These matchmakers have long offered a traditional – and successful alternative – to arranged marriage. Rym Ghazal speaks to few professionals who arrange introduction to love-seeking singles.
Khateba's help welcome in making Arabic couples match
"Urgent. Palestinian husband needed for my friend. Her parents are forcing her to marry an older man in March she hates, but they told her if can find a replacement before March, she doesn't have to marry that guy. Please spread the word, she is 22, cute, fair with blue eyes, slim and wears hijab. She is educated, modern but also traditional. Please ask around."
Relayed via text message and over the BlackBerry instant messenger service a few days ago, the urgency of the words spurred the friends of Nadia, a business student in Abu Dhabi, into action. Within a few hours, three potential grooms had been unearthed, two Palestinians from Jordan and one from Syria. But would Nadia's family approve?
"Modern but also traditional." The words of the text message encapsulated a dilemma not for Nadia, but for thousands of other young Arab and Muslim women. As she puts it: "What about my criteria? My dreams?"
With two older sisters married the traditional way - one to a cousin and one to a family friend - Nadia has accepted that a "semi-arranged" marriage is probably her future. The alternative is an old-fashioned arranged marriage, something already imposed on some of her friends.
"I have no problem with getting married this way, as it is more respectful to do it through family and friends," she says. "But sometimes I wonder how it would be if I was free to choose and just find my future husband through a chance meeting. It is all happening just too fast."
Nadia, who did not want her full name used, is studying business at college and hopes one day to start her own business. In the era of instant messages and overwhelming connectivity, it is perhaps no surprise that even the search for love has taken on a different form, where lengthy love letters are replaced by icons and shorthand, and relationships can be made or broken with a click of a button.
At the end of the day, however, the rules of courtship and marriage remain traditional for the majority of families in conservative cultures in the Middle East, China and India.
For Nadia's family, the priority is a groom or aaress who has Palestinian roots. But there are other criteria. Their daughter's future husband must also be able to provide a home, afford a wife, and be well mannered and respectful to his parents-in-law.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the more successful alternatives to a formal arranged marriage is one of the most ancient. Um Hussein from Al Ain is a traditional matchmaker, a khatebain Arabic. A mother, grandmother and housewife, Um Hussein has helped more than 50 couples, the majority of them Emirati, find their perfect match.
Now 48, she started matchmaking in 2001, after the death of her 17-year-old son in a car accident in Abu Dhabi.
Refusing to let grief overtake her life, Um Hussein made a promise to herself and to her deceased son, that she would make it her life mission "making people happy".
"When you see this couple happy and that sparkle in their eyes after a successful matchmaking, it is one of the most gratifying feelings that eases your own pain," she said. "It is a baraka", a blessing.
Matchmaking is a profession as old as love itself. One of the oldest matchmakers can be found in the Bible, in the story of Isaac and Rebekah, who were matched through Prophet Abraham's faithful servant, Eliezer, who was sent out in search of a wife for Abraham's son Isaac.
More often, matchmakers are portrayed stereotypically: a busybody woman who makes it her business to match couples up or a throwback to an age when unchaperoned dating and freely choosing partners were frowned upon.
As a profession, matchmaking has largely vanished from western cultures and replaced by online matchmaking websites and services. But in the UAE it is still prominent, with different communities having their own set of matchmakers.
Um Hussein is the "middle woman" for Emirati and Gulf state nationals. She is one of the few active Emirati matchmakers here, with Emirati families typically keeping their matchmaking processes behind closed doors within the immediate family circle. Matchmakers are more active within the wider Arab and expat Muslim communities. They can be paid between Dh5,000 and Dh10,000 for their services.
Um Hussein does not seek payment. The mother of three has travelled from the furthest corner of Abu Dhabi to Fujairah in search of the "perfect match" for those seeking her help - whether young, old, rich or "not so rich", divorced or widowed.
"I often get a young Emirati man asking for a wife that could accept him as he is, as someone who doesn't have much money but will provide a humble, comfortable home and lots of love," she said.
