Interventions: A Middle East Report Online Feature
The Fiction (and Non-Fiction) of Egypt’s Marriage Crisis Hanan Kholoussy December 2010
(Hanan Kholoussy, an assistant professor of history and Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo, is author of For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt [Stanford, 2010].)
In August 2006, a 27-year old pharmacist started blogging anonymously about her futile hunt for a husband in Mahalla al-Kubra, an industrial city 60 miles north of Cairo in the Nile Delta. Steeped in satirical humor, the blog of this “wannabe bride” turned into a powerful critique of everything that is wrong with how middle-class Egyptians meet and marry. The author poked fun at every aspect of arranged marriage -- from the split-second decisions couples are expected to make after hour-long meetings about their lifetime compatibility to the meddling relatives and nosy neighbors who introduce them to each other. She joked about her desperation to marry in a society that stigmatizes single women over the age of 30. She ridiculed bachelors for their unrealistic expectations and inflated self-images while sympathizing with the exorbitant financial demands placed on would-be husbands. Thirty suitors and four years later, the pharmacist remains proudly single at 32, refusing to settle for just any man.
Ghada Abdel Aal has taken Egypt by storm -- its blogosphere, its literary scene, its television lineup and even its image abroad. Blogging in colloquial Egyptian Arabic and peppering her slang with the pop culture references of youth, Abdel Aal quickly attracted a large following. The hits on the witty website have surpassed a half million. Her tragicomic tales of matchmaking mishaps became so popular that Egypt’s powerhouse publisher Dar al-Shorouq tracked her down to offer a book deal. A year and a half after she first posted in cyberspace, ‘Ayiza Atgawwiz (I Want to Get Married) debuted at the Cairo International Book Fair in January 2008. Less than three years later, the book was adapted into an Egyptian television series with the same name. To date, ‘Ayiza Atgawwiz has been translated into Italian, German, Dutch and, most recently, English.
Divided into 25 brief chapters that showcase her best blog entries, the book describes Abdel Aal’s encounters with ten different suitors. Each suitor gets his own chapter, with each encounter preceded and followed by a chapter or two of commentary. No subject is sacred: Abdel Aal discusses police brutality, al-Qaeda and the peccadilloes of politicians, as well as sexual harassment and dating, a phenomenon dimly acknowledged in Egypt beyond Westernized elite circles. Her parade of suitors includes a thief who cons her into loaning him money before making a fast getaway, a polygamist who proposes with his two wives looking on, a detective who checks out her family through a full-blown police investigation, and an avid soccer fan who watches a game during their first meeting and walks out because her family cheers for the opposing team. Most of these episodes are drawn from her own experiences, although Abdel Aal admits she occasionally borrowed friends’ stories or embellished her own for entertainment’s sake. And entertain she has. In a country where books are an increasingly hard sell, ‘Ayiza Atgawwiz was an instant bestseller. It has already gone through six printings. The book made such a big splash in Egypt that Western media giants like the BBC and the Washington Post reported on the sensation.
Parodies with a Point
Throughout her rapid rise to stardom, Abdel Aal has ignited controversy. Egyptian literary critics who value formal Arabic are offended that her very vernacular blog is considered a literary contribution worthy of translation. Many men are affronted by her parodies of suitors’ behavior and accuse her of being a publicity hound. Many women, too, are uncomfortable with Abdel Aal’s expressed anxiety about marrying and her derision at experiences that may be all too familiar. Elders are dismayed by her mockery of matchmaking practices that are deeply embedded in social norms. But the overwhelming majority of her readers, young and middle- to upper-class, find the book hilarious, appreciate the slang and agree with her critique of the customs and costs of Egyptian marriage. As a result, the broadcast version of ‘Ayiza Atgawwiz was one of the most anticipated shows of Ramadan -- the hottest television season in Egypt and the Arab world.
