Let's elope? Running away for love
The moment he laid eyes on her, the Greek god Zeus fell in love with the Phonecian princess Europa, and decided to trap and kidnap her. One day, Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and hid himself among the bulls that Europa’s father owned. On that day, Europa was picking roses, and when she caught a glimpse of the white bull, she touched his skin, and tried to ride on his back. At that moment, Zeus seized the opportunity, running with her towards the sea. He did not stop swimming until he reached the isle of Crete, where he showed her the truth about him and married her, and Europa became the first queen of Crete.
There are people who believe it’s likely that the idea of running away for the sake of love, or what some countries might call an “elopement,” comes from this Greek myth.
A story of violence, masked by love, violence which begins the moment a man kidnaps a woman and submits her, her family, or her tribe or kingdom to his desires and interests.
Although this myth may be the basis of our idea of elopement, the myth’s story is now much closer to horrifying stories from throughout history that come to us from conflicts and wars. Now, every time I hear the sentence “They eloped to get married,” I can’t help but think of a very dramatic scene: a woman, gathering the bare minimum of clothes and things into a backpack or small bag, a man waiting for her at a close-by location so they can run away together, to a city far away or even another country, get married there, and start from zero.
Probably, this scene that’s stuck in our imaginations comes mostly from folklore stories we’ve heard, or from films and shows we’ve seen. Stories in which there is an attempt to overcome the odds for love, avoid abuse, and rebel against the refusal of a family or society because of material, or sectarian, or patriarchal reasons.
“They eloped,” is a sentence that holds within it a mix of romance, conspiracy, and defiance.
But despite the scent of love and romance, that mix is also tinged with a bit of harshness. And not just the harshness you’d expect from a disapproving family or society towards two lovers.
“They eloped.” Meaning two people resisted the disapproval of other people, in the sense that they chose to engage in a harsh sort of aggression against themselves. They take on themselves the violence of distance, the harshness of losing family or friends, the sorrow of giving up many things along the way, sometimes painful idea that they may have made foolish mistakes for the sake of love.
I’m Farah Barqawi. This is the third episode of season four of “Eib” (Shame), a Sowt production.
In the two stories you’ll hear today, there may not have been threats to the lives of the lovers who fled for the sake of love, and maybe what happened wasn’t exactly elopement or escaping in the literal sense of the word.
But these stories show us the hard, miserable choices that we may face because of a refusal, and how our decision in that moment might affect our life paths, beyond just the moment of the refusal or the moment of escape, regardless of the success or failure of the love.
“She’d never seen her, she’d never met her, they’d never talked. So to her, she was always a mystery. Someone she had her own mental perceptions of, but whom she had never actually seen. She’d never dealt with her.”
“This wasn’t her doing, it was mine. I chose this. This is how I wanted things to be going forward.”
Yahya is a very quiet person. I met him when we worked together for a time, and while I was searching for stories, I happened to ask him if he knew a story of running away for love. Incredibly, he told me that that was the story of him and his partner. A few days later, I found myself visiting him and Lamees at their home to hear their story.
About 12 years ago, maybe more, Yahya and Lamees met each other at a mutual friend’s house. And while Yahya is a quiet person, Lamees is quite the opposite: full of energy and always talking.
"He was very very very quiet, to the point that I was kind of annoyed by it. One day I said to him ‘What’s with you? Do you not speak? (laughs) Can you think?”
At that time, Lamees was married to someone else, but her marriage had been failing for a long time, and shortly thereafter the issues lead to separation.
Yahya, on the other hand, was still exploring the world and relationships.
From the moment they met, they developed a strong friendship: supportive, involved, and solidarity, especially after Lamees’s divorce and while she tried to build a new life for herself, independent of her family who were living in another city:
"We spent a year and a half as friends. Like, we moved through life together. I knew everything about him, he knew everything about me, we helped each other, we supported each other (long breath)”
"In a moment, we realized that we loved each other, that we wanted to be together.”
