A lovely article which I am pasting below written by a good friend and now a relative through marriage (god help us all). It's in the Financial Times and Farooq is a writer living in Brooklyn, though in Williamsburg which I think is just a shame since it gives him big minus marks on the cool front...
I should write about the whole meeting Muslim men to marry thing but really, I think the article does it so much better. I was told by my sister that it has been heavily edited but Farooq still does manage to shine through.
I was a member of Naseeb.com once (Naseeb meaning destiny, loosely translated, and a dating site but not advertised as such for young Muslims like Friendster and now Facebook...I just said facebook...now I won't be able to sleep because of the evil vibes). I was banned within two days. from Naseeb. Part of me wants very much to go to one of these speed dating things just to see what it is like. I think it could be fun. Very fun. Enjoy.
You don’t have to meet someone but it’d be nice’
By Farooq Ahmed
Published: September 21 2007 16:38 Last updated: September 21 2007 16:38
Finding a date is hard enough but for many modern Muslims in the west it’s even tougher. Meeting in bars is prohibitively difficult due to Islamic temperance laws. A similar injunction against unmarried Muslim men and women canoodling, or even spending unchaperoned time together, rules out many other forms of dating. And thus, young Muslims find themselves torn between the values of their immigrant parents, who champion semi-arranged or assisted marriages, and the dominant western culture, which prizes “love marriages”, usually preceded by some form of casual dating.
Five years ago, however, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) held its first “Matrimonial Banquet” and as a result a form of Muslim speed dating was born.
The banquet is part of a long-running annual convention organised by ISNA, an umbrella organisation for Muslim groups in the US and Canada, similar to the Muslim Council of Britain. Young Muslims, the organisers realised, were already using the event to meet and mingle. Now all that was needed was a little structure and supervision. The banquet followed a matrimonial referral service that had been provided by ISNA. Under the old system, a Middle Eastern Muslim woman living in the Pacific North-west, for example, could comb through folders, sorted by age and geographical location, to obtain the contact information of a 25-year-old, Egyptian engineering student with dark hair and dark eyes, of moderate religiosity, who lived in Seattle. Whether the two would ever meet was entirely up to them.
Ghazala Yasmeen, the director of this year’s Matrimonial Banquet, who is in her 40s and had an arranged marriage in Karachi 18 years ago, says the switch to the event’s current format was made because “People wanted to see each other, face-to-face, not just as slips of paper.”
I am a first-generation south Asian-American Muslim and grew up near Kansas City, Missouri. As I am constantly reminded by my younger sister, I am, at the age of 32, one of the few from my peer group to remain unwed. Our parents raised us in homes that bridged cultures: tacos were as common as chicken curry for dinner. Though observant of Islamic traditions, my parents are by no means dogmatic or conservative. My mother and sister choose not to observe hijab or wear a headscarf, except to enter mosques, where it’s mandatory.
Fourteen years ago, I left the Midwest for the East Coast, at first to attend college. Like many writers, I eventually found my way to Brooklyn.
But this year, over Labor Day weekend at the end of August, I travelled to Chicago to attend the 44th Annual ISNA convention, “Upholding Faith, Serving Humanity”, to check out the Matrimonial Banquet. The conference took place in a massive convention centre and hotel complex near O’Hare airport, bringing tens of thousands of Muslims to the city. (And, I suspect, a number of federal law enforcement agents.)
The convention attracts mainly Sunnis from India and Pakistan but also draws Shi’as, such as myself, Sufis, African, African-American, Arab, and east-Asian Muslims, who come to attend sessions on topics affecting the ummah – the community – such as “Ending US Sponsored Torture”, “Addressing the Root Causes of Terrorism” and “Re-Inventing the Mosque for our Children”.
I last attended the convention more than a decade ago and don’t have pleasant memories. Some friends and I were lured into a subterranean kitchen with the promise of gainful employment. We were paid meagre wages but assured a hefty bonus at the end. We washed dishes, sliced open gallon drums of tomato sauce, and refilled tray-after-tray of halal kebabs, aromatic biryanis and colourful curries.
When the conference finished, we approached our overlord in chef’s whites for our reward. He led us into a backroom that was filled with trays of baklava, honey oozing like sap between layers of crisp filo dough. “Take as much as you want,” he said. I hadn’t been back to the convention since that experience.
But it was then that I found out about the Matrimonial Banquet. The morning of this year’s banquet found me trimming my beard, spiking my hair, slipping on a striped brown, button-down shirt and dark jeans, and exchanging my Adidas trainers for a pair of maroon fake alligator-skin dress shoes. I was going for the Muslim hipster look.
As I entered the lobby of the O’Hare Hyatt, chic low-slung, mid-century modern furniture everywhere, a session had just concluded for the Muslim Youth of North America, a group that provides a forum for Muslim teenagers. The hotel’s cafés and bars were the place to hang out. Alcohol, in deference to sharia, Islamic law, was safely locked up. Bottles of Grey Goose glistened behind glass cabinets, while flocks of boys with feathery facial hair alighted on bar stools and attempted to flirt with girls on the other side of the lobby.
