Arab Dads: They’re Somewhat Like Us!

July 26th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  2 Comments

Last week, outside a gate leading from Tangier’s medina to its casbah, a man sitting on an old stone ledge caught my eye. He was just a trim guy in his 40s, dressed in Western clothes, but what caught my eye was that next to him sat two fishing poles and his daughter, wrapped in a beach towel.

All of a sudden, all of my curiosity about Arab family life—or, I guess, to be more specific, North African Muslim family life—rose to the surface. For at least two weeks this summer, in Tunisia and Morocco, I’d been fascinated by how families functioned in public. (disclaimer: I’m equally fascinated here, too. This isn’t some purely orientalist gawk.) Things that struck me:

• Families are everywhere, and very visible. I don’t know why this surprised me. Maybe because we Americans often have this stereotype of Muslims hiding away their wives (and hence family life) under burqas and behind high, window-less walls. Or maybe because in New York, there’s often almost a shame factor in bringing the whole brood out. Here we face the disapproving gaze of the childless, who just want to drink and smoke, and of other parents, who are no doubt criticizing our behavior, whether sotto voce or direct to our faces.

• Dads take a bigger role in raising children than I’d expected. Maybe “bigger role” isn’t the right word. They’re just very visible in taking care of basic things, like holding kids’ hands or pushing the red Bugaboo, that again, here in New York, seem to be clear markers of Modern, Involved Parenting.

• Kids stay up late. I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising, as North Africa’s damn hot, and people tend to spend midday relaxing indoors, in the shade, and enjoying the cool night air as much as possible. Still, you know, when you see infants and toddlers out and about at 11 p.m., it’s hard to control that initial OMG reaction.

Anyway, all these things had been on my mind when I suddenly spotted this man and his daughter and decided to abandon my loftily uninformed post as speculating blogger and descend, briefly, into the fetid waters of actual reporting (in French, too, which didn’t make it easy). So: His name was Mohammed; he was 48 and a policeman (which meant I couldn’t take his picture), and his family had lived in the medina for many generations.

“It’s very difficult to be a true father,” he explained. “You have to be a professor, a magician—a singer, a dancer.”

You also have to figure out which traditions to maintain in a country that’s really quite modern. “If I’m out in the medina, and my son sees me with my friends,” he explained, “he’ll come over and kiss my hand, but also keep his eyes averted.” Not making eye contact is a sign of respect, he said. In Morocco, a father is considered a king, his wife the queen. As a child, you don’t look upon such people as equals.

As he spoke, his daughter, 11-year-old Zeynip, cutely cuddled next to him—very sweet, and a nice antidote to how Americans often view Muslim families. Right there you had unveiled public affection of a kind that would be recognizable just about anywhere in the world.

At the same time, Mohammed was also giving me the talk about how the problem with kids and young parents today was that so many had turned away from God—you may have heard this stereotypical talk elsewhere, perhaps. When I’m confronted with it, I don’t really know what to do, maybe because I don’t want to have to get into defending my atheism/Judaism/Americanism (pick one). So, in this case, I turned the conversation to more practical matters: Had he caught anything in the sea that morning?

Mohammed smiled and pulled from a plastic bag the medium-size octopus he’d caught. Zeynip squealed at the sight of it, but still looked at her father with pride. He planned to cook that night—himself. Cooking, he said, wasn’t just a woman’s job; a husband needs to help his wife when she’s tired or busy.

“One hand on its own can’t do anything,” he said before I left, “but two hands can clap.”


  1. Stephanie says:

    August 4th, 2010at 5:54 pm(#)

    Your post was funny to me because my husband is Moroccan (and makes me stay indoors always; if I go out I have to wear a burqa-kidding) and we take frequent trips back to visit his Moroccan family.

    You can add to your list that most Arab men (Muslim or not) are pretty good with kids whether they have them or not. The first babysitter my (first) daughter ever had was my husband’s best friend (a male Moroccan) who did not even have kids. As a former NYer myself, can you imagine any guy friend without kids being your infant’s babysitter?

    Kids stay up late yes, like in many developing countries, because people are not so uptight about schedules like they are in the US. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that since society is more traditional, many women do stay home and when you don’t have to get up and get your kids out the door in the morning, there is no need to put them to bed early. My girls usual strict bedtime is 8. In Morocco it is more like 11-12, whenever they fall asleep.

    Also, in the US, parents place a lot of value on getting their kids to bed to have some me time or couple time. My in-laws are happiest when their children and grandchildren are all around them. There is no concept at all of wanting time for yourself or just your partner because it’s always better to be with family. Every night before bed, the entire family (parents, 5 kids, our kids, any visiting aunts/uncles/cousins) hangs out in the living talking and laughing until everyone gets tired enough to sleep. It’s a nice change from the concept in our household of let’s get the kids to bed so we can hang out kid-free together and relax.

    Hope you enjoyed your trip!


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