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Matchmaking Runs in Her Family

JEDDAH, 19 September 2003 — Umm Ahmad has had a late night attending a wedding, but nonetheless she welcomes Sayidaty, a sister publication of Arab News, with a smile at her house in Jeddah. Umm Ahmad is no ordinary matchmaker. So famous is she that she has been called the doyenne of Jeddah matchmakers.

“I first got into this business when I was very young,” Umm Ahmad explains. “My grandmother was a matchmaker, and when she died my mother took over the business. I helped her and learned what I needed to know. I had some success just working with friends and people I knew and I kept on after I married. My husband died 28 years ago and I was left with four children to support.”

The resultant financial constraints led her to charge for her services. “I decided to see if I could support myself and my children by being a matchmaker.”

Success, perhaps spurred on by need, came quickly to Umm Ahmad. It wasn’t long before she became very well known in Jeddah, and soon her name and phone number were known to families all over Saudi Arabia and even to some as far away as China.

“It isn’t an exaggeration to say that I have brought thousands of young men and women together. Some are in the Kingdom and others are not, but most are now enjoying happy lives. I have worked for famous people, singers, actors, businessmen and sportsmen in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. My most famous client was the president of an African country who became a Muslim and asked me to find him a Saudi bride — which I did.”

At her busiest, Umm Ahmad was getting more than 50 phone calls a day, mostly from Arabs abroad. “They all wanted me to help them to find an Arab bride and they had gotten my name from my website.”

How does she go about finding a suitable match? “These days requests come from both men and women, though it used to be only men, who would come along with their mothers. Today the girl or her mother may call and ask me to find a husband. I am always careful with the people who come to me. After assuring myself by talking to acquaintances and relatives or seeking information in the workplace, I write down the specifications they give me.”

These include social standing, financial position and educational level as well as appearance. She adds the data and puts them into a confidential file which also contains pictures and contact numbers and addresses.

“After seeing what is available, if I come across a suitable girl, I get in touch with her parents. If they agree, I call the young man and give him the address of the girl’s parents so that he can get in touch with them.”

Among her most peculiar experiences was a one-day marriage arranged in haste. “About three years ago a terminally-ill woman that I had already helped came looking for a second wife for her husband. We found one, and the couple was married the next day. But the day after, they divorced because of some disagreement over the dowry and where the woman would live.”

Sometimes Umm Ahmad now deals with the second generation of clients. “I’ve found husbands and wives for the children of couples I brought together years ago. In one case, I found a man a wife who lived in the same building as him. They’d of course never known of each other.”

Not everything in the profession encourages a rosy view of the world. Though Umm Ahmad remains enthusiastic about bringing couples together, she sees her share of sadness. “What saddens me is that some dark-complexioned or overweight girls find it very difficult to find a husband. Men are often obsessed with appearance, and more so than they used to be.”

So have the specifications changed in recent years? “Most definitely! In the past, the emphasis was on morals and the family’s good name. But today these are relatively unimportant; young men want a light-skinned bride who looks like this or that actress. Most don’t mind if she is older or if she works as long as she has a good salary. A lot of men look for a teacher. Girls these days look for a rich husband — never mind if he is as old as their father, as long as he can give them a big house, a car and a comfortable life.”

Umm Ahmad hears it said that she is making millions as a matchmaker. “That is not true. I don’t ask for a specific amount. I leave the amount up to individual circumstances. Mind you, I do ask for a small deposit to make sure that the person is serious and that I am not wasting my time. From time to time I’ve had requests from men for marriages of convenience or requests for wives who would party and stay out all night with them. Now, I categorically refuse all of these requests.

“I am trying to help people do what is right, and there is nothing hidden or secret about my work. While I don’t require the first wife to know if her husband wants a second wife, I do question him about his circumstances and the reasons behind his decision.”

The reason for Umm Ahmad’s protectiveness toward the brides is necessary, she feels, when the young women themselves often need all the help they can get. “They lack experience in dealing with life and often are quick to decide on a husband and force their families into accepting him without much thought or investigation. They think that their academic qualifications are a substitute for experienced mothers and families when it comes to making this momentous decision. I would seriously advise these girls to be more patient and not rush into marriage and certainly to include their parents in their decision.”