When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia in October of 2007, I met many of my husband's family for the first time. There were many nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles to meet, and honestly I still don't think I have met even half of my husband's extended family. I came from a fairly small family. My mom was an only child, so I have no cousins on her side of the family. My dad had one brother and one sister, and they had two children each, so in reality, I had only four first cousins. Because my mom was an only child, she wanted a large family, so I have four brothers. My brothers and I all have at least two kids each, so our kids have a healthy pool of first cousins. With my family spread out all over the US though, getting us all together takes quite a bit of planning and it's not something we are able to do even once a year. And that's one of the reasons why I was really looking forward to our move to Saudi Arabia, where we would be surrounded by my husband's large extended family.
Here in Saudi Arabia, we spend the most time with my hubby's sister and one of his brothers than with other members of the extended family. One of my nephews, Sultan, has become a favorite of mine. He was maybe 11 and a half when I first arrived. He and my son Capt. Kabob get along well together and they play video games and joke around with each other. We often play cards and he has even come over to our house to spend the night, which isn't really a common occurrence in this society.
The first year I was here in this country, whenever we would greet each other, Sultan and I would hug each other warmly. I also hug all of my nieces and my sisters-in-law when I see them, but I never hug my brothers-in-law or the older male nephews. We cordially say hello to one another but we don't even shake hands. Also I must keep my hair covered at all times when I am around them as well. All of a sudden one day several months ago, Sultan informed me that we could no longer hug when we greet each other because he had just turned thirteen. Thirteen is that magical number whereby he was now considered a man and was no longer allowed to hug women like me. So for several months Sultan and I shook hands when we greeted each other. Honestly this change in our relationship felt a bit awkward and felt like a loss to me.
Well, just recently now our dissipating relationship has evolved even further - now we can no longer even shake hands.
I realize that this is part of the culture and I understand that. But I'm 57 years old and Sultan is 13. To me, he is still a boy and I would never ever think of him in an inappropriate way. The culture here dictates that there should be no physical contact, like hugging or even shaking hands, between any "marriageable" persons of the opposite sex. To think that my nephew or I would ever ... or could ever ... It just seems so tawdry and distasteful, doesn't it? Maybe I'm just really naive, but are there really that many desperate older aunts who take on their ridiculously much younger teen nephews? Does this really happen?
So anyway, now Sultan and I must keep our physical distance from one another and just wave and say hello to each other. So far I don't have to cover my hair in front of him, but I have a feeling that might be the next thing to go. Which is something that I don't really understand because he already knows what my hair looks like. The situation just feels so uncomfortable to me now... I can tell by the look in his eyes that Sultan feels the same way about it too. It almost feels like we're being punished for something. Saudi women must experience this same chipping away of their relationships with their nephews as they grow up - I wonder if they feel the same way I do? Is hugging my nephew really indecent and inappropriate? Sometimes I think there are things that this culture carries way too far and turns completely innocent and pure affection into something dirty. At least I still get to hug my nephews in the states - and maybe I'll just hang onto them a little bit longer next time I see them!