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The Middle Eastern Family

Close family relationships and traditions are the foundations of Middle Eastern society.

So very little has ever been mentioned about one very important and beautiful part of Middle Eastern culture – the strength of the Arab family. In all the many volumes and news items which have been written, and from all the notes made by anthropologists researching our area of the globe, next-to-nothing has been reported on the solidarity of the family unit.

This “neglect” is surprising, as it is commonly held these days that one must understand the way a people lives, in order to understand that people at all.

To be sure, there is great diversity in Middle Eastern lifestyles today. The way families live varies according to income, country of residence and religion. But whether a family is rich or poor, Syrian or Jordanian, Moslem or Christian, there are certain patterns of home life which remain fairly constant and are more or less “typical” throughout the Arab world.

At a glimpse, these patterns may seem baffling or even vaguely “feudalistic” to non-Arabs. And yet, these series of relationships and long-standing traditions are the very bedrock of Middle Eastern society.

In family affairs, the father usually has the “last word,” and is generally difficult to “budge”; but a skillful mother could maneuver him into unconsciously adopting her point of view, and then making it his “last word.” It is more difficult for him to accept a son’s or daughter’s dissenting opinion, although such “reversals” do happen on rare occasions.

This “strong-headedness” of the father is well-founded, however, as he is the main source of family support. His responsibility does not end with his children’s coming of age; and often after sending his sons to school, a father then builds them houses, and sees to it that they make well-suited marriages.

Among those sons, age is the major factor for mutual respect. Most often, the eldest male becomes the “second father” of the family. Many times a younger brother may prove himself to be more ambitious by taking matters into his hands and thus drawing attention to himself within the family. But even this “promising” boy will almost always defer to his older brother. And in turn, the older will generally accept and not resent this state of affairs, for to act in any other way might adversely affect the family’s welfare.

The Middle Eastern mother, in one respect, is always second to someone: to her husband when the children are young, and to one of her sons when he becomes a young man. And in spite of the great surge among Arabs toward schooling nowadays, women are still less educated than men – far less.

And yet, the mother enjoys a unique dominance within her own household. To her is left the task of bringing the children up, and it is she who designs and prepares the food for the entire family. Moreover, with her girls, she usually maintains a “secret kingdom” where no eavesdropping is tolerated.

Additionally, the mother’s consent to the marriage of one of her daughters must be sought, and it is she who usually manages the details of her sons’ successful “matches.”

Always regarded with respect and tenderness, the Arab mother often has a more lasting and practical influence on the children than the father. Her silent work and continued service are remembered and appreciated.

In this sense, the Arab family is both patriarchal and matriarchal, at the same time. Although sociologists generally classify families as either dominated by father or mother, the Arab family has the peculiar distinction of fitting into both categories.

Traditionally, the daughter’s social life is followed more closely than that of her brother. A brother bears great love and respect for his sister, as she is the symbol of the family honor. She carries this honor through her conduct and her relationships with others. Everconscious of her grave responsibility, the female feels more or less “inspected” by society, and by her family, as well.

If she remains unmarried, the Middle Eastern woman still receives respect from her brothers, her sisters and their families. She generally lives with her parents until their death, at which time she has the right to choose which of her brothers’ families she would like to live with. Ordinarily, though, the eldest brother – or “second father” – is selected, and he gladly sponsors her.

As marriage is the fruit of a commonly friendly relationship between a boy and girl, this occasion creates a new, close union between the parents of both. The different families thus form one “Hamula,” or “great family,” known for its solidarity and ability to gather spontaneously on various occasions, to share joy as well as to alleviate the sadness of family troubles.

For the parents’ part, their responsibility does not even end with the arrival of their children’s children. They still have a moral influence on the new family. The young families gather under the patronage of the grandfather and grandmother, who promote mutual understanding and cooperation among the various members of the “Hamula.”

These elders, too, oversee the many projects undertaken by the group. In all “community efforts” the entire family lends a hand – each brother helping the others, and being helped, in turn, when his own time comes to have a house built or the like. In almost all families, this is done with a sense of deep commitment.

Thus the family works as a cooperative unit, and the tribal ties are not so much frustrating as they are facilitating. Independent individualism is out of the question, since such a lifestyle frequently is not economically feasible for the Middle Eastern family. Neither is an independent way of life needed at this point in time, as most Arabs feel that it only disrupts the family unity and creates tension among the members.

All this does not mean that the individual is lost, or that there is no privacy about family life in the Middle East. On the contrary, distances are respected and kept, and mutual understanding prevails, as all work to insure the well-being of the family. And to an Arab, “independence” is not synonymous with “individuality.” The strong familial links perhaps may cramp the independence of a member, but they don’t necessarily interfere with his individuality. One can dream or think whatever one likes.

In general, the sense of belonging and cooperation works as a stimulant to push and prod each member to better achievements for the “family’s sake” – and consequently, to a higher status in society.

This “oneness” of the Middle Eastern family, then, is an important aspect of Arab culture. Likewise characteristic of Middle Eastern society is the hospitality shown by the family to friends and strangers alike.

The homes themselves vary greatly, according to the group’s income. But whether a house is modest, or lavishly-decorated – indeed, even if the house has only two rooms – one room is always arranged for “reception.”

In addition to the food preparation for Sundays (in Christian families) and feast days, mothers and daughters assume the heavy responsibility of being ready at all times to receive expected or unexpected guests, on behalf of their families.

Even casual visits involve both a “fuss” and a set routine. Cakes, fruits and other sweets are served as an introduction to the coffee, which is always taken at the end of the visit, thus serving as the “visa allowing departure,” so to speak. Entertaining guests is indeed an important part of Arab family life – a part which has become both legendary and ritualized.

All these traditional relationships, traditions and customs are the main elements of the Middle Eastern family’s strength. They give the individual members a way and a reason to love and live their lives.

The Arab home is based on a very deep, secure and “often hidden” foundation – faith in God. Without such a basis the family could no longer remain strong. But with it, the group becomes a “miniature Church,” where we adore God – who is Love, Peace and Justice – by living a life of love, peace and justice.

(Editor’s note: While Fr. Farah is describing patterns of family life found all throughout the Arab world, at certain points in this article he is referring specifically to Christian home life.)

Father Farah is pastor of the Maronite Church in Nazareth, where the community spirit is unusually strong and beautiful. A native of the Holy Land, Fr. Farah teaches in several of the area’s schools.

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