The khatba has made a comeback in the last few years. A modern and polished version of the modestly dressed middle-aged matchmaker from the movies who visits families with a collection of pictures of prospective brides and grooms, a few Cairo women are looking once again to facilitate marriages and help people find their significant others.
The image of the picture-peddling woman and the worried mother seeking an obedient wife for her celibate son is one that’s familiar to fans of old movies. Although more familiar from the glorious 1940s to the mid-1960s, such an image is not far removed from the reality of today. Then, the practice wasn’t as common among wealthier, upper-class families where young women mingled with their gentlemen counterparts in schools, sporting clubs, parties or on hunting trips. The chance of finding a spouse for them was much higher. It was young women from middle class families who were rarely seen outside the house, as school and work were not an option. This reduced their chances of finding a suitor, which called for the emergence of a matchmaker or khatba.
The role of the khatba continues today but is often masked in the guise of a friendly aunt, loving relative or close friend. And today, with the advent of Facebook, there is no need for the photographs.
“I remember once I had to alter my privacy settings to give a potential suitor the chance to see my profile picture,” says Amina, a young woman in her 30s.
“They all want a beautiful, intelligent and white-skinned young woman,” says Laila Abou Wafia, also known as ‘Loula,’ who counts herself among high society’s successful matchmakers. “These are the majority of requests I get from suitors.”
Abou Wafia has been a matchmaker for 10 years. Her vocation began when she started looking for suitable suitors for her young nieces.
The journey usually starts with a phone call from the mother of the groom or the bride.
“Sometime potential suitors make the phone call,” she admits, “I have been working with a picky 39-year-old pilot who has been looking for 15 years for a fair bride who is not more than 24 years old.
“He is still looking,” adds the 70-year-old matchmaker, who has been behind hundreds of marriages among wealthy Egyptians. “Some of the marriages fail, of course,” adds the mother-of-four, “but families rarely consider it my fault.”
Abou Wafia does the primary research and matches the couples according to the requests placed by the groom or his mother. Once pictures have been approved and the khatba has done her magic, the couple-to-be are scheduled to meet. A full investigation is usually carried out by the families after the first meeting arranged by Abou Wafia.
“The first meeting should usually last around 45 minutes,” says Rania Nasser, a khatba client. “Thirty minutes is too short to get to know the person, while an hour is too long and may send the wrong message to the potential partner.”
“I rarely attend the first rendezvous unless I am asked to, to ease the tension,” explains Abou Wafia. “I can suggest more than one bride if necessary. Young women want to get married and mothers want to rest assured that their children are happy and safely hitched.”
If Abou Wafia hears negative feedback about the groom or bride-to-be, she automatically informs the other party and ends the arrangement.
“I like seeing people happy,” says the matchmaker, who explains that she also wants to please God by bringing people together for marriage.
Abou Wafia’s services are free but her counterparts in villages on the outskirts of Cairo’s governorates are usually paid back in favors, invitations to weddings, or goods and services.
“My aunt is a khatba in our neighborhood,” says Mona, a pharmacist from Damietta. “After she helped me meet my husband, she continued to do it for other people in the vicinity.” Mona’s aunt, Samira, won’t take money for her services, but it has become customary to bring her gifts for her home.
Despite her success, none of Abou Wafia’s children used their mother’s expertise for their own marriages, which is disappointing to her.
“My daughter disagrees with the concept of arranged marriage and refuses to be introduced to a potential groom through me,” she says.
For those without a khatba in their midst, matchmakers can be found online. “The Joy of Life” is an online matchmaking service launched last year by onislam.net. According to the religious website, the service aims to help young men and women choose the right partner. The service also teaches subscribers about marriage and the responsibility it entails, guiding couples through the period between the engagement and the wedding. The service is run by a number of sociologists and marriage experts, including sociologist Neamat Awadallah.
The service is not free, and, unlike dating websites, is rather structured. Users must fill out an application online, and then meet with the website to verify the information. Later, a sociologist or marriage expert will provide guidance and recommendations.
“We offer insight and we present recommendations,” says Awadallah. Candidates fill out a lengthy and detailed application and then are contacted by a specialist from the project to set up an interview. “Unlike other khatba services, the website demands minimal or no family presence during the first meeting,” she explains.
“The main obstacle of marriage in our society is simply that good people cannot find each other. This is where our service comes in, to facilitate the process and provide the necessary counseling.”
But Abou Wafia remains optimistic about love and her role in bringing happiness. “I just came back from Italy; I visited Verona and saw Juliet’s balcony,” she says. “It was very romantic.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.