Boasting a famous cast, including Hind Sabri, Sawsan Badr and Ahmad al-Saqqa, ‘Ayiza Atgawwiz was one of the three most watched of the 40-odd new shows that aired during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which in 2010 occurred in August and September. Framed as a sitcom, the show reached a much broader audience than the book has, both outside Egypt and inside Egypt, where more than half of the population cannot read or write. Its broadcast as a Ramadan serial cemented the book’s status as a cultural watershed -- another coup for a small-town blogger from the Delta.
Although half of the sitcom’s 30 episodes came straight from the book and Abdel Aal co-wrote the screenplay, the show did not live up to the expectations of many of her readers. Some were disappointed with Hind Sabri, in her first comedic role as the professionally successful but hopelessly single main character ‘Ula, a 29-year old pharmacist. They faulted Sabri for exaggerated facial expressions, body language and intonation, and for telegraphing the jokes while failing to provide a sense of character development. Others found ‘Ula’s aggressiveness in pursuit of marriage unrealistic and the satire overly broad. In one episode that did not come from the book, for example, ‘Ula poisons her best friend and colleague to prevent her from attending a professional conference teeming with potential grooms.
A few readers were upset that the serial did not relay the book’s more serious underlying message. In the book, amidst her failures at finding a husband, Abdel Aal pauses to ponder the injustice of the social pressure on women to marry: “Society needs to stop confining women solely to the role of bride. Because when things fall apart…they feel like worthless good-for-nothings, and they sit and complain, like I’m doing to you right now…. If I don’t get married and if I don’t have children and if I can’t follow society’s grand plan, I will always have my independent nature and I will always have my own life and I will never be…a good-for-nothing.” By contrast, Abdel Aal’s televised persona ‘Ula is so swept up in the race to matrimony, at the expense of friendships and dignity, that she offers no such profound reflections despite regular soliloquies to the camera.
These criticisms reveal the underlying discomfort that many Egyptians, regardless of age, gender or class, feel with the sensitive subject that the show shallowly addresses. Some are disquieted by Abdel Aal’s more nuanced textual narrative as well. The depiction of a single woman’s quest for a partner makes many uneasy because Abdel Aal effectively reverses the active-passive binary that has historically dictated the rules of marriage in Egypt: Men choose while women comply. The strict division of gender roles is even reflected in the verbs used to describe the act of marriage in Egyptian dialect: A man marries (yigawwiz) while a woman is married off (titgawwiz).
In the typical Egyptian marriage, it is the prospective groom who actively pursues a potential bride. If he has not already found one on his own, then it is he, often with his mother, who visits his intended and her family (traditionally in their living room, which is why arranged marriage is referred to as gawaz al-salonat, or living-room marriage, in Egyptian argot). It is he who decides if she would make a suitable wife, and he who meets with her father (or male guardian) to negotiate the fiscal provisions of the match. The groom is the one who shoulders almost all of the financial burdens (though rarely without the help of his parents or other economic assistance). His future wife may or may not be present during these negotiations, and may or may not express her opinion about the decisions. But the legal institutions and socioeconomic structures that support marriage are set up in a way that reinforces this gendered arrangement across class divisions. Though many Egyptian women, especially among the upper classes, choose their own spouses or at least have much more say in whom they marry, few do so without their fathers’ consent. Most brides’ fathers (or, in their absence, uncles or brothers) sign their marriage contracts as proxies, further reinforcing the degree to which patriarchal norms govern the practice of marriage.
Abdel Aal’s fame is due to her sharp and funny writing, to be sure, but just as much to her timing. In 2008, around the time of her book’s publication, a spate of articles bemoaning a “marriage crisis” in Egypt appeared in the local and international press. These articles identified a growing number of Egyptian men who could not afford marriage because of its extravagant costs, blaming women and their parents for their unreasonable financial expectations of would-be grooms hit hard by the worldwide economic crisis. Egypt’s high rates of inflation and unemployment, matched with unprecedented shortages of affordable housing, took on a more sinister cast: These economic worries were keeping young men from achieving the most basic of rights -- the right to marry.
