When Michael travelled from the US to Egypt in the summer of 2015 to study Arabic, he wasn’t expecting to find love. Then, at an Arabic language institute in Cairo, he was introduced to Somaia, who taught specialist programmes. “He was a VIP student, so I knew I had to be careful with his programme,” she says. “He seemed nice and easy-going.”
Although Michael found Somaia cold at first, she soon relaxed. “I realised her bosses had asked her to give me special treatment, so she was being formal,” he says. “We started talking about our lives and developed a strong friendship.” During Ramadan, Somaia invited Michael to an iftar dinner. These are held in the evenings during the holy month to break the period of fasting. “He stayed until midnight and we talked all night, but I thought we were just friends,” she says.
Soon after, Somaia accompanied Michael to a touristy district of Cairo, to buy souvenirs for his family. They went to a restaurant together and Michael realised he wanted more than friendship. “I just felt I could see her in a way I hadn’t before. Everything changed for me.”
A few days later, Michael was leaving to go back to the US, where he was doing a doctorate in linguistic anthropology. “I asked her to go for a coffee to say goodbye.” He told her he wanted to be with her and asked if she felt the same. “In Egypt, you can’t have casual relationships,” he says. “Although it wasn’t explicitly said, I was asking her to marry me. Somaia immediately said it was impossible.”
Although she was drawn to him, there were complications. “I had all these feelings, but I put them away because I didn’t think it could work,” she says. Somaia had briefly been married before, which she describes as a “death blow” to future relationships within Egyptian culture. She was also concerned that her family would never allow her to be with an American man. Michael says: “I wasn’t Muslim and had no understanding of Islam. I wasn’t aware that it was illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.”
He told her he was willing to make changes in his life to make it work. They stayed in touch and he visited again in December that year. “I had decided by then that I would convert to Islam. It had been building for some months,” says Michael. Somaia’s mother gave them her blessing to marry. “She came with me to the conversion. Since then, we have become very close,” he says. Although her brother had concerns at first “because he didn’t want me to get hurt again”, Somaia says, “everyone in the family is happy for us now”.
The couple married at the Ministry of Justice after the conversion ceremony in the summer of 2016. They had originally planned a family wedding, but cancelled it after a plane crash. “The US government initially believed it was a bombing. The state department issued a travel warning to US citizens entering Egypt,” says Michael. Due to the terrorism concerns, Michael’s university required him to return to the US temporarily.
He went back to Egypt in December 2016 and they tried to apply for Somaia’s green card. “She is Yemeni-Egyptian and at the time Trump had started banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries,” says Michael. With the couple unable to go to the US together, Michael moved to Cairo. Somaia’s visa was approved recently, so they will soon be moving to the US, where they hope to start a family.
“People think we must be opposites because of our upbringing,” says Michael. “But actually we’re both introverted and homebodies. We communicate so well.” Somaia loves that she can be herself around her husband. “We are so comfortable together,” she says.