I’ve had 3 conversations in Arabic this week, two with taxi drivers, one with the plumber. They all came back to the same topic: sex. Surprise, surprise, I know!
But it’s a little (just a little!) more complicated than that. It starts out as a conversation about relationships more generally.
“Is it true that Americans really have boyfriends and girlfriends, just like that?” Cairo is notorious in the Arab world for the growing number of boy-girl relationships you can find here. Find any bridge over the Nile at and after sunset, and you’ll find dozens of these couples, holding hands and talking. But it’s controversial.
“And your parents know? They don’t disapprove?” This is the real sticking point for Cairenes – and Jordanians, for that matter. Despite the rising prevalence of dating, it’s almost always done clandestinely. It’s okay for men to date, but it’s a terrible shame on the family for a girl to be involved in a relationship, however chaste, before marrying. In fact, it can get her killed by family members.
“And American couples … they have sex?” Because this is the most baffling thing of all about Americans and Europeans dating before marriage. Virginity is still a highly prized commodity in the Arab world, so much so that girls will spend thousands of dollars to have their hymens restored before marriage, just to avoid any hint of shame.
“And what if there’s a baby? Whose name will they give it?” Not who will take care of it, but whose name will the baby take. Perhaps one question is a proxy for the other, but it’s an indication of the vital importance of family ties, of paternity and acknowledgment in Arab culture.
They’re interesting conversations, for sure … but not conversations I want to keep having with my cab drivers!