There is no doubt that marriage burdens an Egyptian groom with staggering costs. The pricey wedding celebration, dower and down payments to establish the household are the foretaste of decades of spousal and child support. For many young urban men, particularly from the struggling middle and lower middle classes, these expenses can be so steep as to deter them from seeking a bride well into their thirties. But the stream of news coverage offered little insight into how the “marriage crisis” affected women. Nor did it provide convincing evidence that there was a genuine crisis, that is, a significant erosion of the ability to marry. Journalists and analysts initially cited a vague 2007 Brookings Institution statistic that nearly 50 percent of Middle Eastern men aged 25 to 29 were single. A year later, however, Navtej Dhillon, who had directed the two-year research project that produced this figure, announced a “noteworthy” reversal in the trend of delayed marriage in Egypt: Men born in 1976 were marrying at the median age of 26 years. Similarly, in 2009, the head of Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics retracted his own agency’s report that the 2006 census had shown the number of single Egyptian women to be 5.7 million. He revised the estimate to only a few hundred thousand amidst the media brouhaha.
More significant than the accuracy of these statistics or their subsequent retraction is the perception that a marriage crisis menaces Egypt. Western analysts, Muslim Brothers, academics and laypeople have all weighed in: What are the implications of large numbers of bachelors for national and international security? Might the young men be lured by Islamist opposition groups, which provide interest-free loans and officiate mass weddings to facilitate marriage? How might they vote in elections in which Islamists and others inveigh against the dearth of legitimate unions? The engagement of these questions in the press reveals a great deal about Egyptian men and women (as well as outside observers): Marriage, it seems, is regarded as a barometer of the nation’s social progress, political wellbeing and economic health. The “marriage crisis” is about much more than matrimony. It serves as a platform for debate about materialism, privatization, social customs, unemployment, gender roles, Islamism and the performance of the government. Contrary to commentators’ beliefs, furthermore, the marriage crisis is not a phenomenon unique to twenty-first-century Egypt. In decades past, anxieties over marriage have peaked whenever Egypt finds itself in the midst of socioeconomic and political upheaval.
Taking Back Spinsterhood
What distinguishes this latest round of marriage crisis debate is its coincidence with the popularity of ‘Ayiza Atgawwiz, a voice that claims to speak on behalf of single women. In her blog profile, Abdel Aal identified herself as one of Egypt’s 15 million single women between the ages of 25 to 35. Though she does not reveal how she obtained this improbable number, she does something far more powerful and provocative than add a statistic to the hubbub. She coopts the slur “spinster” and proclaims herself a spokesperson for this constituency. In doing so, Abdel Aal exposes the implicit threat concealed within the discussion of the marriage crisis affecting men: the fate of a nation full of unwed women in a society where marriage is the only legitimate outlet for sexual activity, particularly for women. As throughout the twentieth century, the press debates on the marriage crisis have focused overwhelmingly on bachelors and their reasons for not marrying. Rather than ask women why they are not marrying, analysts have assumed that they must be the main reason for men’s abstention from marriage and thus a persistent obstacle to the course of nature. These female thirty-somethings are said to be materialistic, and too career-oriented, educated or “liberated” to make proper wives, not because they wish it so, but because men could not possibly choose them as partners. A single woman like Abdel Aal, who has made a career of explaining why she is not married, reverses the gender roles that maintain the social order. If throngs of single and not-so-young women like her are actively resisting marriage, they may be more subversive to the nation than the bachelors and their supposedly inadequate pool of potential brides.
Abdel Aal is aware that her simultaneous determination to marry and refusal to settle for just any suitor challenges social conventions. She begins her book by acknowledging, “This whole subject of marriage, suitors and delayed marriage is a really sensitive subject. It’s hard to find anyone who talks about it honestly. Especially girls. Because girls who talk about this honestly are either seen as crass and badly raised, or as obsessed with getting married. Either that or as old maids who can’t find anyone to marry them.” Like her audience, Abdel Aal seems unaware that she is not the first in Egypt’s long history of women’s rights activism to castigate the institution of arranged marriage or advocate for a woman’s right to choose her life partner.