Outside the ballroom, I joined a swelling crowd of professional-looking men and women. Some exchanged business cards and scrawled phone numbers on scraps of paper, getting a jump on the competition. Others stood along the wall, being coached by their mothers; we were told we could bring one chaperone with us, and many had. Among the advice being dispensed, I heard: “Remember, you don’t have to find someone but it would be nice if you did.” “Tell them about your degrees and your family, that is very important, but don’t mention your father’s glaucoma.”
Nearly all 400 of us, an equal number of men and women, had registered online and paid $65 to spend the next four hours with one another. We are to speed-date for two hours, then with the following two hours left for mingling over a pasta meal.
At the check-in desk where I went to pick up my name-tag, stood a line of aunties. “Auntie” is used throughout south Asia as a term of endearment, referring to an older woman who may or may not be a blood relative. Aunties are often stern, judgmental and have an uncanny ability to unman a potential suitor by placing emphasis on a single word. A typical utterance would be: “Yes, yes, he went to graduate college but, dear, he is a writer.”
An auntie had just handed me my baby-blue name tag – the women’s were pink – when I ran into a friend, whom I will call Usman. He was a psychiatrist from the mid-sized Midwestern town where we grew up. Sharply dressed in a dark suit, he had returned to the banquet for a second consecutive year and was one of a handful of participants who had arrived armed with someone else’s success story – inevitably, a neighbour’s cousin or cousin’s neighbour had found his wife at this event a few years ago. Usman himself was looking for his second wife. The first had fled back to Pakistan under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked in an awkward attempt to be helpful. I joined the queue to enter the ballroom feeling somewhat deflated. As we waited to meet our potential future spouses, Yasmeen’s assistants segregated us by gender, directing the women to one set of doors and the men to another. While this did seem somewhat inauspicious – only moments before we had been socialising as one loud, nervous and confused group – what followed was measurably worse. The assistants began to subdivide each gender by age: 20- to 30-year-olds on one side, 31 and up on another.
I graduated to the latter group a few years ago and reluctantly joined this line of men, most of them significantly older and taller than me.
The women entered the ballroom first and were instructed to sit in groups of five at the neatly arranged circular tables. The men were next, also in groups of five. We filled the empty seats between the women as we joined them.
At the far end of the ballroom, rows of chairs were lined up for the accompanying chaperones. Almost all mothers or sisters, they had been given strict orders not to interfere or further coach their charges until the last hour, when they were free to meet and pass judgment on whomsoever their child or sibling had decided to spend time with. They sat at the back of the room like jurors at a trial.
I chose to go alone to the banquet, although my mother had offered to come. “I’ll just sit in the back. I won’t say a thing,” she promised.
Once we were all seated, we were given simple instructions over the loudspeakers. We would be given five minutes to introduce ourselves, after which the men were to move to the next table and begin the process again. The women were to remain seated. If someone at the table interested us, we could take notes or ask for an e-mail address or phone number, or more decorously, seek them out during dinner.
Typically, US speed dating is a one-on-one, five- to seven-minute “get-to-know-you” session. The origins of the ritual, which took off in the late 1990s, are usually credited to Yaacov Deyo, an orthodox Los Angeles rabbi who was looking for a way to help Jewish singles meet and marry.
As a group affair, the Matrimonial Banquet mimics the way that most Muslim boys and girls socialise, in self-selected, often gender-segregated, cliques. These groups prevent intimate interactions with unrelated members of the opposite sex, which is generally taboo among conservative Muslims. Even if the Chicago banquets appeared different, the goal of Muslim speed dating was distinctly in line with Rabbi Deyo’s original system.
The tables we sat at were themselves bare, save for a white tablecloth, a handful of Hershey’s Kisses chocolates and a lime green flyer from the organisers, thanking us for letting them be a part of “the biggest and most important step in [our] life”. No pressure then.
I had entered the ballroom with four other men – an architect, a bank information technology manager, a software engineer and a school assistant principal – and we got to know each other well as we travelled from table to table.
They were dressed as I was: not formal, not quite casual, but all in western clothes. Some were clean-cut with sharp features and deep-set eyes, others with trim beards and bushy black hair.
At the first table, the women gave us their condensed biographies. There was a Nasa engineer, an ophthalmologist, a schoolteacher, a dentist, and someone who had once portrayed Princess Jasmine from Aladdin at Disneyland. Like us, they were mainly Indian and Pakistani, Egyptian and Saudi, but many more were dressed in non-western garments – sequins trailed from prismatic headscarves that occasionally shimmered in the ballroom’s overhead lights.
Over the next two hours, I met nearly 100 women, averaging about a woman a minute. The faces of the first five are among the few that I remember well, not only because the Nasa engineer had some sort of bouffant squirrel’s nest for hair but also because Princess Jasmine, who looked nothing like the character she had played, was one of the more engaging women I met that Saturday, witty and sarcastic with mischievous eyes.
You might have thought that a table of over-30s would have a relatively easy time conversing. That was not the case. If I added up the moments of uncomfortable silence at the 20 or so tables I visited, I could easily have made the time to meet another 50 women. Not that that would have helped conversation.
