Marriage is a sore topic among 20-somethings in Egypt.
"Dating"--following a loose definition of the western practice--is socially unacceptable for most segments of society. Daydreams of romance, then, are generally reserved for thoughts of engagement, when the whole courtship ritual gets a chance to unfold.
Marriage is also the path to social legitimacy and social security. Families take care of each other through thick and thin; without a family of one's own, life becomes infinitely more difficult and expensive.
But engagement is easier daydreamed about than done, and not for a lack of interest on the part of either Egyptian men or women. The bottom line is that it's expensive to get married.
Before any reasonable in-law would accept an offer of marriage to their daughter, they want to know if the man:
-has a good job
-can pay for an apartment
-can pay for the wedding
-can buy the daughter gold jewelry
-can furnish the apartment with new furniture, curtains, cups--you name it.
-can buy the wife a new wardrobe.
This is in addition to all of the usual background questions about his family, upbringing, education, and so forth.
Remember that the average income of an Egyptian is around $100/month, and housing costs are extremely high even by standards of the local economy.
I heard a recent statistic that 40% of men from 18-35 are single. This doesn't include those who were married briefly, but are divorced and single once again.
Now, I usually hear this all from the angle of my female Egyptian friends. For them, it adds up to a whole lot of waiting. The plus side is that Egyptian women graduate with university degrees and are in the workforce in fairly high numbers, if for no other reason than to kill time until a man finally has enough money to marry them.
I had a conversation with a male co-worker last night, however, that offered a different insight into the whole process.
Walking to the metro station last night with two co-workers (both named Ahmed), one of them abruptly announced: "I'm going to get married."
"What? Ahmed, congratulations! With who?"
"No, no, not yet."
"I am getting married."
"Yes, congratulations! But who is your fiancee?"
"No, I don't know yet."
"But you're getting married for sure?"
"Yes, for sure!"
"Ahmed, I don't understand."
At this point, we both dissolve into laughter from the cultural gap and misunderstanding. Even when you understand all of the words, sometimes communication just doesn't work!
"Um..ok? I'm confused."So this is apparently how it works. Ahmed took tally of what he has: job, check. money, check. university degree, check. Yup, looks like he's ready.Then he goes around searching for recommendations of nice girls.
This is where I came in last night--he wanted to know if I had any suggestions. So I asked him his criteria. Here was the list:
Muslim or Christian? - he's open. But the kids would have to be raised Muslim, so a Christian
wife would have to agree to this. Not likely.
Veiled or unveiled? - Either is ok, but they'll need to talk about whether she'll be willing to veil
after they get married. But, whatev, he said. He'd be willing to work with her on that point.
Age? - He initially said anything between 15-24, until I pointed out to him that it might be fully
awkward to help your 16 year old wife with her math homework at night!
For the record, it is extremely rare for Egyptians to marry in their teens. He
amended his answer to 18-24.
Appearance? - "Beautiful." Not too picky about the specifics.
Personality? - Not Crazy. He was very firm on this point. No drama, no hysterics. Rich, poor,
educated or not, veiled or unveiled--but he wanted a woman that wouldn't
drive him batty. I could appreciate his concern.
Right. Ahmed, you've now narrowed it down to virtually every young woman in Egypt.
"Ok, she must like Bryan Adams."
Ok--every young woman with a thing for 1980s love ballads. I tell him I'll look around and let him know if I find anyone.
Now, if he finds a pretty young woman with a Bryan Adams poster on her wall..
Step 1. Try to talk to her. See if she's more or less in agreement with his various conditions for marriage, and if she's interested. If everything goes well..
Step 2. Talk to his parents. Make sure it's all kosher.
Step 3. Sit down and talk together with her parents, too. If it gets the final seal of approval..
Step 4. Engagement! Chaperoned dating until the wedding, maybe a year later.
Now, both the Egyptian courtship process and Western dating have their benefits and drawbacks. Neither system is perfect. And hey, for Ahmed, I think he could find someone pretty good. But give me the West any day! For the women, the waiting alone might drive me batty--and, as we've seen, battiness is a sure disqualification.
But to the amorous in Egypt, a toast to you--best of luck in your searches. And if anyone knows a nice woman with a Bryan Adams collection...let me know.
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