A Russian Wife of an Egyptian Talks About What It’s Like to Live in an Arabic Family
Elena has been married to an Egyptian man and she has lived in a harem for 10 years now. Once, she wanted to be an astronaut, an actress, a perfumer, and she wanted to live in a warm climate, near the sea. But apparently, fate decided that only the last of her dreams could be made into a reality.
Bright Side has read through Lena’s profile in order to try to understand how a wife from Russia can live in Egypt, what her relationship with her family is like, what this society is like, and whether the stereotypes about Muslim women are true.
My childhood was not a perfect adventure.
When I was in school, I was beaten and humiliated because I was chubby. At the age of 11, I lost 55 lbs over one summer and I was scared of swallowing even my saliva, thinking it had calories too. My classmates didn’t even recognize me when I came back to school. At the age of 17, I entered college to study psychology, at the age of 21, I started working at a travel agency, and at the age of 25, I left for Egypt.
When I went to Egypt the first time in 2002, I fell in love with the country, its history, and the sea. In March 2009, during the tourist exhibition MITT, I got 2 job offers regarding working as a receptionist in the Radisson hotel in Sharjah (UAE), and at Golden 5 in Hurghada, Egypt. The conditions and the salary were starkly different and even my mother, who was completely against me leaving Russia, looked at the conditions offered by the Radisson and said, “Go!”
But I had never been there before and I was scared of going to work somewhere without having seen the country, and I just wanted to go to Egypt. Anyway, I decided to work in Egypt for a year, gain some experience, and then go to Emirates. After a short training course, I was sent to work in Emerald Golden 5.
I was warned about the dangers right away.
I was told to be careful: in the hotel, there were 2 young managers that were famous for their romances with tourists. But apparently, I wasn’t very careful because just one year later, one of them became my husband.
He started paying attention to me: he gave me presents, flowers, he bought me food, he asked me to text him when I got to my room that was only like 5 meters away from the road where he dropped me off. In the beginning, I wasn’t even physically attracted to him: he didn’t seem very handsome. I even though of introducing him to one of my friends from Moscow. He was a good guy, very decent, and he had a great sense of humor. But I never found a suitable girl and he managed to rouse some feelings in me.
In the beginning, we were just friends — we’d take walks in Hurghada, we’d go to Cairo. And then we decided to get married.
So, my dream came true: I live in a warm climate, the sea is nearby, and I can see a sandy mountain from the window. I can see the sand every day!
When my first daughter was born, we lived in a hotel.
My husband worked at this hotel and I lived like a queen, but I never even understood that. The staff cleaned the room, we ate at the restaurant, and my daughter and I rested on the beach. I remember I would place the stroller near the sea and sit next to it, reading something, or lying and watching the water. And I thought I got really tired!
When I got pregnant with my son, we still lived in the hotel. But then, my husband resigned from his job and we moved into an apartment where I had to do a lot of things — cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the baby. I wasn’t really able to cook, my daughter Jannet was almost 3 years old, and she was a little jealous. Not to mention the colic and sleepless nights on top of that.
I was ready to leave it all and escape to Moscow. Maybe, I would have if it hadn’t been for my little Adam that didn’t have Russian citizenship at the time. Then, my mother got ill and my son got his citizenship and we all went to Russia together. My mother’s illness restored our union again.
Gradually, our relationship grew into respect and friendship and our third daughter only had a more positive influence on us. Thanks to the children, we see the world as it really is and now we truly love each other and accept each other with all the flaws we have.
My husband is, first and foremost, a loving father who is ready to do anything for our children, and not just for them.
My husband wants to know everything: who ate what today, who went to the toilet and how it was (except me, of course). He remembers everything that has to do with the children: he knows when they need a vaccine, what their clothing sizes are, and he buys everything for them himself. When Adam was in the hospital, he never left him, he comforted him when he needed to have an injection, he washed him, and did everything. Even I don’t worry about our kids as much as he does.
Just recently, we went to a clothing store. He took the kids and gave me the opportunity to walk alone and look for something for myself. I walked for about 40 minutes and went to the fitting room. I asked my husband to take a look. His response was that he asked our daughter to bring me some other clothes. In the end, when I tried on the clothes he chose, they looked absolutely perfect on me. He said, “You have pants that will look great with this... and I’ll buy you the scarf later.” Anyway, we bought everything that he suggested and none of what I had chosen! He is a perfect stylist.
I am sometimes asked which wife I am.
I am the only wife! Our “harem” consists of me, 3 children, and 2 cats. And most likely, things will remain this way because my husband is not rich enough to have several wives.
Our religion states the rules of having several wives: the husband is supposed to treat all the wives equally. So, if you give one of them a ring, you have to give rings to all the others, and the same goes for cars and other things. And every single wife is supposed to live in a separate house, they can’t all live together: they might kill each other over some trivial things. Anyway, you have to be a very wealthy person in order to have several wives.
Do you also think that I converted to Islam because of my husband?
