The true cost of love in Egypt

The stratospheric cost of courtship and wedding ceremonies is proving an insurmountable obstacle for many would-be couples in Egypt.

CAIRO // Karim Mohammed Rega is 29, has a degree in history and describes himself as shy. He loves cats and owned three but had to give them up because of his mother's allergies. His ideal wife would be pretty, and also have "liberated thoughts". If she wishes to work outside the home, he says, that will be her decision. Mr Rega may seem good husband material, but lacks one necessity in Egypt's ruthless marriage market: money.

Working for a petroleum company, he does not earn enough to pay for a wedding and a house. For this reason, he has missed two opportunities to get married. "I don't want to tell you because it's tragic, but I want to profess my troubles," he says over coffee at a popular cafe near Tahrir Square in Cairo. "I had found someone in university but I didn't have enough money to marry her. She was a student in my faculty. I told her, 'I want to marry you' but of course she said, 'You have to come to my parents to ask for my hand'. My mother refused to let me because I didn't have money. For sure, the family of the bride would have rejected me." Four years later, Mr Rega tried again with another woman, but she married someone else.

Mr Rega says he is frustrated because he cannot move out of his family's home until he has a wife. He lives in limbo between adolescence and adulthood, the only bridge to which, in Arab culture, is marriage. He glumly predicts: "I will probably get married when I'm 60." Marriage is a source of national angst in Egypt. About 5.5 million men and 3.5 million women are not married, according to a Brookings Institution and Dubai School of Government report called The Economic Imperatives of Marriage.

It is common to see couples marrying in their late 30s, a phenomenon due in part to the rocketing costs of a wedding. It costs nearly US$10,000 (Dh36,700) to get married in Egypt while the per capita income is $3,700. This is way beyond the reach of all but the privileged. The limbo is labelled "waithood" which is a state "where they are neither children nor adults", says Diane Singerman, the report's author.

Marriage is also big business. While Egyptians spend about $3.8 billion a year on marriage, American aid to the country in 1999 was $2.1bn. In addition to the celebrations, the groom and his family must pay for housing, furniture, appliances and gifts of gold to the bride. One of the consequences of such a daunting financial experience is that young people are being forced to delay the big day. They are also struggling to reconcile conservative traditions with a desire to act like grown-ups because they cannot have relationships with the opposite sex until the wedding.

Even when they do find the right partners, many become stuck in milkah, the phase between the religious ceremony, katb al khitaab, which means their union is sanctioned by Islam, and establishing a home and consummating the marriage. The struggle to respect tradition but still have fun is evident in subtle ways everywhere in Cairo. At sunset for example, the Qasr el Nil bridge is full of dozens of young couples watching a rosy sunset over the Nile river.

"We were just talking now about marriage," says Mohammed, 25, taking a step back from his fiancée, Sahar, 21. The couple have completed the religious contract, but are still living apart at their respective families' homes. "I am a Cairo university student and work as a driver, and we can't build a future," he says. But Sahar says money should not be an issue and that they should ignore their families' demands and move in together.

"I don't think it is a problem and I think his job is suitable. We are young and still at the beginning of our lives," she says. But money is more of an issue for Mohammed. "It is not what I aspire to be, a driver," he says. "I'd like to work in a bank. We do this every few weeks [meet on the bridge] and because of customs and habits of our culture it is difficult to meet. Everything is so expensive, even [for] coffee, we can only go once a year."

There are few places for young people to meet. Girls considered respectable by Egyptian society will not go to ordinary shisha cafes but western chains such as Costa or Starbucks. In these places, far from the critical gaze of older or conservative Egyptians, they relax with each other and potential mates. Downtown Cairo's Cilantro cafe is packed every evening with young couples drinking smoothies, touching hands and gazing intently into each other's eyes despite the fog of cigarette smoke.

Some do not tell their parents where they are and make excuses for being away from home such as studying at the library. Sitting in a corner of the cafe, Karima Ramadan, 30, observes the lovebirds and explains that she spotted a gap in the market in 2003 and set up a matchmaking company. "Nowadays parents don't have time to make social visits and find a suitable partner for their children," she says. "Traditionally a girl does not look for a husband. She has to wait at home. But if she waits at home for the dream boy, it will be limited to one or two that she knows. So we started this service."

Ms Ramadan says she saw 500 clients in 2004 alone, and matched 300 of them successfully. Part of the appeal of a matchmaking company for young people is the confidentiality and lack of social and financial pressure, she says. "If a young man goes to a house and is rejected everyone will know," she says. "If a girl keeps rejecting suitors, neighbours will start talking about her, and wonder if she has had an illicit relationship which is why no one wants to marry her."

The pressure is so bad that only 75 per cent of the population is married by the age of 27, according to Ms Singerman's report. Ms Ramadan says rich foreign Arabs would sometimes take advantage of the situation and ask her to find them an Egyptian girl - but only for the summer. Others wanted an urfi marriage, a secret, common law union which is considered socially unacceptable. "I could not do this because of my conscience. God is watching me," she says.

After a year, however, she quit the matchmaking business because she became disillusioned. "There are a lot of crooked businessmen," she says. "Now it's all about profit. It is unjust because they play with people's dreams, tell them they will get them whatever they want. "If you go to one of these offices I'm sure you will have a lot of suitors. They will see a foreign woman come in and say, 'See we have foreign women with western passports who are looking for Egyptian husbands. Did you see that woman who came in?' Then they will get a lot of applications."

At Universal, a matchmaking agency and counselling service which Ahmad al Adel runs with his wife, the office is empty apart from a teenaged boy playing chess. Nevertheless, Mr Adel says he receives 30 to 40 clients a day. "When a girl goes up to 30 it's a disgrace and shame she is not married," he says. "That is one factor why they are coming here. Her chances of being a mother go down when she approaches this age and her family panics, I repeat, panics."

He says men and women pay a flat fee of $18 and state their preferences for a partner after which Mr Adel gives them a choice of 10 to 60 candidates. "We give you a chance to see photos and tell you everything about the other party including information about their parents, siblings, in-laws, their education, where they live," he says. "Take your pick of three to seven. People you've picked we approach them and ask them to come over. If they agree with each other they talk to each other's families. They go to their workplace and ask about their reputation and work. They go to the neighbours and ask if you are good, polite, a troublemaker. We end when the families take over negotiations."

Even if they take pressure off during the courtship, matchmakers cannot do very much about the actual cost of the weddings. "If you're young and beautiful and from a good family it can be 30,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh20,185) to 50,000 pounds for the marriage. Then there is the dowry," Mr Adel says.