I now realize that I loved her from the moment I saw her. But I’m not sure if this is what I actually felt or not. (You told me that! Hahaha)
But things were a total mess and I didn’t want to get involved. I wanted to get her to leave the long relationship that she had been in, forget it, and try new things, and after that, when she’s a little more settled and wants to begin again, I would be there. But I didn’t want to jump into the middle of the melee that she was in.”
"On my 27th birthday, he said that he would make himself my birthday present (laughs), that was sweet (laughs), really sweet.”
Lamees accepted the gift.
For a year and a half, they were inseparable. But they wanted to live together, so they decided that they would get married:
"We would spend, for example, 10 hours together a day. Like we’d see each other every day and sit together for a very long time. We’d get done with work and go out (and we got bored with the idea of going out) to a cafe ah exactly (so we wanted to stay together at home) we didn’t want to sit at a cafe, we got tired of sitting at cafes, (and we didn’t want to sit with other people, we wanted to be together just the two of us), we wanted to stay just the two of us at our house, stay together for our whole lives, really, get married, do that (because it was the best available option).”
Marriage was a practical step, given that our conservative society makes the act of living together without marrying a constant anxiety, or even, a lot of the time, entirely impossible.
But this practical step, which is usually acceptable to most families and society in general, did not go the way Yahya and Lamees expected. Yahya’s family, especially his mother, completely rejected the idea. But why?
"The two main points were that I was 3 years older than him and that I had been married before.”
After Lamees met with Yahya’s sister once, and despite the fact that Lamees felt it had been a pleasant interaction, she and Yahya were surprised by the impression that his sister conveyed to his mother, as if she had gone and examined a bride like what happens in arranged marriages, and were surprised by his mother’s position that she completely opposed the characteristics of the bride, without asking her son anything about his relationship with the girl that he loved.
Up until then, Yahya and Lamees had considered the problem a small one and thought that it would soon pass.
But one day, Lamees was rattled at work, when her boss summoned her and told her that someone had come and was asking about her and her behavior:
"I went mad, I felt like that was incredibly offensive, it’s not alright to show up at my work, if she wanted to come and meet me I don’t have a problem, sit and talk and meet me and see me, but the idea that she came and asked others about me and my appearance and my clothes and my behavior and so on… it was incredibly absurd.”
Lamees didn’t just feel offended, she felt unsafe because to her, her work was the one thing that protected her independence in Cairo.
She responded by asking Yahya if they could take a break, even for a little while, so that she could see things more clearly and decide whether she wanted a relationship.
Before Yahya, Lamees had thought she had to do everything in life by herself. Her relationship with Yahya showed her what true partnership was. For the first time, she was able to see what it was like to have someone to help carry her burdens.
But despite how important this partnership is, it is not beneficial when it is at the expense of personal freedom, especially if it is a woman being stripped of her freedom by society.
What happened at her work was a huge challenge for Lamees’s and Yahya’s relationship. The issue was not only a threat to Lamees’s independence. No, it also threatened Yahya’s independence, and the boundaries that any person is allowed to cross, even if it was his family.
I’ll leave Lamees to think about this challenge for a bit, and turn now to another story of challenges, lived by another woman in another place, a little longer ago.
"I remember my situation, I mean you you’re so sure that your decision is correct and firm, and is real, really real, but I do not think that you realize that the results are true. The results are way bigger.”
Yara is from Syria, a university professor. She’s 40 years old.
She’s telling me about a decision she made in the past, but it affected her persona, her relationships, and her whole life, even today.
In order to tell you the story, let’s return to earlier in Yara’s life, to when she was 17 years old and in her first year as a college student in Damascus.
"I was 17, and I fell in love with my professor. He was older than me by… I don’t know exactly… 16 or 17 years minimum, he was in his mid-30s. At that time, I was absolutely obsessed with the relationship, it was everything to me.
The relationship went on for about two years without her family’s knowledge.
But during one of the summer breaks, the professor sent a letter to Yara, a letter which her father happened to find and read and thus he discovered the relationship. This discovery caused a massive fight between Yara and her family, who insisted that she end the relationship immediately.