This happened way before I met my future husband. Nobody can make anyone change their religion. How can you make someone believe something they don’t? I don’t understand the women who pretend to convert to Islam for their future husband. Who needs this hypocrisy? Nobody does. By the way, a Muslim man has the right to marry a woman of any religion.
I don’t know if I could live with my mother-in-law all the time.
Living together would probably have killed all the good between us over time: we see daily life in different ways. But I still think that my mother-in-law is a great person! She loves feeding everyone and she is ready to take care of anyone who needs it.
When I only just met my husband’s family, I tried to help his mother in the kitchen, to do the dishes and clean the table. She would accept my help from time to time, but usually, she let me rest, saying that I would have my chance to clean in my life.
When I got pregnant, she became even more careful with me. She told me to sit down to prevent my legs from swelling, she let me rest when my children were sleeping. And it went on like this for 7 years in a row: pregnant — go and have some rest, just had a baby — go have a rest.
I think it is also about the language barrier. Even though I speak some Arabic, it’s not that great, so sometimes, it is easier to just let me rest, rather than try to explain something to me.
I’m a housewife, but I’m not “chained” at home.
I go for walks with other Russian women (and there are a lot of them here), we go to playgrounds with the children, we go to cafes to drink tea, coffee, or fresh juice. We spend our free time just like all the other women in the world.
In Egypt, there is no such thing as taking care of pregnancy.
They don’t take you to the hospital if your labor hasn’t started yet. In case there is some trouble with your pregnancy, they prescribe you a treatment and you do it at home.
I had my first daughter in Moscow. When I arrived, I was hospitalized because my legs were swollen and I, because I was still depressed over relationship troubles with my husband, had another reason to be depressed — being in the hospital.
In Egypt, I had my baby in a private hospital. The labor cost about 2,000 Egyptian pounds, which is about $120. This service included the ward with all the amenities, the doctors, and all the other necessary things. I did anything I wanted: I walked, danced, I could stand in the shower which was right in the ward. Also, there was a TV, a bed, and a couch for visitors.
Here, they don’t intervene in the labor — they let the future mother do what she wants during her contractions. I asked them to keep the process as natural as possible. There was no stimulation, and none of the extra devices that they use in Moscow.
But still, there was a time in my life when I was seriously ready to drop all this and leave.
Everything irritated me: the dirt, the Egyptian mentality, the insects... Especially the insects.
They are so annoying! We have a joke that they are as persistent as Egyptian men! I have tried everything: chalk, spray, boric acid — nothing helped! I am talking about insects, not about men!
And the cockroaches here are the size of mice! I think that everyone in the house can hear me scream when they come inside... Also, they can fly! They have small wings and they can fly around the apartment and even bump into you!
Egypt is a fairly poor country. There are a lot of poor people and there is a lot of dirt on the streets. You get used to this pretty fast, but some things still bug me in terms of their mentality. For example, when they address a woman, they say something that can be translated as, “Hey, chick!” It is normal for them, but very irritating for me.
Also, some things about the cleaning seem very annoying. For example, they could easily use the same piece of cloth to wash the table that they just used to wash the floor. They might put dirty shoes on soft children’s toys, or put their shoes on in the same place that has just been washed. The apartment starts to look like a mess very fast!
If you are a lonely, and even married, girl, woman, or old lady (especially if you are chubby and you have light hair), be sure that you’ll be a star here!
Yes, you will definitely feel this, so if you have problems with your self-esteem — welcome to Egypt: you will hear compliments every day and your self-esteem will improve dramatically. You will definitely be proposed to, even if you are already married — if your husband is not with you during the proposal.
Of course, just like in any place in the world, there are good and bad people here, but there are things that unite them. First of all, Egyptians are very hospitable and friendly people.
They will give anything to their guests, and they always give their guests the best they have at home. They never complain if your child breaks something or leaves a stain somewhere. They’ll just smile and say, “Maalesh” which means “It’s no big deal.” And they will continue giving you tasty food. They will even take offense if you don’t finish a meal and they’ll invite you to come bukra (tomorrow) to eat more.
If you give a compliment to an Egyptian woman about her new ring, she will say, “khudhha” (“take it”). Of course, everyone usually refuses and I have never tried to actually accept a gift.
If you have come to Egypt with a child, be ready for a lot of attention on them — people will want to play with them and kiss them.
If you go to the supermarket and you don’t have enough money or you forgot your wallet, no problem — maalesh! They will give you your products now, if you promise to return the money the next day. And everyone pays their debts!
In Egypt, many people believe that if you keep a cat at home, a woman can’t get pregnant.
They are scared of the toxoplasmosis that cats transmit, but they don’t clearly understand what this illness is and how it is transmitted. This is why from generation to generation, people tell stories about how dangerous cats are for pregnancy.
When I flew to Moscow to give birth to my first daughter, my Egyptian relatives were really worried that my girl would be infertile because, at the moment, my mother had 5 cats at home. I did all I could to explain to them that I had lived all my life among cats, I was almost born among them, and I was still able to get pregnant. They were worried about my second pregnancy, too, because, in Hurghada, we had 2 cats. But I did get pregnant anyway! The same happened with the third pregnancy, I was basically living proof that even 3 cats are not a good birth control product.
