x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

She said I wouldn't 'understand' why her husband hit her, as I am not married

The widespread perception is that Arab and Muslim men in general are all poetic lovers initially, but then once they actually get married, they become 'practical husbands'.

I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla

And I kiss this wall and that wall

It's not Love of these houses that has taken my heart

But of the One who dwells in those houses

Majnoun Layla

Similar to Romeo and Juliet, Majnoun Layla is the tragic love story of a Bedouin poet in the 7th century, who fell in love with Layla, whose "hair was dark as layl [night]". The poet was not permitted to marry her and went mad, or majnoun.

Today, if these star-crossed lovers ever got a chance to get married, would they have lived happily ever after? Given recent studies on marriages, not likely.

This past week, as I was doing a story on intimacy in marital relationships here and in the region, I encountered the widespread perception that Arab and Muslim men in general are all poetic lovers initially, but then once they actually get married, they become "practical husbands". Similarly, women turn into practical housewives, with passion less of a priority.

While of course this is a generalisation, there is some truth to it. Otherwise there would not be such high rates of divorce in the Middle East, with one in four marriages breaking down in the UAE, particularly among couples in their 20s.

"All of a sudden, things that were dreamt of and poeticised endlessly during the courtship period become shameful in marriage," said Sheikh Rashid al Mansoori, an Emirati religious scholar and relationship expert who keeps putting out "love games" on the market to help couples talk about their issues in a playful context.

After rolling the dice on his Monopoly-style "love" board game, I landed on a block asking me to look into my partner's eyes and tell him for "30 seconds" what I love about him. Another one demanded I step forward and hug my partner without saying anything for 30 seconds. It may seem intuitive, but I have been around married friends for a whole week without noticing a single romantic word or gesture between them. I used to think it was because I was there, but that is not supposed to even be a factor in love.

"The Prophet openly loved his wives, he didn't shy away from expressing his love in front of his companions," said Sheikh al Mansoori, who is also known as "Dr Love".

In a study conducted three years ago by the al Farha Academy in Sharjah, judges were surveyed about the most common causes of divorce they had encountered. In the UAE, it was cases of infidelity; in Saudi Arabia, it was domestic violence; in Kuwait, gender equality issues; and in Yemen and Oman, it was financial problems.

My married Saudi friend's husband recently started to hit her whenever they fought, where it has become viewed as a "given right" among couples when previously it was looked down upon. I've known her husband since childhood, and it shocked me when I heard he now slaps his wife. When I brought it up, I was told that I wouldn't "understand" as I am not married.

While we may not like to admit it, there is force used in the privacy of many homes, in how we bring up children, treat some of the help and generally react to things. There is a stereotype about Arabs in general that they are "passionate people".

Having been a bit of a hyper child, I always had a bruise or two from being disciplined by my parents. I grew up thinking that is the norm.

Recently, I saw a group of boys bullying an animal and, I regret to say, I found myself hitting them when they wouldn't listen. They were spoilt brats and I later found out that their mothers had never punished them except with a lame: "No, no habibi, don't do that." Imagine what kind of husbands they will make one day.

When I discussed all of this with Dr Love, he simply smiled and scribbled something on a piece of paper.

It was a list of "love potions" that may work as a remedy for troubled marriages. The "magic" of these potions can be found in any home - a honeyed tea for your spouse or a simple reminder that love stories shouldn't end on the wedding day. That's when they should begin.