NEW YORK: The American dream lured El-Sayed El-Deeb to New York City to pursue medical studies in the year 2000. He had the fantasy of becoming a millionaire in Uncle Sam s World. Although the idea of eventually returning home never crossed his mind, he was resolute about marrying an Egyptian woman of the same Muslim faith and cultural background.
In 2006, he got engaged to an American-born Egyptian whom he discovered was torn between two worlds. On one hand, she wanted the independence of an American woman, and on the other, she subscribed to Egyptian pre-marital customs that burden the groom with hefty financial requirements.
The problem is that they [Egyptian-American women] want to be treated like American women; you are not allowed to comment on the way she dresses or expect her not to argue with you, he said. In the meantime, they want to get married like Egyptians; they want shabka, mahr and mo akhar.
At the beginning, he felt compelled to buy her a $13,000 diamond ring. However, when she insisted that their wedding party be held in a fancy place that would cost him $17,000, El-Deeb backed down and broke off the engagement after 10 months.
I could not afford being indebted till the end of my life just to marry her, said the 36-year-old resident doctor in a Brooklyn hospital.
According to Egyptian-American matchmakers, El-Deeb s dilemma attests to the paradoxical identity of many Egyptian immigrants in the United States. While they take pride in being part of a modern society that breeds individualism and practicality, they still adhere to a patriarchal marriage tradition that requires the man to secure the woman financially.
He is expected to provide shabka, an Egyptian term used to refer to an expensive diamond ring; mahr, the Arabic word for dowry; and mo akhar, which requires the man to sign a contract agreeing to pay his wife a certain amount of money in case they get divorced.
[Egyptian families] dress, work like Americans, and speak English at home with their children, said Nagat Bassiouni, New Jersey-based matchmaker. However, when it comes to marriage, they are still preoccupied with the traditional niceties.
Bassiouni is a 60-year-old fashion designer whose social network reaches Egyptian communities as far away as Canada. She has been a go-between for nearly 18 years, and says she arranges seven or so marriages a year.
A typical Egyptian family would require the following from a suitor; first the shabka which consists of a diamond wedding ring, a solitaire and sometimes, a collier, earrings and a bracelet, she said. Some families are so demanding; they require a $20,000 shabka while others are modest and feel content with a $5,000 or $10,000, she added.
As to the dowry, most families settle for a symbolic amount of money as long as the suitor provides a furnished apartment. Exactly like their compatriots at home, Egyptian families require the groom to share the cost of the wedding party, which ranges between $20,000 and $45,000, added Bassiouni. However, the divorce settlement is not negotiable.
I did not see anyone who did not have mo’akhar, she said. Matchmakers say it can range from $5,000 or as high as $100,000 or even more.
After completing her noon prayers, Magda kamel sat on the silky rug in her pink headscarf and paisley tunic raising her hands to the sky and murmuring additional prayers in her apartment located in a skyscraper on the exclusive Upper East Side in Manhattan.
As soon as she was done, she grabbed her large, worn-out phonebook filled with hand-written names on every page of Arab and Muslim families trying to marry their children off. For nearly 13 years, Egyptian-American Kamel has been one of the most active matchmakers in the city’s growing Arab community.
She took on the task driven by religious devotion and a desire to help Arab Muslim girls. But she contends that most Arab families, including Egyptian, can have outsized expectations.
The mo’akhar has turned into a monster, some families ask for $200,000 or $100,000 to force men never to consider divorce, she said. “Strangely enough, Arab girls who were born and raised in the US attribute the same importance to these traditions.
To evade the financial burden, many Arab men ask Kamel to introduce them to non-Arab Muslim women, she added.
“A non-Arab woman would never talk about dowry and shabka. Americans are the best people, they are simple, they never make overblown demands, she added.
Playing with traditions
According to 2007 US Census figures, the Egyptian-American population is estimated at nearly 195,000, with the highest concentration in New York, New Jersey, Illiois, Florida, California and Texas.
These Egyptian traditions draw an old tribal culture that always perceived women as objects and expected them to bring wealth and dowry to the family, said Mona Abaza, an Egyptian sociologist.
The wedding customs “sociologically speaking [are] all about exchange of women in traditional societies, she said. Women are considered a capital or a commodity and marriage is a form of exchange. In ancient tribal societies, women were important for raising the wealth of the tribe, in wars and trophies.
Immigrants revive these traditions in their new countries to preserve their identity, Abaza added. My observations about some Egyptians I knew in Australia and Germany, they become even more conservative and re-invent traditions, said Abaza, former chair of the Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology Department at the American University in Cairo.
[They are] also reinventing traditions in the way it fits their contemporary daily lives. That is why women want to have it all. They then select what they please from both tradition and modern elements, Abaza said.
Even for grooms who meet the considerable pre-marital requirements, there still may be more after the wedding. Many families expect their daughters to be completely supported by their new husbands, whether or not the wives work. In the meantime, they would never give up a daughter’s right to work.
Ashraf Gad, a 38-year-old doctor, sat in an Egyptian restaurant savoring fried duck and traditional salads while Arabic music resonated in the background in the heart of New York City. In this cozy atmosphere, Gad reflected on his four failed engagements to American-born Egyptian women.
The American system is based on partnership. The husband and wife have to share the rent for example, said Gad, who arrived in the US nine years ago opting for better career opportunities. However, Egyptian families here are very sensitive to this question. They tell you ‘you are an Egyptian man and should be preserve your dignity and be responsible [for supporting the family on your own].’ If you say she should share with you, they take you for a mean person.
Yet, families have their own fears about suitors who just landed in the West. There s the worry that Egyptian men new to the US are marrying to gain citizenship. Tahani Nedgid, a 57-year-old mother of an unmarried 26-year-old daughter, echoes that fear.
As soon as Egyptian or Arab parents hear that the suitor does not have a green card, they panic, she said. You never know if he really loves her or he is just marrying her for the sake of legal documents and as soon as he gets them, he can kick her out.
Like most Egyptian parents, Nedgid who moved here with here husband 20 years ago prefers that her daughter marries a Muslim Egyptian. Yet, for her, tradition does not count for much as long as this Egyptian suitor can provide enough evidence that he is not using her daughter to improve his immigration status. I do not care about all that [mahr, shabka, mo akhar]. All I expect from him is to have a green card in order to be relieved of the question whether he really loves my daughter.
For his part, El-Deeb is no longer interested in dealing with the insecurities or the dualism of Egyptian immigrants in the US. Soon enough, he will fly back to Egypt and look for a
bride there who he believes will be more consistent.