Cleveland native embraces the American South and the Middle East

Yusuf Abusharif
Oxford Stories

From Cleveland to the Holy Land.
From the Midwest to the Middle East.
These catchy phrases, amongs countless others, could only briefly describe the transition that occurred in Ruth Erar’s life when she married Monther Erar, a Palestinian immigrant from the Ramallah area in Palestine.

Arabesque decor in Ruth's home.

Arabesque decor in Ruth’s home.

She was born Ruth Vallee in 1975 on the west side of Cleveland to a single mother of five children. Her father, Stanley Stroffolino, of whom she has no recollection, died when she was only 2.

Nevertheless, Erar’s father left his legacy in her life as he fathered another six siblings from other marriages. With a grand total of 11 siblings, she grew up with an unusually large immediate family.

Her mother, Mary Vallee, worked as a bartender. And as one can imagine, life was not easy living for her and her five children.

“We were a lower than middle-class family,” Erar said. “My mother worked 100 hours a week, and we never really had enough of anything, but we survived.”

Living as the only girl with four older brothers in a less-than-average income home, Erar learned early on that life was not going to be easy. As soon as she was old enough, she began to work. Erar attributes her hard work ethic to the lessons she learned early on in life.

“Had I not been so limited in the earliest years in my life, I would not have had the drive and determination I had later on to be successful,” Erar said.

A souvenir from Ruth's trip to Cairo, Egypt.

A souvenir from Ruth’s trip to Cairo, Egypt.

After graduating high school, Erar soon enrolled in St. Francis University in the neighboring state Pennsylvania.

She continued to work at a sports bar while attending classes and pursuing her degree in criminal justice.

During her summer breaks, she returned to her hometown of Cleveland to work and save money. She worked at a gas station chain called “Convenient” with another Palestinian immigrant named Feda Erar. Conveniently, she would meet her future husband, Feda’s brother, Monther, at that gas station.

Erar also worked shifts as a cashier at Convenient gas station with Feda’s older brother, Ghassan Mahmoud, or Gus, as people often referred to him. This is where she was first introduced to Arab culture.

She worked shifts with Feda Erar, who would soon become close friends with her. Erar recalls how quickly she and Ruth got along from the time they met.

“As soon as we started working together, we became really close,” Feda Erar said. “We clicked really well. Ruth automatically took a liking to our culture and was kind of intrigued by it.”

Ruth and her best friend Feda having a discussion

Ruth and her best friend Feda having a discussion

While working there, Ruth Erar would come to meet her future husband Monther Erar through his younger sister. Monther often came around the gas station to manage his store and worked shifts there as well.

Ruth Erar described Monther Erar as an outgoing young man with green eyes and an uncanny ambitious attitude.

“What stuck out to me the most about Monther, aside from his confidence and despite his poor English skills, was his ambition,” Ruth Erar said. “He always had this kind of drive in him that really appealed to me, and I knew he would be successful one day.”

Another thing that stuck out to Ruth Erar was the pride that Monther Erar and his two siblings had for their heritage. She had met other Arabs, Lebanese, Egyptians – among others – but something stuck out about the pride that Palestinians had for their country.

“I was drawn to my husband and his family because of they way they were,” Ruth Erar said, “not because of who they are, but what they are. They’re Palestinians. They’re Muslims, and they’re proud.

“I think Palestinians, in general, are very proud people, and you have to commend them for trying to remember where they came from, what they came from and the struggles that the people who live there still have.”

After dating for a few years, she and Monther Erar got married and moved in together. She and her husband thought there might be some negative reactions from her family, but received the contrary for the most part.

Aside from some disapproval from her uncles, they took well to Monther, especially her mother. Ruth Erar’s mother was a Catholic, a weekly church goer and had a life not much different than any other Italian-American family. But she embraced her son-in-law and their family with open arms.

Ruth's husband Monther and some guests

Ruth’s husband Monther and some guests

Her new husband’s culture would not be the only thing that would change about her life.

The Muslim religion allows for Muslim men to marry Christians or Jews without them having to convert to Islam.

So Erar was not forced to convert by marrying Monther Erar, nor was her new husband outwardly religious. Spending time around Monther’s family introduced her to Islam. Erar was encouraged by her mother-in-law to look into the religion.

“My mother-in-law was a very wise old lady,” Ruth Erar said. “She told me before I married my husband that if I understood Islam, then I would better understand the Arab culture, and she was totally right.”

Without any pressure from her family, Ruth Erar accepted Islam as her new faith. She said she appreciated the simplicity of the faith in comparison to Catholicism, which asks its followers to believe in many saints and a three-pronged version of God.

Although she does not wear the hijab or headscarf, she considers herself a devout Muslim. Ruth Erar addressed the common misconceptions about Islam.

“It’s not as strict as people think it is,” Ruth Erar said. “It’s adaptable and tries to accommodate its followers. That’s something a lot of other faiths don’t have. It just needs to be shown in a different light and given less bad attention.”

A gilded wall-hanging that bares the Muslim phrase

A gilded wall-hanging that bares the Muslim phrase “There is no God but Allah”.

After spending a few years in Cleveland, the couple decided to move to Mississippi after buying two gas stations in the Tupelo area.

Ruth Erar cited economic reasons for their move to Mississippi. She said that taxes in the South and, specifically, Mississippi, were much lower, and they had they option to own the land and the gas station, as opposed to leasing it from somebody else.

The reputation of the South caused some concern for the couple, who were at first concerned about how people would perceive them. Her husband, Monther Erar, shared his perspective about moving to Mississippi.

“I thought it was a bad idea,” he said. “Not just because of the things that it lacked compared to a big city, but because of our kids having to grow up and go to school here,” Monther Erar said. “Kids are cruel, and we thought that combined with the racially-intolerant reputation of the South, that it’d be hard for them to adjust.”

But according to Ruth Erar, they were proven wrong. She found the people in Mississippi quite friendly. She described them as kind, curious people, who aren’t afraid to ask questions, something that people in Cleveland do not do.

She believes that the curious nature of Mississippians facilitates dialogue that promotes understanding.

Palestinian art in Ruth's children's playroom

Palestinian art in Ruth’s children’s playroom

“As backwards as people think it is, people here are not afraid to ask questions, which is a big benefit to us living here,” Ruth Erar said. “I felt like when I was in Cleveland, it was kind of like, ‘Oh that area is for the Muslims’ or ‘That area is for the Arabs.’ And they we’re always kind of looked down upon.”

When asked if she believes the two cultures were reconcilable, Ruth Erar said she believes Mississippi and the Tupelo area, in particular, is a good area for diversity, because there’s not a huge community.

She believes the curious nature of Southern culture allows the two cultures to engage in dialogue conducive to reconciliation.

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