x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

I Want to Get Married: Ghada Abdel Aal

Ghada Abdel Aal has been blogging her experiences in finding Mr Right. Though not yet successful in finding him, her comedic take on the subject has led to TV and book deals.

Last year the book was turned into a 30-episode television series starring the Tunisian actress Hend Sabri.
Last year the book was turned into a 30-episode television series starring the Tunisian actress Hend Sabri.

Ghada Abdel Aal lost count of marriage proposals after her 65th suitor - although by her account she is already two years past her sell-by date.

"The expiration date is 30," she declares. "Now that I'm 32, there are fewer and fewer offers."

But it was the endless trail of unsuitable would-be husbands that brought her international fame with a hilarious blog, the trigger for a best-selling book and a hit TV series.

There was "hot stuff", the doctor who interrupted their introduction to watch his favourite football team on television, then swore at Abdel Aal's mother for daring to intervene.

There was the hirsute fundamentalist, a "big ball of hair that had sprouted some eyes", who was keener than the two wives he brought along for good measure.

And there was the charming, briefcase-carrying admirer who made off with the contents of her wallet.

Abdel Aal's satirical blog, entitled I Want to Get Married, shone a light on the interfering relatives, inappropriate matchmaking and pressure to wed quickly in the practice of gawwaz el salonat, or living room marriages, whereby women in Egyptian society are paraded before their suitors in awkward, stilted meetings over cups of tea and expected to decide whether to spend the rest of their lives together after that first brief encounter.

Borrowing heavily from her and her friends' experiences, she wrote in the voice of a character called Bride, interjecting her incisive observations on "our magnificent little two-faced society ... [in which] girls are programmed over and over again to think that the only thing that's expected of them in life is for them to get married and have children".

Her wry insights struck a chord in a country where there are said to be three million single women over the age of 35 while almost half of all men between 25 and 29 are unmarried and a third of marriages end in divorce in the first year.

Within a couple of months, her anonymous blog had 700,000 followers. When the publishing house Dar El Shorouk approached her about a book deal a year later, Abdel Aal, a pharmacist, was forced to come out from behind the veil and acknowledge that she was the author.

The response has been huge. I Want to Get Married, or Ayza Atgawwiz, as it is known in Arabic, has sold 40,000 copies globally and been translated into English, Italian, German and Dutch. Last year the book, written in colloquial Arabic, was turned into a 30-episode television series starring the Tunisian actress Hend Sabri. It was aired on nine channels during Ramadan and became the No. 1 show in Saudi Arabia.

"Women were saying, 'Finally someone is expressing what we are thinking'," Abdel Aal says. "It is not just my stories - sometimes they were my friends' and I would go over the top to make them funnier."

The diminutive author, immaculately dressed in a brown-and-cream outfit with a matching hijab, was visiting Dubai in March to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature about the role of women writers in the Arab world. With her sweet, baby-faced features, she looks a picture of innocence.

But woe betide any unsuspecting men who turned up on her doorstep clutching "a teeny box of candy", or worse, arrived empty-handed.

All prospective marriage candidates were dissected with the razor-sharp wit and scathing eye that have won her so many fans among Arab women and men alike.

But her blog has not been without controversy. She has been labelled "dissolute" and "the worst example of unmarried girls" by some male readers, while there has been something of a backlash from feminists objecting to her portrayal of hysterical women vying for the perfect husband.

Little wonder then that when she began blogging in August 2006, it was under cover. Like many Egyptians in their 20s and 30s, stifled by Hosni Mubarak's oppressive regime and forbidden from open dissent under threat of arrest, she first started a political blog.

But the internet offered another outlet shortly after her mother, Hanaa, died at the age of 50, when Abdel Aal was just 23. Without a matriarchal figure to look up to, she turned to cyberspace.

"I was going through this whole thing of the living room marriage and needed to speak out to ask someone for advice," she says. "The proposals start as soon as you leave college. For me, it was in 2000 when I turned 21 and had just graduated after studying pharmacy.

"All the women in my life had one mission - to find me a husband. Their theory was: if he has a pulse, he's perfect. I named my blog after the phrase everyone was speaking or thinking at this age: I want to get married. The main reason was that if I had not written about it, I would have gone crazy - first, because I did not have anyone to speak to, and second, because everyone was trying to convince me the sun rose from the west.

"You could plainly see that the man was an idiot, but everyone would be saying: 'He's great' and tell me I was the crazy one."

The men who came knocking, she says, equated finding a match with buying a fridge or a durable pair of shoes: "He has his list and you have yours. He wants a defrost function and it has to be so many feet high. If she fails, he can just buy another one."

She was prompted into writing because of the "awful" types traipsing through her door: "I had the cheap type, who asked me not to carry a mobile phone because he did not want to pay for it.

"When I said I would spend my own money, he said: 'I will need that too.'

"Then there was the mama's boy, who would not answer any question without checking with Mother first. He lived in the Gulf and wanted to get married a week later on webcam. I was just very unlucky. My mother was very understanding; if it were not for that, I would be divorced with children by now."

Abdel Aal initially thought she would post a couple of times and "just run because I will be attacked by men".