Since the inception of the women’s press in the 1890s, Egyptian women (and men) have reproached fathers for marrying their daughters off to men without their consent. They have also condemned the custom of arranged marriage for preventing the prospective couple from getting to know one another before marriage. Most of these critical voices framed their arguments as providing a service to the nation and its sons. According to these commentators, men were in dire need of being better acquainted with women, so that they might find suitable companions, women who could, for example, assist in giving children (especially boys) a modern education. The colonial nation, in turn, was in need of successful marriages that would serve as a strong base of unity in the anti-colonial struggle against the British and then form the foundation for independence. Few writers asserted the right of women to choose a mate for their own sakes like Abdel Aal does. Nor did they suggest that women should marry freely and without their fathers’ consent.
Nowhere in her book, however, does Abdel Aal advocate for women’s ability to marry against their fathers’ will and never does she condemn marriage itself. As the title of her books makes clear, Abdel Aal wants to get married. She is merely saying that she does not want to settle for the first caller with a furnished flat; she demands her right to get to know her suitor to make sure he is right for her. And if she never finds a partner, she is asking society to respect her nonetheless. She writes, “A thirties girl has been employed for seven or eight years, seen all sorts of people, understood all sorts of people…. It has given her experience, a certain outlook on things, and it’s made her demand things of a future husband that go beyond the dreams of a girl in her twenties…. A thirties girl has held down jobs, has made money, and she doesn’t need a man to support her financially anymore, so it’s not likely that she’ll be impressed with an apartment or jewelry or a car…. Anyone who thinks thirties girls are desperate and will settle for anything needs to read this over again and think again.” While other Egyptian women might not say these things out loud or so forcefully, many agree with her, judging by her fan mail and the comments on her blog. Abdel Aal even inspired a few, like Yumna Mukhtar and ‘Abir Sulayman, to launch Facebook groups and blogs in support of single women.
Western journalists who have been reporting on Abdel Aal’s blog-turned-bestseller-turned-hit-sitcom paint her as a feminist. Although a “traditionalist who covers her hair,” Abdel Aal daringly “lifts the veil” on patriarchal marital customs that oppress women who are just “beginning to find their voice” in a society where many “still regard marrying for love as slightly shameful.” NPR went so far as to brand Abdel Aal “Carrie Bradshaw in a headscarf,” invoking the column-writing lead character of the HBO comedy-drama Sex and the City. This linear depiction of Arab and Muslim women as oppressed second-class citizens breaking an age-old silence is not new in the Western media. It is drawn from a historically rooted discourse of the “other” that predates even the colonial era. This narrative often fails to see the complex positions of Arab and Muslim women and their forms of agency within the patriarchal societies in which they live. The same reporters who make simplistic assumptions about the uniqueness of Abdel Aal do not seem to hear her when she tells them, “In Egypt, I think the women are stronger than the men, and have bigger personalities.”
Given Abdel Aal’s introduction in the Western media, it will be interesting to see how the English translation of her book will be received in the United States. Published by the University of Texas Press, I Want to Get Married! was released in October 2010. The paperback is the first installment in an “Emerging Voices from the Middle East” series that seeks to translate “daring and innovative works” by “new authors…who are at the cutting edge of Middle Eastern culture.” Introduced by series editor Tarek El-Ariss, I Want to Get Married! is translated by Nora Eltahawy, an Egyptian writer who earned her bachelor’s degree from the American University in Cairo and is pursuing her master’s degree in comparative literature at Texas. Excluding the eight pages of introduction and translator’s note, the 160-page paperback follows the same format as the original Arabic text. In her translator’s note, Eltahawy provides background on Abdel Aal and discusses the challenges she encountered in rendering Abdel Aal’s slang-filled Arabic into English.