In the past few months, Um Hussein's workload has tripled, and she now needs a second mobile phone to cope with the volume of calls from hopeful singletons from the UAE and other Gulf countries. She also makes full use of the latest technologies.
"She wants to see the children of her country happy. Her mission is to unite two souls through lawful matrimony, and protect women by finding them the right partner. She does it in the name of love and happiness, free of charge," reads a text message introducing the "matchmaker Um Hussein" that has been making the rounds.
"An Emirati woman I helped find a husband composed this message and started sending it around informing people about me," Um Hussein said. "I didn't even know about it until I started getting calls from people in Yemen seeking help finding partners."
With a married daughter and son, and one daughter still single and in school, Um Hussein takes her job seriously, doing a bit of "detective work" on potential candidates with the same thoroughness as if she were marrying off one of her own children.
"After I meet the person who wants a wife or a husband, I go and check up on their background through their friends, their colleagues and I go back to their schools and teachers," said Um Hussein, whose deceptively gentle demeanour and mild manner open doors and get people taking.
"This is a serious matter, and I want to make sure I am not helping some playboy or a dishonourable person get a partner to manipulate and abuse and I double-check with the first wife if someone is asking for a second one," she said.
In the middle of the interview, a man in his 40s calls to ask help in finding a young wife, within the age range of 15 to 17.
"Shame on you," she says, ending the call with the advice to remember his age.
Um Hussein also refuses to get involved with requests for temporary marriages, or secret ones, and she demands the man and woman meet with families present.
"No sneaking around trying to check her out when she is at work or she asks a friend to go see him on her behalf," she said. "It has to be done in line with tradition and Islam."
According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed urged those wanting to marry "to meet" in the presence of family before marriage so the couple can see each other, and decide if they can understand and like each other.
Seeking a matchmaker, Noor, an Arab woman in her 30s, sent out text messages from her mobile phone asking friends for numbers of "respectful and good" matchmakers to help her find a husband.
Noor studied in the United States and has been working and living independently in the UAE for the past five years.
"I couldn't find someone who accepted me as I was. I was told I have to be one or the other, not both traditional and modern," she said.
Because she is limited to a husband from the Levant region, someone forwarded her the number of a Palestinian matchmaker, Um Wassim, who for the past 40 years has been helping people marry within the Arab community in the UAE.
"Families always want someone from the same background so that their values and traditions are passed on to future generations," Noor said.
In her 50s, Um Wassim, who lives in Abu Dhabi, said one of the most important features of her job is "discretion".
"I have noticed that many of the young people first try to find someone on their own, without family intervention, and when they fail, they come back to the family asking for their help," said Um Wassim, whose own son went through this phase, returning to his mother after a failed relationship.
"It is difficult these days, as there are far too many expectations by both partners, where they think a marriage solves all their problems," she said.
As Noor continues the search for a husband, some relationship experts say that even "traditionally" Noor doesn't have to wait for a matchmaker. She could just go up to the man of her dreams and ask him herself.
"It is not complicated; Islam simplified relationships and marriage, but culture and people keep on complicating it," said Wedad Lootah, an Emirati author and family counsellor best known for her book Top Secret: Principles and Etiquette of an Intimate Marital Relationship, which was published last year.
Repeating a hadith about Prophet Mohammed, she said: "A woman came to the Prophet (may peace and the blessing of Allah be upon him) offering herself in marriage to him. She said: 'O, Messenger of Allah, have you any need for me (would you like to marry me)?' Thereupon, Anas's daughter said: 'What a shameless lady she was!' Anas said: 'She was better than you; she had a liking for the Prophet so she presented herself for marriage to him'."
More than 22 years ago, when she was still young, Ms Lootah found herself in a traditionally arranged marriage. She says: "Finding someone and getting married is the easy part.
"It is what happens afterwards that takes work."
Both Um Hussein and Um Wassim have one condition when anyone comes asking for their intervention: once the marriage contract is drawn up, they are removed from the picture.
"Guaranteeing a 'happily ever after' is not part of our job description," Um Wassim insisted. "It is all in the hands of Allah, and what his children put in their marriage."