Interview: A Christian Mother in Israel

Melissa, originally from England, lives in Nazareth with her Christian-Arab husband and their six children. She graciously answered my questions by email.

Melissa, where were you born? I grew up in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, a small city about 40 minutes drive north of London.

What did you know about Israel when you were growing up? I really knew very little. I knew that there were kibbutzim in Israel and was always fascinated by them. I vaguely remember hearing about unrest in the Middle East on the news but like most people in England, I knew little about the political situation.

How did you meet your husband? My first experience of Israel was as a volunteer on a kibbutz. I loved it. I really enjoyed the whole kibbutz way of life and had loads of fun. I went back to England to complete my RN training and decided to come back to the kibbutz when I finished and stayed there another six months. I discovered the Nazareth Hospital (locally known as the English Hospital) and worked as a staff nurse on the surgical ward. I thought it would be a great experience to work in such a different culture, and it was. Three months later I met my husband when his father was a patient on my ward. We went out on a date and I remember thinking, “I’m gonna marry this guy!”

How has your family adjusted to your move? My parents were up in arms when I told them I was marrying an Arab. I think they imagined that I would end up like Sally Field in that movie (forgotten the name of it!) fleeing across the borders in a burka. . . . But after they came here, met my husband and experienced the culture they realized that their fears were unfounded. It’s amazing how ignorant Europeans and Americans are about this culture; I was myself. I didn’t even know that there were Arab Christians until I came here.

Can you tell my readers about the Christian Arab community? The Christian Arab community is smaller than the Muslim Arab community. We really need to have more babies . . . I’m trying to start a trend (that was a joke!!). Most Christians (although NOT ALL) are affluent and well-educated. Society is pretty much segregated into Christian and Muslim areas, although mixed neighbourhoods are on the increase now due to new housing projects.

Are you affected by conflict between Muslim and Christian Arabs? There is conflict.Violent incidences do occur, not every day, but it does happen. Personally, I feel very safe in Nazareth. I look European so I do get stared at, and get mistaken for being Russian or Romanian. But you know . . . Arabs are genuinely warm people and always willing to help in any way, especially if you are foreign.

Can you tell us a bit about the position of women in the Christian Arab community? One American lady who came here in the mid-seventies told me that women didn’t even drive. Most people imagine that if you are married to an Arab you are probably locked away with his twenty other wives. Of course for most women (not all) the opposite is true.  Education is very important in this society, perhaps even more so for girls nowadays. Most girls are expected to go to university or at least have a qualification in something, it’s almost embarrassing not to. Many women in the Christian Arab community are highly educated with masters and Ph.D’s. Having said that, regardless of education women are still expected to fulfill the traditional role of housewife and mother. There are exceptions; my husband lived in LA for 12 years so he has changed a few nappies in his time (although not THAT many!) but generally speaking you won’t find many men pushing buggies down the Highstreet in Nazareth.

How old are your children? What kind of school do they attend? I have six children, 2 boys and 4 girls. Fadi (10), Sam (9), Lily (7), Lizzy (5), Isabel (2) and Alice (8 months). The four older ones attend a private, mainly Christian school. Everything is taught in Arabic. They start learning English in second grade and Hebrew in third. It’s difficult to get your children into a private school, they can be picky. Also the kids are under quite a bit of pressure to get good grades. As I mentioned before, education is very important in this society.

Have you picked up Hebrew or Arabic? I do speak Arabic although not very well, and some Hebrew.

What has been the biggest culture shock for you? The biggest culture shock is how close-knit everyone is. Most families build their houses on top of one another so you end up with all your in-laws in one block, which results in everyone being in everyone else’s business. Lack of privacy can be a bit annoying for a reserved Brit. When we first got married, I considered it outrageous that my parents-in-law would ask me where I was going whenever I went out alone. You have to be assertive and set boundaries if you want any privacy. With regard to Israeli society in general, I think the lack of order is the biggest culture shock, and the lack of manners. My husband used to laugh at me whenever he saw me waiting patiently for my turn while people just stepped in front of me. I think I’ve learned to be a bit ruder now!

