Matchmakers ply their trade within Islam's holiest mosque.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
In the midst of overlapping murmurs of prayers in a sea of white-cloaked worshipers, a woman's voice interrupts the collective trance as she asks: "Are you single?"
For hundreds of years, Mecca has been the sacred meeting point of millions of Muslims from across the world. They come to perform the hajj, the annual major pilgrimage, or umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be performed anytime.
Matchmaking is a profession that's at least as old as Mecca. But until now, say Saudi scholars, it hasn't been practiced at Islam's holiest site.
"These days, practicing Muslim men are having a hard time finding practicing Muslim women," explains Um Mohammad matter-of-factly. She's carrying a tiny blue notebook to jot down personal information about potential brides that she meets inside the Haram Mosque where Muslims circumambulate the holy cubed structure, the Kaaba.
Dressed in a black abaya – including the face covering known as niqab – and sporting black gloves, Um Mohammad (who declined to give her full name) is one of several matchmakers who can be seen approaching "pious" young Muslim women as they pray or perform rituals.
"Devoted Muslims come here, and so there is a better chance of finding a good match," says Um Mohammad, standing no taller than 5 ft. 2 in. She says she makes a minimum of 1,000 riyals ($268) plus gifts, such as perfume, from grateful mothers.
Um Mohammad says she's working for several mothers to find "chaste" wives for their sons in a place that's annually visited by around 3 million people for hajj. This year, the pilgrimage begins Dec. 18.
Aayesh Masri, a 22-year-old Saudi woman who was approached by one of the matchmakers, isn't troubled by the mixing of matchmaking and prayer.
"Why not? It is done under sincere intentions and it is no different than when potential suitors come to your home to meet your family," says Ms. Masri.