In our allotted five minutes at each table, four were spent introducing ourselves to the group. Over the course of two hours, these became pared down to a few relevant nouns: “Farooq, writer, Brooklyn, 32.” Many women asked the men about their age but, out of politeness, few men asked the women.
How you used the remaining minute relied on a quick calculation: which of the two women seated next to you seemed most interesting based solely on her appearance and the four words she used to described herself.
I realised that I could increase my chance of success if I scouted ahead, jockeying for position as we switched tables. Often, this technique paid off. I met an assistant professor of pharmacology from New Mexico with whom I shared an interest in experiencing Chicago’s nightlife.
As we switched tables, I found the “résumés” of my competitors lying around, several printed on expensive linen paper, watermarked with complex floral arrangements. Almost all were from foreign-born software professionals. One e-mail username, no doubt customised for the event, read: greatcompanion. For once in my life, I was glad that I’d come relatively unprepared.
The suitors described themselves in categories that included education, profession and religion, but also languages (English and Urdu); sect (Shi’a or Sunni); family values (“moderate”); religiosity (“I do observe prayers regularly and fast during Ramadan”); family background (“We are five brothers and one sister”); and “about you” sections. One specified that a future wife should be able to “laugh at my lame jokes”, which I think should be mandatory for all spouses, regardless of religion, religiosity, sect, family values – or even gender.
When the rotations finally came to an end in the early evening, between the late afternoon (Asr) and evening (Maghrib) prayers, a sense of relief swept through the ballroom. We lined up for our buffet-style dinner of pasta, fruit salad and apple pie. This time, the elders went first.
Somewhat to my surprise, a quarter of the attendees re-segregated into male and female groups during dinner, perhaps exhausted by the constant barrage from members of the opposite sex.
Carrying a plateful of lukewarm pasta, I searched for Princess Jasmine and a writer/filmmaker that I had met towards the end of the rotations. We had discovered that the writer lived in Brooklyn and had attended the West Coast version of my East Coast alma mater. During the earlier table-hopping portion of the evening, we had been about to exchange phone numbers when time was called.
When I finally spotted them, both Princess Jasmine and the writer had men queuing up on either side as if they were minor celebrities signing autographs. The pharmacology professor had already left for the evening – the lights of downtown Chicago beckoned.
I met up again with Usman, the psychiatrist. He was sitting across the ballroom at a table of young men. At 30, he was one of the oldest in his group. Despite his sleek attire, he hadn’t fared any better than he had at last year’s event.
For those with the energy, the Matrimonial Banquet went on for another day and in the same format with, I suspected, a lot of the same faces. Usman had registered and paid for both Saturday and Sunday and would return, he said, to keep trying to find wife number two.
As much as I admired his perseverance, I flew back early the next day. Although the banquet proved that there are many attractive, intelligent Muslim women and men seeking alternative ways to meet and, eventually, marry, I came away thinking that, for me, there were better ways to find a match – that is to say, ways that were less supervised or structured.
But, at the very least, I had returned to Brooklyn with a few promising telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, instead of a handful of warm baklava, like I had the last time.
US Muslims ‘mostly middle-class and mainstream’
After Christianity, Islam is the second largest religion in many European countries and one of the fastest- growing religions in the US. A survey published in May by the Pew Research Center, the influential American polling group, states there are 2.35m Muslims living in the US. Like many issues concerning American Muslims, this figure is a contentious one. Muslim groups have accused non-Muslims of releasing low numbers to marginalise Islam, while Muslims are accused of inflating the number for political gain. The Pew Muslim American study, regarded as the first independent survey on Muslim life in the US, admits “it is possible that the number of Muslim Americans is higher”. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, says there are 7m Muslims in America.
Pew data indicate that American Muslims are mostly “middle class and mostly mainstream”. The south Asian Muslims I grew up with falls into this category. Many of us, like our parents, work in typically white-collar industries as doctors, engineers, information technology specialists and, increasingly in post-September 11 America, as lawyers.
The survey, which conducted more than 55,000 interviews with Muslims living in America, tells us: we are happy with our lives; moderate on issues that typically divide Muslims and westerners throughout the world; have a positive view of the larger society; are generally better off financially than Muslims in Europe; and, although two-thirds of us were born elsewhere, do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.
On the issue of terrorism, the study says American Muslims “reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in western European countries”.
Perhaps more surprisingly, according to the survey, younger Muslims in America “are both much more religiously observant and more accepting of Islamic extremism than are older Muslim Americans”. This statistic corresponds with other Pew research about Muslims in western Europe. Muslims in the Middle East, the Pew survey says, “do not show greater tolerance of suicide bombing among young people”.
My own experience could not be farther from the Pew results regarding younger Muslims in America. As a child in Sunday school, my friends and I competed to see who could get thrown out of class the quickest. The Islamic centre we attended in suburban Kansas City had both a basketball court and a large backyard that made a great football pitch. The challenge was getting enough people out of class to field teams before noon prayers. This practice ended for me when my mother became principal of the Sunday school.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007