In your blog, you mention an expatriate community. There are many expats in Nazareth including Americans, Swiss, British, and South African, mostly married to Christian Arabs. We all come from different backgrounds with different stories. It’s funny how we have all come together in this particular place and have similar experiences with the culture here.  It hasn’t been easy living here over the past 11 years. Some things do still drive me mad, but I really consider it a privilege to be part of such a rich culture. Whenever I go back to England now it’s like another huge culture shock over there!!!

Melissa, I enjoyed your perspective on life here. Thank you for sharing.
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Comments

  1. I loved reading this! I am a Christian and I lived a year in Jerusalem. This was in 2001 during the height of the intifada, and we never made it to Nazareth, unfortunately. I must say that the Arabs we met in Jerusalem were also very friendly and hospitable – we didn’t meet any Christian Arabs, it was mainly taxi drivers and Arab merchants in the Old City.
    I cracked up when she talked about customer service and needing to be rude to get anything done – that was so true for us, too. (The Post Office was unbelievable! LOL) I had my first child while living there and I chose home birth with a midwife – not because I cared about natural childbirth, but because I was afraid of how rude people might be at the hospital!
    This is an awesome blog. I’m putting it on my blogroll.

  2. Lion in Zion says:

    good questions. interesting answers.

  3. Lion in Zion says:

    re. the expats married to christian arabs, is it generally foreign women marrying local men?

  4. melissa qubti says:

    hi…thanks to ‘motherinisrael’ for giving me the opportunity! I really enjoyed answering the questions. To ‘Lion’-yes it is mainly foreign women marrying local men, Robin-My kids speak Arabic and English.I speak to them in English,they Answer me in Arabic!!weird!

  5. melissa qubti says:

    hi…thanks to ‘motherinisrael’ for giving me the opportunity! I really enjoyed answering the questions. To ‘Lion’-yes it is mainly foreign women marrying local men, Robin-My kids speak Arabic and English.I speak to them in English,they Answer me in Arabic!!weird!

  6. melissa qubti says:

    Fern- all women as i far as I know although I do know a Doctor whose husband is German, they met at Hadassah univ.I think thats an exception.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed Melissa. I always love hearing about the ways in which someone else’s life is both similar to and different from mine – a lot of the culture shock issues you mentioned hold true for Anglos in Jewish Israeli society as well.
    I’m curious about how you’re handling your children’s language. We’re English speakers at home but it can be a real struggle to foster my children’s English language development when they’re surrounded by Hebrew all the time. (We don’t live in an Anglo area at all.) We’ve put a priority on it, but it’s definitely not easy.

  8. Interesting interview! I’m interested to know Melissa’s answers to the questions about which gender is generally marrying into the Christian-Arab community and what language Melissa uses with her children.

  9. MiI : Thanks for interviewing Melissa for your readers. Hers is an interesting perspective.
    Melissa: Thanks for answering the questions.

  10. Very interesting perspective.
    Oh and that Sally Fields movie is Not Without My Daughter.

  11. Thanks for this interview, MiI, and thanks, Melissa, for agreeing to answer the questions. It was a glimpse into a different way of life here in Israel.
    Mimi

  12. Melissa, thanks for answering Mother in Israel’s questions. I enjoyed reading, and I enjoy reading your blog, too.

  13. I’m curious what kinds of blogs Melissa reads….
    Great post!

  14. MiI-You never fail to disappoint with your interviews. 🙂

  15. You’re in my feed reader but I seem to be missing your posts :(.
    Glad I actually came over to read some of your stuff. 🙂
    Adding you to my blogroll too, in case there is a problem with the link I have in my reader I’ll update that as well

  16. mother in israel says:

    Thank you, everyone.

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