NervesSamir is nervous, and a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. 26, with thinning hair and a well trimmed beard, Samir is looking to get married, but he just can't pull the trigger. Week after week he goes and visits potential brides. Someone in the neighborhood calls and tells Samir they have a girl for him to meet, one who is respectable, good looking, age-appropriate. Something is wrong with every one of them. This one isn't pretty enough. That one talks to much. The other one's family asks too many questions or the wrong kinds of questions. Sometimes Samir likes a girl at first, but later he sees the problems. He has agreed to several engagements, only to break them soon after when he detects a fatal flaw. It is a process that has continued for months. Samir just can't find the right one. Or maybe he can't afford the right one.
Getting married is a real disaster here. "The problem," he says, "is that if you want to marry a girl from a good family, you have to pay a lot of money." He struggles for the words, looks down in a sign of embarrassment, looks back up at me again. "And I haven't got a lot of money." The importance of money in marriage in Egypt isn't the unspoken, undiscussed, ever-central backdrop to all romantic encounters that it is in America. Here, it is an issue out in the open. When a man wants to get engaged, he has to pay thousands of pounds (sometimes dollars) to his bride, the equivalent of a dowry. He also has to have enough money to rent or buy an apartment and furnish it. In Cairo, a city of 20 million fit for perhaps half that number, real estate prices are sky rocketing and long ago became out of reach for almost all men in their 20s, and many in their 30s. Men can remain engaged for years as they struggle to earn enough money to afford the necessary items. It is this reality more than anything else that is responsible for the petty corruption - teachers that demand their students take private lessons, government officials that require small 'tips' to get paper work filled out - that most Careens comes across on a daily basis. People are struggling just to get by. They are also horny, and with little sex (none, officially) before marriage, life can truly be a struggle.
Samir, however, thinks he has a solution, at least for himself, and unfortunately, it involves me. "Reuben, I want you to introduce me to an American girl." Samir's idea is fool-proof. All he wants is an introduction. Samir is studying for his master's degree in Arabic, and he wants to learn English, so a language exchange would be the best way to set things up, he tells me. Ideas swirl in my head. Believe it or not, Samir is not the first Egyptian to approach me with such a proposal. Believe it or not, I haven't had a single female friend approach me because she can't find a poor Egyptian to marry her. How to extricate myself from the situation delicately? I start with religion.
Samir is Muslim, like 90 percent of Egypt's population, and almost all of my American female friends are Christian. "The problem, Samir, is that all of my friends are Christian, and I'm sure you want to marry a Muslim." "That's no problem," Samir shoots back. I'm sitting at a restaurant with Samir and two of his friends, and the three of them burst into laughter at the speed of Samir's retort. It's clear he's thought about it before. "She can convert to Islam later."
"I'll see what I can do," I promise. Of course, he wants the exchange to be with a woman. We exchange numbers. I say again that I will see what I can do. I hope he isn't waiting by the phone.