In the Arab world there are no lonely singles

February 14, 2003

SANA’A, YEMEN – It’s Valentine’s Day. Great fun. Two years ago today, I proposed to Jean. Her ring was presented in a restaurant, with the help of the official town crier, his booming voice, clanging bell and scroll. Moments later, along with thousands of others in London, Ont., we heard about our upcoming “royal wedding” on the radio.

After that, attending a stage play, we came across dozens of people in the theatre’s lobby reading copies of that day’s paper. The big engagement story, with smiling childhood photos of the “prince” and “princess” (that’s us), filled the front page. Poor Jean didn’t know what would happen next. It really was a fun souffl.

“You must love your wife. You’re always writing about her,” is what a colleague at the office told me recently.

“I do,” I said to Ramzy, a 20-something Yemeni, on the cusp of marriage at the time. Then he asked the big one: “How do you know if you’re marrying the right person?”

“Well, do you love her?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, thinking about it. “I guess I have nothing better to do.”

OK, that’s a little shaky. But before you’re too hard on Ramzy, who’s now married and happy as a lark, ask yourself, would you get excited about marrying your first cousin? Such are traditional marriages in the Arab world. It keeps money and things in the family. You depend on kin, not outsiders.

And everyone has an interest in keeping the marriage strong.

The theory has some problems. One is potential birth defects in the kids. Another is that some families are easier than others. In the worst, Muslim women are killed if they’re seen as besmirching family honour.

On the plus side, this culture doesn’t promote flighty notions of Hollywood romance where emotions take over your castle and make slaves of your reasoning faculties.

Neither are there lonely singles. After the guys save the gals’ dowries, they’re paired off, in their 20s at the latest. Looming war in Iraq or not, weddings — held here on the streets like block parties — go on.

Not all marriages are arranged. And Valentine’s Day is a growing concept. Still, it’s hard for teens, the Middle East’s largest age demographic, to break custom.

An old Arab proverb puts it well: “If a man and woman are alone in a place, the third person present is Satan.”

Even homes are built with separate rooms for each sex to socialize in.

Legendary lover Rudolph Valentino didn’t bring that out very well in the old classic movie The Sheikh.

Also, as you know, Arabian women wear a cloak-like balto and often a veil in public.

Imagine the challenge this gives the guys. Anything could be under there. Might be highsociety in something risqu. Could be a high-schooler in jeans and cotton T-shirt. Then again, might be granny in an old frilly dress.

Now consider, even if some teens escape the watchful eye of their parents, where can they meet? A movie? No theatres. Church? Women have their own mosques. The gym?

Precious few. Besides, imagine a girl working out, chatting to the guy beside her, when her bike or treadmill suddenly grabs her loose balto. That’s got to hurt.

Which leaves the common restaurant. Most have so-called “family rooms” for the gals. But fast-food joints do have potential. Their wide-open spaces give fair chance to scope the territory as needed. Then for personal contact, I’d get a job behind the counter. As Yemen’s high-flying capital, Sana’a has a KFC and a Pizza Hut. Now McDonald’s is rumoured to be on the way.

Sure, it’s fatty and boring. But it’s the fast-food granddaddy of them all, showing western culture’s real punch. Get the teens in those golden arches, and next thing you know they’ll be sharing their McFlurries.

It will be new young love, Arabian style. Of course you’d be careful about inviting your cousin. You wouldn’t want a drive-thru. And you’d especially want swings outside. Need to put the folks someplace.

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February 14, 2003 • Posted in ,
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