But the popularity of her blog surprised her, and when it took off and she was inundated with 5,000 e-mails a day, she decided to keep writing.

"I did not tell my father immediately - in Egypt, you do not even tell your parents you have an e-mail address," she says. "After a couple of months, though, when I had 700,000 followers on the third or fourth post, I showed him. He was the first one who pushed me to write.

"I never started this as a book, but when I was young, my father was always bringing me books and encouraging me. He is very positive about it and shows the book to all his friends and has watched the TV show 15 times. He does not really get the stigma.

"The pressure was not from my immediate family but from my extended family and society. When they ask how old you are, they think you are pathetic. I kept the blog secret because I did not want to be tagged as the bold or outspoken girl."

Abdel Aal had an idyllic childhood in Mahalla, a provincial, conservative town a two-hour drive from Cairo. Her mother worked in public relations while her father, Abdel Aal, now 69, was an engineer. She and her brother, Ahmed (a handball coach who at 29 is also single), were treated equally.

As she grew older, however, and her friends began marrying, she witnessed each succumbing to social pressures. In a living room marriage, a woman is expected to take a passive role, accepting the choice of her extended family - which makes even the title of Abdel Aal's book a bold one.

"A girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her," she says. "To say she wants something is seen as impolite."

Coaxed by their mothers, however, she says girls have become adept at subtly attracting the attention of eligible bachelors in the neighbourhood, with ploys such as dancing with a bride at a wedding, ensuring they are seen on the video that gets passed around, and getting relatives to scout for candidates.

Many of her circle compromised by putting up with unsatisfactory marriages.

"We have this saying: if a marriage is continuing, it must be successful," she says. "Lots of girls get married after two or three proposals, but I do not see any happy ones. That is a problem for me. I see ones caught in a race to make ends meet and raise their kids. I don't see the happiness and love."

Beneath the veneer of comedy is a serious message. Abdel Aal tackles - albeit with humour - the marriage crisis in Egypt, where high unemployment and a housing shortage mean young couples can remain engaged for years before they can afford a flat (a social prerequisite for marriage), by which time they are bored with each other.

Coupled with that is the increasing problem of sexual harassment and assault in the country. Some sociologists have blamed the issue on the rise in the number of sexually frustrated young men.

So common is the problem that it was the focus of the Egyptian director Mohamed Diab's lauded film 678, which premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival last year. The film follows the lives of three young women who avenge themselves by stabbing offenders in the groin.

"Walking down a street is like walking on landmines," says Abdel Aal. "If there are two or three men walking on one side, you walk on the other. You cannot find a single Egyptian woman who has not been pursued. Society keeps giving men excuses and saying it is perfectly normal because they cannot get married young enough.

"We are made into criminals because if you start shouting about it, everyone starts blaming you. No one wants to admit it happens and we are taught it is shameful and your fault. We have much work to do. Religious speech has to be changed and organisations have to deal with it differently, not by attacking but by educating.

"I was thinking of starting a new blog about it so we can all tell our stories and encourage other women to speak out and fight this idea of making excuses for men."

In a society that still frowns on outspoken women, Abdel Aal insists she is not a feminist, something of a dirty word in her community - but it is clear from her forthright beliefs and conviction in her opinions that she is.

"Feminists got quite angry at me," she says. "In their minds, I don't look like one because they do not wear veils. But I am just holding up a mirror to society and saying how can it take a successful girl who is smart and beautiful and funny and turn her into this hysterical spinster who is looking to get married as soon as possible?

"I prefer not to clash. I am just trying to explain. I have seen myself in this image for so many years and was saying, enough is enough - this is not the most important thing in life. I do not have to be Mrs Someone to be a someone, I can be a person in my own right."

Abdel Aal's book tours and speaking engagements take her around the world, leaving little time to issue prescriptions these days. Having taken a screenwriting course to transform her first book into the television show, she also has written a film script for a political comedy called The Night They Arrested Egypt and is updating it to reflect the revolution. A second book is in the pipeline, although Abdel Aal has yet to decide whether Bride will be the star. And she has not given up on meeting Mr Right, nor is she willing to let her standards slip.

"The first book scared all the proposals away," she says with a laugh. "I am looking for a man who is perfect in everything. I need someone with a strong personality who is very understanding towards women and knows how to treat them as complete people, not ones who are completed by marriage.

"Everyone needs affection and love and to have a home. We are natural-born mothers, we need children and to have love and share our lives with someone, but we also need to have our own lives.

"I just want one husband - the guy that is meant to be."

 

The I Want to Get Married television series is being repeated on Moga Comedy and Dream TV channels in Egypt and on the Art channel in Saudi Arabia. It may get another airing in the UAE, though no plans have been announced.

 

The Abdel Aal file

BORN December 21, 1978, Mahalla, Egypt

FAVOURITE BOOK The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

FAVOURITE FILM Scent of a Woman

FAVOURITE ACTRESS Faten Hamama

FAVOURITE QUOTE The line from the Tunisian national anthem that became the chant of those calling for democracy: "When the people want to live, destiny must surely respond."

ROLE MODEL My mother, because she was such a strong woman