For most of her childhood, Israel was for Zalga, 23, no more than a distant enemy state. She was born in the town of Kamishli in northern Syria, near the Iraqi-Turkish tri-border area. "Every morning we would have to sing and salute to Assad's picture. Israel wasn't even mentioned on the maps in our schools and was constantly referred to as 'the enemy'," Zalga noted,
"If one would have asked me about Israel, I wouldn't have been even able to tell you where it was located. I never heard of the Nazis or World War II when I was there (in Syria)."
Things changed for Zalga when her family left Syria and immigrated to Holland when she was 11-years-old. "When I got there, I told the Dutch girls they should be happy in their school, since during my studies in Syria I felt locked inside a prison. It was hard for them to understand what I was talking about."
Zalga at Tel Aviv beach. 'Everyone is nice to me here'
After a brief adjustment period and well into her teenage years Zalga began to notice the differences between local Dutch girls and immigrants from Islamic states. "I had many Turkish and Syrian girlfriends and I suddenly noticed all the efforts they were making in order to conceal their sexuality as a moral disguise. It all happened because they had no positive example from home and were not given the proper tools to openly and healthily channel it out. That is why they would 'run wild' in a destructive way behind their parents' backs, much more so than any Dutch friends I had, but they always wound up marrying whomever their parents liked and chose for them."
Zalga criticized her friends but got a painful reminder of life in Syria. "Those friends told my father what I had told them. He said I must stop thinking 'freely' and threatened to 'spill blood' if I didn't listen to him and break my legs so I wouldn't go to university.
"My father was the person who provided me with the final confirmation that the culture I came from was based on false honor. It hurt me because it served as proof that honor, particularly opposite one's neighbors, was more important to them than their love for me. That is the point I lost respect for my parents. I think that whoever comes to a Western country should abide by its rules and not by the old rules, otherwise one can immigrate to another Arab state.
"That's why I always say: Don't cry when Muhammad is being insulted in caricatures and don't belittle your wives. Fortunately, that's when Matthew came and saved me. That is when I started realizing how little I knew of the world."
Zalga met Matthew at the age of 15 in high school. After realizing the rules of the game at home she decided to keep the relationship a secret, but not for long. "Everything was a secret since my parents would not under any circumstance allow me to have a boyfriend. After a year, various people who saw us together told them and I was ordered to break it off with him immediately."
In order to avoid a conflict Zalga said she would end the relationship but continued to meet Matthew in secret. "After a year I told them how much I loved him and what a good friend he was to me."
Naturally, the confession didn't go over well with her parents and Zalga realized she would at some point have to choose between her family and the relationship with Matthew and her new lifestyle.
"They tried to separate us and banned me from seeing him, claiming I was too young to understand. The fact that he was from a different culture was a major problem. At the age of 18 I rented out a room alone and became independent. They still, however refused to accept him. At the end, that was what caused me to cut ties with my family," she said.
Zalga nevertheless tried to prove her parents wrong and for a year after moving out of their home had a hard time coming to terms with losing contact with her family. "Only after that did I realize that my parents never really wanted me to be happy with my chosen man, because family honor was at the top of their priorities. Still, I kept trying to prove them wrong and get them to accept me. I was a top law student and they didn't budge. It was clear to me that the real reason for their objection, though they never admitted it, was Matthew's Jewish and Western culture."
Zalga didn't receive a warm welcome in Matthew's parents' house either. "Matthew's parents were very nice to me in the beginning, but after they realized that my family didn't accept him, they began to oppose the relationship themselves and think that it was a bad idea due to the nature of the society I came from.
"Eventually Matthew was faced with the same dilemma I had faced. He, too, cut contacts with his family and although it isn't easy for us both we want to start a new, better family together. In the meantime, we're raising a dog and a goldfish," she said with a smile.
'I fit in here'
Earlier in the month, the two tied to knot and became husband and wife. Immediately after their wedding, they came to Israel, their second visit in the country within a year. "What's particularly great for me here is that I look like Israelis and fit right in.
"It's a free country with human rights, equality for women - a Western culture within the Middle East. To me it's like a dream. I wish the women in Syria could walk down the street uninterrupted the way they do here, but sadly I'm afraid this will never happen. This is all topped by the great food you have here, tons of falafels, hummus and pizzas."
The couple is scheduled to visit Haifa and Jerusalem during their visit in Israel, as well as a less obvious site – Sderot. "We plan on visiting Sderot to see how the people live there in the shadow of terror attacks and rockets," Zalga said. She nevertheless noted that there are areas she would not like to visit, which remind her of painful childhood memories. "I do not want to visit Jaffa because it bothers me to see women wearing head scarves or men walking with their wife as if they were cattle."
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