It was no easy feat. Eltahawy used a variety of strategies to try to capture Abdel Aal’s seamless oscillation between Egyptian colloquial and formal Modern Standard Arabic, as well as the transliterated English phrases replete with American and Arab pop culture references and the tone that drips sarcasm and sincerity in equal measure. The translation, unfortunately, renders Abdel Aal’s writing as choppy, rambling and awkward. Eltahawy explains she aimed “to present the particularities of Abdel Aal’s story free of exoticizing and of a literalness of language that would have overburdened the translation with footnotes.” Yet Eltahawy provides 70-odd footnotes in the short book to parse Arab sayings and customs for the American reader, and in many places she translates Abdel Aal’s language too literally without finding the equivalent American expression. For example, when Abdel Aal observes that many Egyptian women today want to find themselves and establish their careers before they marry, Eltahawy conveys these concepts via word-for-word renditions of the Arabic phrases, “building my future” and “achieve self-realization.”
Bilingual audiences who read the original blog or book will appreciate Eltahawy’s efforts although they will not enjoy the English version as fully, since many of the nuances and local humor are lost in translation. For example, in one of her most popularly recounted tales, Abdel Aal describes how embarrassed she was when her handsome colleague and crush, the only male druggist among 14 single female counterparts in her office, smiles at her: “And I basked in the glow of that smile until I was rendered temporarily blind by its brightness…. Everyone was staring -- and suddenly my body was drowning in its own sweat. The amount of sweat that I perspired in that moment could’ve solved the drought problem in Ethiopia. And I don’t even want to tell you about my face. My face was so red that if you’d painted a 22 on it, people would’ve thought it was Abou Treika’s soccer jersey.” Hilarious in the original Arabic, the excerpt falls flat in English, even though (or perhaps partly because) it is followed by a footnote explaining who Abou Treika is. American readers unaccustomed to the dramatic flair and politically incorrect humor of Egyptian colloquial Arabic (or the mania for the soccer hero who plays for Ahli, the more widely beloved of Egypt’s two major clubs, and famously lifted his jersey during an Africa Cup match to reveal “Sympathize with Gaza” on the t-shirt underneath) probably will not find this passage funny.
Although published by a university press, the book’s jacket evokes an American chick-lit novel. Subtitled as “One Wannabe Bride’s Misadventures with Handsome Houdinis, Technicolor Grooms, Morality Police and Other Mr. Not-Quite-Rights,” the book has a blurb on the back cover claiming that it “presents a realistic picture of what it means to be a single young woman in the Arab world, where, like elsewhere, a good man can be hard to find.” The team behind the English version should be commended for its endeavor to bring Abdel Aal’s story to an American audience that does not have much direct exposure to Arab and Muslim women living in the Middle East. It is also noteworthy that the editor and translator were careful not to mystify Abdel Aal or her encounters by pointing out that women elsewhere are searching for Mr. Right and are forced to deal with the pressures to marry. In some ways, the adventures of the pharmacist from Mahalla al-Kubra are indeed akin to Carrie Bradshaw’s. “But without the sex. It’s just the city,” Abdel Aal laughingly agreed in response to the NPR interviewer making the comparison.
The cover of I Want to Get Married! announces the title in a feminine cursive font on a pistachio-colored background with a cartoon of a pretty young woman with shoulder-length brown hair sitting before her laptop, a mouse in one hand and a huge, sparkling diamond engagement ring on the other, daydreaming of a sexy white wedding dress and matching heels, a three-tiered white wedding cake and a bridal bouquet of white flowers. As one astute blogger points out, the cover screams: “This is any (Western-friendly) woman’s story! This is a fun book! This is not a foreign book! This is a book that could be about any brunette.” The woman on the jacket is notably unveiled, like the woman on the Egyptian cover and ‘Ula of the Ramadan sitcom. None of these depictions come close to capturing Abdel Aal, who, like most Muslim women in contemporary Egypt, wears a headscarf. In comparison to her Egyptian representations, however, the American cover image is the least fraught. The voluptuous femme fatale on the Egyptian book cover and the dowdy TV character of ‘Ula suggest that only a sexy seductress or a desperate plain Jane would aggressively pursue marriage. A proper Egyptian woman, especially one who dons a headscarf, ostensibly would never actively seek out a man.
