Mahmoud, the oldest of the boys who worked with me on the acropolis, was taciturn, but his younger cousin, all of 16, was light-hearted, and easily broke into a smile. That all changed one day. A cloud hung over the latter’s head. Mahmoud explained. His cousin had been informed that for the second time, a marriage had been arranged for him.
My kids were from prominent families in the village. Marriage serves to cement alliances between families. From that point of view, two wives are better than one.
From a 16 year old’s point of view, the thought of what lie ahead was like a death sentence (two mother-in-laws!). He bore a visible weight on his shoulders, though the consummation of both marriages, and attendant responsibilities, lay years in the future.
Marriage in many cultures is a way for a family to expand its power and influence. Whose family? I’m not sure there is a general rule. Observations I have made suggest that the bride’s family is the one that makes the play. If that is true, it’s no wonder my happy-go-lucky 16 year old friend was happy no more. He knew that, aside from his family of origin, the eyes of two additional extended families were on him from now on, eyes that sized him up, and owned him. Eyes of people who would always regard the women he would marry as theirs. Eyes of people who would regard his children as their children.
In Syria of old, according to a biblical writer, the same situation obtained. Long after Laban was to have relinquished his daughters to his son-in-law Jacob, he talked like this (Gen 31:43):
וַיַּעַן לָבָן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־יַעֲקֹב
הַבָּנוֹת בְּנֹתַי וְהַבָּנִים בָּנַי וְהַצֹּאן צֹאנִי
וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּה רֹאֶה לִי הוּא
Laban replied and said to Jacob:
The daughters are my daughters, the children, my children, the flocks, my flocks:
all that you see is mine.
Talk about being owned! In the dialogue following, Laban admits that what he sees as his is not his to oversee: “But now what have I to say about my daughters and the children they have borne?” He goes on to compel Jacob to agree not to jeopardize the position of his daughters and grand-children by marrying other women (Gen 31:50). In traditional cultures - and according to Freudian and Lacanian psychology, one's family of origin is always one's primary family. Laban defends the interests of his family in calculated disregard of the wishes of its members and of the interests of Jacob and his family. To this day, this is the true meaning of “family values” in culture after culture around the world.
Tel Qarqur series: