"When I arrived in Europe in 2015, I had mixed feelings of aversion, surprise, and shyness to see two people kissing intimately on the street. I would try not to look at them, and if I did, it was to try to tell them without words that I don't like what they’re doing, and I don't understand why they're doing it, as it's really shameful." Thus began Lama, 27, laughing at her own words. Lama chose to use a pseudonym to speak freely without being criticized by those who knew her.
More and more Arabs have emigrated to Europe in the last decade, only to find themselves thrown in the midst of an entirely different culture. They not only had to get used to scenes in public places that were not familiar to them, but also found themselves forced to refute many of the customs and traditions that they were raised to obey. When moving to live in a strange new place, one becomes freed from what he was brought up in, in order to choose what suits him best.
Lama, a Palestinian Syrian, comes from a small village in the Damascus countryside, where, according to her, no one expresses their love to their partners, physically or verbally, in front of anyone else, whether it is inside or outside the house.
"As a child, I never heard anyone say ‘I love you’ to another. Rather, people would express love in another way, like when my father would tell my mother, 'yeslam edek’ (‘may your hands be blessed’) over dinner” — Lama, a Palestinian-Syrian living in Germany
She adds, "As a child, I never heard anyone say ‘I love you’ to another. Rather, people would express love in another way, like when my father would tell my mother, 'yeslam edek’ (‘may your hands be blessed’) after she’d prepare a delicious meal, or when he brings her things she needs, or when my mother would make him a meal he likes, for example. Certainly not through a kiss or a hug."
The situation was no different for Andrew, 35, who has lived in the German city of Hanover since 2015, "I grew up in Upper Egypt, which is a very conservative environment, I have never seen any type of physical proximity between a man and a woman before I arrived in Germany except in films and tv shows. Growing up, it was highly undesirable to express any kind of feelings. Feelings of love with the opposite sex was almost impossible, as there was an almost complete separation between males and females, even inside church."
When Andrew arrived in Europe, and began frequently seeing these scenes in public as something normal, he felt shy and ashamed on behalf of those who were kissing each other, he says.
He elaborates, "Perhaps the scene that caught my attention the most, and I found myself forced to look at the time of my arrival, was at a train station in the German city of Bremen, where I saw a young man and a young veiled woman with Arab features exchanging a very romantic and intimate kiss. I admit that the scene was very strange to me, perhaps because of their Arab features, but I did not feel disgusted but rather happy, because I found myself in a place where everyone is free, to do whatever they like as long as they do not harm others. That girl felt free and safe to live and do what she wanted without anyone telling her that this is wrong or shameful, or tell her that she is disrespectful or that they will call the police on her, as is the case in our country."
"What caught my attention the most was at a train station in the German city of Bremen, where I saw a young man and woman with Arab features exchanging a very romantic and intimate kiss” — Andrew, an Egyptian residing in Germany
For Peter, 39, watching a man and a woman kiss in public was not surprising to him when he arrived in Germany in 2019, as these scenes seem normal in series and movies, but the scenes that he wasn’t able to get used to at first, even though he knew they existed, was seeing two people of the same sex kiss each other. He says, "Even though I heard that this happens here, I had never seen it before, and it was a strange sight for me until I got used to it."
Samra, a 26-year-old Syrian who came to Germany in 2015, considers romantic kissing a very private act, and its place is at home, not the street. She explains, "When I see a couple kissing each other excessively in public spaces, I always ask myself, 'Where is their privacy?' Do they really need to kiss like this in front of people? I don't have a problem with them and I don't feel like I want to say something to them, but I personally wouldn't do the same and I don't like seeing those scenes on the road." Een though Samra and her husband kiss in public, she says they are quick kisses.
After seven years of living in Germany, Lama’s point of view changed. She now finds that kissing on the street is a beautiful thing, and is better than fights or arguments. She and her husband have no problem kissing in public, and they are "not intimate" kisses, as she describes it.
She adds with a smile, "I remember the first time my husband kissed me in a public place. He was sitting next to me on the bus, and I didn't know what to do, I didn't react. I couldn't even kiss him. I was frozen in place while feeling shy and happy at the same time."
"I remember the first time my husband kissed me in a public place. He was sitting next to me on the bus. It made me feel shy and happy at the same time" - Lama, a Palestinian-Syrian who lives in Germany
Ansam, a 31-year-old Palestinian, arrived with her husband in Germany in 2015. She has no problem hugging her husband when travelling, for example, in public, but she considers kissing to be a private act that she does not like to do in a place like this.
She adds, "I find it difficult to express my feelings in public places, the negative ones in particular. I do not like discussing a personal issue that bothers me in the public park, for example, because these discussions evoke anger and irritation, and I do not like shouting in front of people, even though there is nothing stopping me, since our personal discussions will definitely be in Arabic, and those around me will not understand me, but doing so charges me with a lot of negative energy, because I like to maintain my privacy.”
Difficulties in expressing feelings in public places, according to Lama, lie in the way some people think. When they see people kissing, they consider this behavior a sexual expression, not an expression of love, happiness, or intimacy to a partner, for example, because, according to Lama, they are still stuck in the same way of thinking and refuse to change.
She states, "They used to tell us in Syria that it was street etiquette for a young lady or woman to walk with a frown in the street, and not look around too much.”
She goes on to say that when married women would walk with their husbands in the street, they had to walk next to the man without touching him. "I know this way of thinking and it's normal for me not to be spontaneous or act freely with my husband when there are people around me from this background, even if it's my family or my husband’s family," she explains.
Andrew explains that he and his wife don't feel any kind of shame or shyness in it. But he says this is different when they are in Egypt or Lebanon.
He affirms, “Expressing my feelings to my wife differs if there are Arabs around us. I do not feel complete freedom and I put limits on all my actions, even while talking, even if these Arabs are people we do not know on public transportation, for example. Among foreigners, I feel more freedom in my words and actions because I know they do not focus on those who are around them, and I am not saying that all Arabs focus on the people around them, but it still happens.”
Peter comments on this, "No matter how much we travel and live in different environments, this fear of people's looks and judgment of us settles deep inside us. I cannot deny that I express my love for my wife with kisses and hugs more when I'm among foreigners.”
It seems that what prevents most people from expressing their feelings to their spouses in public places or even inside the home in front of families is the other people, the customs, and the traditions that they grew up with, but when some people find themselves outside the scope of those customs and traditions, expressing their feelings becomes an important and spontaneous matter that is not worth all the complexities that some societies construct. However, the customs and traditions that we are brought up with are still present and cause us to unconsciously place restrictions on our actions and expressions of love in public or even in private spaces in front of our own family.