The various Egyptian and Western interpreters of Abdel Aal’s story seem to be intentionally disguising the unsettling reality about her: She totally upends everyone’s preconceptions about veiled middle-class Egyptian women. To many Egyptians, a woman, especially a middle-class veiled one who is a product of the public school system and a government bureaucrat from the Delta, should not be publicizing her desire to marry and condemning Egyptian customs and men for thus far preventing her from finding a true companion. While Egyptians are accustomed to feminists and women’s activists, who have been publicly and harshly rebuking customs and practices they find oppressive for more than a century, these women are easy to classify (even if incorrectly) in one of two categories -- secular Westernized radicals or conservative Islamist activists. Abdel Aal does not fit neatly into either mold. While her socioeconomic and political critiques are not new, her tactic of disguising them in tongue-in-cheek slang is original. The satirical mode not only enabled Abdel Aal to get away with her rather biting criticisms, it also afforded her fortune and fame in doing so, which she admits have made her prospects of marriage in Egypt even slimmer because men fear they will end up as characters in her next book. Her detractors -- among them a commentator on her blog who suggested someone marry her to shut her up at long last -- see marriage as an institution that disciplines women into submission. Abdel Aal’s refusal to shut up has at least temporarily and in this instance reversed the conventional hierarchy of marriage. This hierarchy is premised on women’s subordination to -- not their disruption of -- the normative order in which men seek and women comply, men provide and women consume, men speak out and women remain silent.
Is Abdel Aal a daring feminist arguing against her own society’s stigmatization of single women? Is she another chick-lit author writing about the universal search for love? Is she a veiled traditionalist who is simply desperate to be a bride? Is she a writer whose script represents the cutting edge of Arabic literature and belongs in a university press series with such ambitions? Readers should pick up a copy of I Want to Get Married!, try to overlook the redundancies and roughly translated, cheesy humor, and decide for themselves. Hopefully, they will hear Abdel Aal telling her story in her own voice rather than through the filter of one media representation or another. If they do, they will come to the conclusion that she is none of the above. Abdel Aal defies both Egyptian and Western stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women, especially how they are supposed to think and act. The thing is that she is not unique. She just happened to blog about the thoughts and experiences that many women before her and around her share. Like women everywhere who face the pressure to conform, keep quiet or behave passively, Abdel Aal employs subtlety to deliver her message. The reader (of the original Arabic text at least) is too busy laughing to realize just how powerful her socioeconomic and political critique is, even if she is not the first or last Egyptian woman to offer one. In spite of local and foreign presumptions related to Abdel Aal’s gender, headscarf, socioeconomic class and literary ability, she has effectively and brilliantly shifted the spotlight of Egypt’s fictional “marriage crisis” from its male victims to its female critics.
 The Arabic-language blog is available and occasionally still updated at: http://wanna-b-a-bride.blogspot.com/.
 All translations are taken from Ghada Abdel Aal, I Want to Get Married! (trans. Nora Eltahawy) (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010).
 Navtej Dhillon, “The Wedding Shortage,” Newsweek, March 5, 2007.
 Navtej Dhillon and Ragui Assad, “Light at the End of the Tunnel in Egypt’s Marriage Crisis?” Egyptian Gazette, November 23, 2008.
 Ursula Lindsey, “The Marriage Crisis that Wasn’t,” Foreign Policy, March 19, 2010.
 Independent, October 28, 2008.
 Times (London), October 30, 2008.
 Washington Post, October 21, 2008.
 Independent, October 28, 2008.
 This post by M. Lynx Qualey of the blog Arabic Literature (in Translation) is available at: http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/headscarves-diamond-rings-and-the-schizophrenia-of-ayza-atgowaz-in-english/ .