private stories with our mothers, but it is our fathers approval that we seek deep down - especially in matters concerning marriage and work.

Take a moment to reflect on the greatest father-daughter relationship in Islamic history between Prophet Mohammed and his daughter Fatima al Zahra.

As narrated by Ayesha, the Prophet's wife: "Never have I seen anyone more like the Messenger of Allah in his solemn way of standing and sitting, more than Fatima, may Allah grant her more honour. When she came in to see him, he would rise to his feet, take her hand, kiss her and seat her where he was seated. And when he came to see her, she would stand up, take his hand, kiss him and seat him where she was seated."

I wish all daughters and fathers had this kind of a relationship.