"Of course, they opposed the relationship’s existence, even after he and his family visited mine, they said that the relationship had to end up in a way that would make both families happy, that of course we would get married, it wasn’t like the relationship wasn’t serious.
Yara was surprised by her family’s response, especially because at that time, many of her friends were getting engaged and married at a young age. She believed that the cause of her family’s shock was a combination of the fact that she had hidden the relationship, their age difference, and most of all their difference in social and material status between their two families.
The university professor and his family tried to rectify the situation by visiting Yara’s family, and assured Yara’s family that the relationship was a serious one and would surely end in marriage. But Yara’s family was adamant in their position.
"But my family wanted to stay adamant in their opposition, I think the reason was mostly social conditions, I mean my family thought we had to… I guess my siblings and I had to marry in certain conditions, certain families, that were in our same social class.”
Yara found herself trapped and under immense pressure.
She felt her freedom was constantly restricted, as the eldest child, because of the fact that her family had clear ideas of right and wrong, and because they didn’t want her to ever mess up, especially since she was a girl.
It was a confounding situation, and there was no room to negotiate, to give or take, and so the situation between her and her family worsened.
Yara went the rest of the university break without seeing her boyfriend the professor. There weren’t smartphones at that time, so they updated each other through her friends. There were times when they couldn’t even communicate that way, though, because her family would ban her from seeing her friends, or talking to them on the phone. Her family hoped that the relationship would die if they cut off contact, and that Yara would forget the whole thing. But when university started again, Yara was free again, and she started to plan how to save her relationship.
"At that time I was a very passionate, sentimental person, and also very isolated. I wouldn’t talk much, and I thought of the relationship as a part of my search for my independence. For the first time I was doing something that I was sure of, that I wanted. The opposition and the problem with my family was the first time that I’d reached that point, it escalated quite a lot. So I decided that I would run away with him.”
When she brought up the idea of running away to her boyfriend the professor, he told her that it was her choice to make, and that he was ready to get married right then, if she wanted to.
So Yara decided she would elope and get married.
"It was almost impossible for us to run away and get married in an official sense because even if legally you’ve reached the age of maturity with respect to the law, the court or the judge might tell you that you still need the permission of a guardian.”
After a few attempts with a judge, they successfully eloped.
"So we got married. We lived two years in Syria and then we travelled outside the country. But during those two years, my family cut me off…”
From time to time my mother would talk to me, my father was not pleased, there was absolutely no kind of contact between us. My siblings are younger than me, and I would see them sometimes but at first we had to see each other in secret, since my parents hadn’t agreed that I could see them.”
After those two years, Yara and her husband traveled to Europe, without resolving any of the problems with her family.
Let’s go back to Lamees, who is still thinking about her relationship with Yahya.
Truth be told, she didn’t think too much about it though, because they only stayed separated for a month, and quite the opposite of the dramatic television scenes that come to mind with respect to a split, Yahya was the one who gathered his things and left his family’s home to be with Lamees:
"I picked out a black trash bag, and all my clothes went into it, I didn’t take anything else. I took the clothes in a trash bag, five bags, the only other thing I had was my car. So I put the trash bags in the car…. and left. That was the end of it.”
Yahya stayed with his friend for two months, and during those two months Lamees and Yahya were preparing themselves to get married.
The next step was to convince Lamees’s family.
"Everything that I wanted, everything that we wanted was to live together, and that you guys don’t mind, for to you be alright with it.”
Lamees told her family that there was a man, and she loved him, and he loved her, and that they wanted to get married, and that there was just one small problem: that Yahya was three years younger than her… and that his family was completely opposed to their relationship.
Her family reacted entirely the opposite of how she had expected; they were very nice, all they cared about was meeting Yahya and confirming that he was actually a good person.
"We set up a meeting, really, he was going to come the next day. But before that meeting, his mother and father, my brother is a doctor, they went to the clinic and went to my brother and said we aren’t sick, we are Yahya’s mother and father, and we came to say to you that we don’t approve of the whole thing.”
