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Egypt: A $10 down payment to find a spouse

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Sarah Topol

(Read caption) Two young Egyptians on a date in a Cairo coffee shop.

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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

CAIRO – Ahmed and Shereen (whose names have been changed at their request) sip tea across from each other. Shereen giggles as Ahmed anxiously jiggles his leg. In the foyer of Life, a marriage office in downtown Cairo, the young Egyptians are meeting for the first time under the watchful eye of Life’s secretary. Both are looking for a spouse.

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Egyptian society venerates marriage and has a long history of khatabas (traditional matchmakers). But as social lives dwindle in the face of a burgeoning workforce, more and more busy Egyptians turn to marriage offices to find their ideal partner. According to the latest census, there are approximately 16 million single Egyptians of marriageable age. And over the past 10 years, dozens of matchmaking businesses have mushroomed across the country.

“Sometimes [options] are very limited. There is no one suitable within relatives.... In university as well, you can’t simply talk to a girl and say, ‘Let’s get married.’ You can’t talk to a girl on the street, she will curse you and say, ‘You’re crazy!’ ” says Ahmed, explaining why he enlisted Life’s services. “It maintains my dignity and pride that I come here for the same goal [as] the girl.”

Clients disclose their background information and then sift through binders of eligible singles. The offices charge between 50 and 500 Egyptian pounds (about US$10 to $95) as a down payment. They arrange the couple’s initial meeting on their premises and follow up if the courtship continues. Some, like Life, collect a commission if the pair marry.

Despite accusations of profit-seeking, Osama al-Gemal, Life’s founder, says, “It’s not a business as much as it is a good idea.... You have a car, and you want to have it serviced – do you do it yourself, or do you go to a professional?” he says, and smiles.