A few weeks ago I was going to meet a friend at the movies and I needed a ride. So, I called a local driver, whom we call Sweet Ahmed. Ahmed is a local businessman who uses his aging Lada car to make a little extra cash after work. Some of the teachers from last year used him regularly, though this year his income is less steady.
On the particular Friday afternoon in question Ahmed and I were rolling through traffic and I asked him how he met his wife. The story that unfolded was a beautiful window into a traditional muslim man’s courtship…
Ahmed was a young man, somewhere in his twenties, working in Saudi Arabia to earn as much money as possible, when he decided it was time to get married. He came back to Egypt for five days and set out on his search. In the meantime he also bought and furnished a small apartment; a necessity when wife-hunting.
Ahmed asked his good friend from university, who was by now married, if he knew any acceptable single women looking to get married. The friend thought for a moment and told Ahmed about a young teacher, a friend of his wife’s, that lived in the same building. The friend invited both Ahmed and the young teacher to dinner to meet.
Dinner went very well, the four young people discussing many things and getting to know each other better. Ahmed went home to think over the evening, and the young woman he had met. Was she a good choice for a wife? Would she be a good mother to their children? By morning Ahmed had decided that the young woman would make a very suitable wife and called up his parents to tell them the news. Traditionally, when a young man wants to make an offer of marriage he and his parents go to meet the young woman and her parents to discuss the arrangements. Ahmed’s parents said that he was an adult now, and they didn’t need to attend the formal meeting.
The formal meeting between Ahmed and his future bride went well, though her parents were a little miffed that he didn’t come with his parents. A bargain was struck, and Ahmed went back to Saudi Arabia for two years. The engaged couple (who had met only twice, never exchanging a kiss or embrace) wrote letters back and forth for the two years. They planned, argued, made up, and ultimately fell in love through those letters. Ahmed told me how on several occasions he’d call his bride and tell her how he’d sent her a bundle of three or four letters just that morning. She would reply that she’d done exactly the same thing, the same morning! While the couple was falling in love, the soon-to-be in-laws were also fighting over wedding plans, gifts, values, traditions, imagined slights, etc.
When the two years of employment in Saudi Arabia were finished Ahmed came back to Egypt a richer man and prepared to get married. He and his wife were married in a simple ceremony after having only seen each other in person twice, maybe three times.
Ahmed and his wife are still married, with two beautiful daughters. Ahmed is quick to tell you how he made such a good choice marrying a teacher. She is kind, thoughtful, and makes sure his daughters do well in school. The eldest plans on becoming a pharmacist, and the younger wants to be a teacher like her mother.
As I listened to Ahmed’s story, which he told with such joy and humility, I found myself fascinated by the cultural differences. The things he explained as non-traditional, like meeting his wife’s parents and asking for her hand in marriage without his parents being there, were totally foreign to me and unusual in different ways. The idea of deciding to marry a woman after only meeting her once was novel for me, but totally normal for Ahmed.