Lamees’s brother decided to back her up, and told her family that Yahya was a free person and wasn’t doing anything wrong.
"Of course, it was hard for them, for them to feel like someone was belittling them, for someone to say to them that there are problems and that their girl is inadequate and that you people are...
"inadequate, or that you aren’t from our level, quite the opposite, they took it as a challenge, no, she is free to do what she wants.”
The next day came, and Yahya met with Lamees’s family by himself and agree on the terms of engagement.
As the big day got closer, Yahya was happy, of course, but the situation wasn’t easy for him.
In addition to the fact that his family opposed the marriage and wanted to stop him in any way they could, they were convinced that Lamees wanted him for his money.
They were so convinced that they forced him to give up the money that they had been saving in the bank for him for years.
On the day of the wedding, his father insisted on being with him on the phone, to make sure that he wasn’t being fooled into something:
"This phone call was for his family to make sure that if this crazy marriage would indeed take place, they need to make sure that he wouldn’t have to pay the bride a huge amount of money in case Lamees and Yahya got divorced or that she asks for a lot of things in case of divorce. But I told them to rest assured that that wouldn’t happen, that they shouldn’t worry about such a thing.”
Despite all of the difficulties, Yahya and Lamees carried out their plan and got married:
"When did we get married? January 14th, 2011, the day Bin Ali fled the country. Everyone was talking about it! (And you two fled as well) And we were signing our marriage license!
And we had two or three of our friends. We had nothing, nothing! No dress, nothing! Just us! That day it was pouring rain 24 hours, the weather was weird and full of excitement, and I was happy, very happy. We were doing everything so quickly to get it all over with, and that was it, we were finally married.
They eloped, in the same city, with what little money they had, and no idea what the future would hold, other than that they would be together.
"The only challenge we had was that we both didn’t have much money, that was it, that was the only challenge, that we weren’t doing financially great. But after 3 or 4 months, money started flowing in. There was more work.. We felt like it was only getting better with time, which made us decide to have a child one year later.”
After a year, they brought a baby boy into the world:
" The day our son was born was the first time my father had ever seen my wife, she can tell you about that day. For me, all I saw was a man who entered the room, walked around inside and left.”
"He said hello and went in, his face was pale and he was shaking, he was so tense, he held the baby, said prayers in his ear, hugged him and left.”
All relationships face challenges and tests, and overcoming this tests depends on a number of this, perhaps most importantly the partners’ awareness of the problem and how to deal with it and with each other, but overcoming challenges also depends on external circumstances and the amount of support we get.
Maybe in the case of Lamees and Yahya, despite the fact that Yahya’s family abandoned him and cut off any material support from him, he found a support system among his friends, and they were living in a city which they knew well.
But in Yara’s case, the situation was very different, despite the fact that she thought she had overcome the greatest tests the relationship would face, and succeeded in that by running away. But she ran into a greater challenge that she hadn’t accounted for, and that was alienation:
"Alienation meaning loneliness, isolation, a life without the people or the society that you were used to living in. It really affected the relationship because it was a surprise. There’s no relationship without hardships and problems but suddenly, everything was under a magnifying glass and that really affected us, me more than him.”
After two years of the challenges of distance and alienation, Yara and her husband found a great divide between them, and the problems with the relationship were right in front of her eyes:
"I wasn’t able to get past the problems between us, I couldn’t cover them up, I couldn’t work through them. I blamed him for the whole thing, I felt like from the time I met him we were making decisions together that were more mature or bigger than I was able to, do you understand? And I was able to, like, all of a sudden I began to feel like I was paying or was living a life I didn’t really… I decided to be a part of, but I hadn’t been able to understand the fundamentals of what the decision I’d made even was, you know?”
Despite the fact that the decision had been Yara’s decision, and that the love she had felt had been real and legitimate, we can’t refuse to see that there was a large age gap between her and the man she chose, especially when she was just beginning to explore life, in a relationship with a power imbalance between a person who had a lot of experience and knowledge and a person who was still experimenting with things for the first time:
"The relationship moved from stage to stage very quickly, I felt, but maybe in his view it was natural. But for me, because it was my first complete, serious relationship, it was fast.”