Some Egyptians give pet names to children which can be translated as, “the son of a dog” or “the daughter of a dog.”
They might also just call them kalba (female dog) or even a small dog. Yes, it does sound a little strange, but people don’t listen to me. However, people in Russia sometimes call their children “sweet butts” and it is a completely normal thing. So, in Egypt, there are no sweet butts, just sons of dogs.
Egyptians are very kind to children even too much, sometimes. Sometimes, their kindness can get a bit annoying — for example, when a stranger goes to kiss my child or when they touch the cheeks or hands of my daughter. And she licks her hands all the time...
When a baby is born here, the parents are given presents, and they’re usually gold.
When a girl is born, they present gold bracelets, earrings, and rings for the child. Well, you could give your daughter earrings even though they are sometimes huge for them, but what about rings? The rings are small and children feel uncomfortable and when they get old, they can easily lose this ring. So, all the rings are just hidden and waiting for their fate — they will eventually be sold.
Little boys are also sometimes presented with gold bracelets, saying that they are still children. If you didn’t know, Islam prohibits men from wearing gold. This metal is reserved exclusively for women.
Egyptians love eating from the same plate, but with different spoons. I was truly shocked when I just met my husband’s family, and they would sit down at a low table and would eat with their hands or a piece of bread or with spoons but from the same bowl. So, I just tried to eat before the moment when someone’s hands would be in the bowl and then I’d refuse to eat after that.
When I told my husband about my feelings, he just asked his mother for a separate plate for me. She puts the food in it, and I can even eat in my bed so that I don’t need to sit uncomfortably on the floor. This was something I just couldn’t handle.
Many Egyptians believe in a wonder T-shirt that can treat anything.
In Egypt, there is a myth that you can freeze your belly, and it’s dangerous. This is why almost all Egyptians wear a T-shirt under their clothes, even if it’s 122°F outside. Because “you could get a cold without it if there is an air conditioner around.” My mother-in-law was shocked when she found out I didn’t dress my children in this special T-shirt!
Winter in Egypt is when, during the day it’s about 70°F and at night — 50-55°F. For the locals, it is truly cold! They put on their down jackets, thick pants, knitted hats, and flip-flops. And sometimes, when you are in a taxi during this Egyptian winter, when it’s 77°F outside, the driver is dressed head-to-toe in winter clothes and he gets hot. So, he turns on the air conditioner to cool himself down and you are sitting in the back freezing!
Sometimes, I feel like it is perfectly normal for the local people to sweat. So, when in winter, the temperature goes down and they stop sweating, they put on 10 more layers of clothing to reach their Zen temperature. And the same goes for children!
When I walk in the street, Egyptian women often pay attention to me because I carry my daughter in a sling. They use only their own hands, “kangaroo” bags, and strollers, but extremely early. So, if you are in Hurghada and you see a mother with a stroller, she is almost definitely a foreigner.
Women in Egypt are “re-named” after their oldest child.
In the past, I was called Jannet in public places, and when I had a son, people started using his name to address to me. Only my friends and my relatives call me Lena. If I am in a public place with my husband and my mother-in-law, people only call me um Adam (mother of Adam). And most of the time, they just call me Adam. And I respond. Very soon, both my son and I will probably respond to Adam.
This doesn’t mean that a woman’s name is something shameful or anything like that. It is just that in the East, a woman’s name is something very personal and nobody has the right to call her by her name. So the way to address “the mother of someone” is believed to be very polite.
By the way, this doesn’t only apply to women, the same goes for men. So, in a store, my mother-in-law calls her husband Amr which is my husband’s name and he is the oldest son in the family. Even my husband calls his mother Amr, which is his own name!
When men address each other, they often call each other “man” or “prince.” And of course, they call themselves the sons of dogs, sometimes! And if they want to be very gentle, they call each other brothers.
Do I miss my home? I don’t even know the answer to this myself.
Sometimes, I really want to go home when I see photos of familiar places, and when I see things that remind me of my childhood and my parents. I want to see my relatives. But when I go back to Moscow, I don’t even recognize the streets: when you are away for 2-3 years, you have no idea how to even drive to your own house — things change that fast.
Also, I have changed too. My friends say that I don’t look natural in my “hijab.” They know me from my other life, they know how open I am, and they are really surprised by why I wear these clothes. They think that if I wear these clothes, I should behave differently. But even if I do wear a hijab for religious reason, it doesn’t mean I should become someone I am not.
So, I might go back home for a couple of days: walk around the places I know and see my friends. But after that, I still want to go back to Egypt. It is my home now, I feel great there, and the people who want to see me are there too.
Lena’s story only proves what we knew before: love and an open mind can destroy all the obstacles and stereotypes. If you’ve ever lived in a different country or you have friends from other countries, tell us about your experience communicating with them? What do you like and what seems surprising to you?
Preview photo credit zubnaya_feya_22 / Instagram