"He didn’t see me as a woman, he saw me as a girl so I felt like the relationship had started to turn into the relationship of a father and daughter, there was a distinct imbalance.”
One might make decisions in order to not lose a person or so the relationship won’t end, but suddenly realize that a piece of those decisions were concessions.
Yara began to notice how many concessions she had made: she had left her country and her family and her friends, she had left her university and halted her studies, she had come to a strange country, with an unclear future, and the people around her were studying and working and she was sitting and waiting for her papers or waiting for for her husband to get his life together.
Little by little, Yara accepted that she couldn’t let her life go up in flames any more than that.
"All these things led me to see that I had made many more sacrifices for this relationship, to be with him, but I’m not able to give more. I’m done. My body started to refuse, my soul started to refuse, to build a revolution against that love.”
Yara was changing, and the relationship was falling apart. There had been a ghost of separation in the air for a year, and Yara found herself once again trapped and suffocating:
"Because in the end, we only had each other there. Like, that person he was everything that reminded you of who you are and where you came from and what you did, he’s a part of your history. He was the one thing that reminded me who I was, everything else was strange and foreign. But at the same time, you can’t take a step forward because he is there and you can’t change anyhing.”
But the alienation that hurt Yara also helped her grow faster, it opened her eyes to her needs and abilities. The stiffness between them increased.
Just like she had decided to run away, she believed in herself; she decided on divorce, and insisted on it.
"In the beginning, I had felt like I loved that person more than I loved myself, and in the end, I chose myself and I loved myself more. I think he believes that my decision to split up was a selfish decision on my part. And maybe it was, but my love for myself at that time, I had to choose my life, I wouldn’t be able to continue on that path, it was bigger than my love for him.
Yara managed to take the step which hadn’t been able to take within the confines of the unbalanced relationship after the breakup, which enabled her to take ever more steps.
Yara continued to live outside the country by herself, she finished her studies and worked and was achieving things for herself. After a number of years, she returned to an Arab country as a university professor.
Despite the fact that Yara felt peaceful about and secure in her decisions and the path that she’d walked in life, she is not able to forget the price that she paid because she eloped, especially when she hears stories like her own about current university students:
"Now, I teach, so I sometimes see that kind of relationship in my university field, for example. That a female student loves her professor, like that. I get really worked up and annoyed, I really empathize with the girl, and I really can’t empathize much with the man, even if their relationship might be the opposite, she is stronger than him, but most of the time I feel that she’s in a position where I’m not able to blame any sort of decisions she makes at that age.”
About 18 years have passed since Yara ended her relationship and her marriage with the university professor.
Yara has loved other people. She got married again, and then divorced again after a number of years. But Yara sees that her first relationship had a great impact on the way she acts in relationships, on the quality of negotiations or the type of concessions she is willing to make for someone else:
"It had a huge effect on my decisions: how much am I willing to concede in this relationship? I think because it was my first relationship, it taught me a lot because I did a lot before thinking, before knowing what the outcome of that decision would be. So now I think in any relationship I get into, I try to be very careful.”
Yara’s repeated talk of “concessions” in relationships made me want to ask her if she has ever felt regret for her decision to run away for love, and the losses she had to bear because of that decision:
"Never. You realize afterwards that you don’t see it as right or wrong, that annoys me! It reminds me of things that I went through, of the bad stuff I went through because of that relationship, of course, but at the same time I know that the decision that I made at that time was between the relationship and leaving my family and it was a part of my search for my own independence as a person, space for me to make important decisions about my life, a sort of revolution against the culture that I was living in or the social situation that I was in. Getting married has to be by the rules, or according to the opinion of the other person. I want to decide who I want to be with and how I want to be with them, even if it was a mistake.”
Relationships are like life: there is no one recipe for success. Relationships fail, marriages fail, regardless of the amount of experience or foresight. We can’t commandeer the experiences of others and judge them in black and white.
Yara believes that even if her choice had been a mistake, that doesn’t mean that we should never make misguided choices in our lives. That’s what she tells her family, who she made up and has a real relationship with after years of separation:
"It gets brought up because my dad sometimes brings it up, for example he’ll bring it up as a way to remind me that I made a mistake. So I tell him that if I went back in time and make the decision a second time, I would make the same one, because it’s the first decision that made me who I am today. I am content with who I am now, I love who I am now, and you know who I am now. You know? Every decision doesn’t have to be the right one, and that was the biggest problem with my family. That my family always forbade me to make mistakes, and I thought every family was this way, they never want you to make mistakes, but I was constantly yearning to be free, to make mistakes, because mistakes teach you.”
If there was something more complicated than love and our relationships with our partners, it might be our relationships with our families. The relationship might be interspersed with periods of closeness and periods of distance, periods of understanding and periods of disagreement, but it remains even in the best of cases a relationship of love and complex authority. We exchange power within the relationship because of circumstances and age and health, but it leaves its prints on us, both from the good and the bad.
Yahya’s relationship with his family is filled with complexity and irony at the same time. He did not cut off his relationship with them in the traditional sense; he’s still there if they need him, but he left their house and never went back again.
"My family has two personalities with me. One that I am a victim and an idiot and they make fun of me, and the other personality, the other behaviour, is that they come to me with very specific details about their lives, and ask my opinion, and listen to me, like you would deal with someone who you sometimes consider an expert. Ok, you are an expert in this, but at the same time you are a stupid man and we aren’t able to take what you say seriously.”
With time, his relationship with his family took on a kind of regularity and a sort of stability: he does not visit them and they do not visit him, they meet other places and see their grandchildren and spend time with them, but Lamees has remained out of the picture completely.
"I tried to make them understand, my whole life I’ve tried to make them understand. Before this recording I talked to my mother and asked her what her problem was, or what her problem still is. I haven’t ever been able to understand, I’ve really tried to understand her, why after all these years she’s still at the same point, why she hasn’t changed her position, why she hasn’t tried to make a step, why it doesn’t matter to her that she’s made the relationship artificial, like any real relationship between someone and her son’s wife for example, it’s a relationship not always built on love.”
Yahya is talking about a 10 year period, from the moment his family learned of his desire to be with Lamees, up until this moment.
Yahya’s previous musings led me to ask myself; What is the point of sticking with a separation and not trying to fix it? After many losses, does trying become more expensive? Is it a matter of ego and stubbornness? Or it is fear of hanging onto false hope that life might go back to the way it only for it to stay as it is? Therefore, is choosing to stay distant less painful?
I asked Yahya if he was regretful, or if he would change anything about the way things happened:
"I really didn’t want to have to go through this battle against them, I would’ve preferred that this hadn’t happened. I won’t say if only I could do it all over again, but if I could, I would’ve hoped that this wouldn’t be so hard for them, I would’ve tried to be calmer when dealing with them. But I didn’t want them to find my independence so painful. But sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.
"It would’ve been stupid for me to act in a way that suits other. It doesn’t make sense for me to act upon parents’ wishes and ignore mine. That would’ve caused a lot of damage. It’s like when you love something and your parents don’t approve of it, you won’t ban yourself from it. It isn’t convincing for me, some people choose to compromise, I personally can’t do such a thing.”
"It’s upsetting, for you to tell me not to do something I want to do just because you are my mother!”
"Like I love a girl, so I see you so much that I forget her? Why?”
"We are happy, everything is alright with us, in the end we don’t care how this happened the problems that happened, it’s all behind us, completely behind us. What matters is now, where we are now.”
This was the third episode of Season 4 of “Eib,” a Sowt production.
The names of some of the guests in this episode have been changed to protect their privacy.
You can find the names of the songs from this episode in the episode description.
This episode was produced by Tayseer Kabbani, edited and supervised by Sabreen Taha, written and hosted by me, Farah Barqawi.