x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Who can you trust online? Not this 'handsome blond'

The idea of putting up a personal profile online and then clicking a "seeking life partner" option and waiting for a response just doesn't appeal to me

For the cynics out there - like myself - who would never dream of joining one of those online matchmaking sites, a friend of mine has just written to say she has actually married a man she met through the internet. "He truly is amazing, and I never thought I would meet my prince charming online," said my friend in a mass email to a group of us. We had all sent her "you must be crazy" warnings when we heard of her marriage. "Just try it, what would you lose?" was her defiant response.

The idea of putting up a personal profile online and then clicking a "seeking life partner" option and waiting for a response just doesn't appeal to me. Or, as I asked one of my Lebanese male friends: "Won't I sound a bit desperate if I registered on one of those websites?" His response: "For sure." But another male friend of mine, an Emirati, saw nothing to be ashamed of in online dating. "If you go to the marriage sites, then you know the other people on them are looking for something serious," he said, and explained what he saw as their advantages. "They give us a chance to meet and get to know our potential partners away from gossip and the scrutiny of our communities."

Of course, most matchmaking websites are blocked in the UAE, although you can find adverts for them popping up on other UAE sites, such as Dubizzle. "I was able to access one of the marital websites until last week when I found out that it was blocked all of a sudden," said my Emirati friend. "It seems word got around about it and the authorities got to it," he said. A female Emirati friend told me she used to go to a chat-room a few years ago that was frequented by young Emiratis, which was also later blocked. "I really miss it as I got used to going there every night after school and meeting other young people like me," she said.

This made me curious about what sites are blocked, and so I began typing in a number of different web names of sites that I have visited in the past. I was astonished to find how many are blocked here in the UAE. For instance, a site devoted to 1980s movies and music was blocked, as was a chat-room packed with avid video gamers; though I wasn't too surprised to find that I couldn't access a matchmaking website recommended by my friends.

Since I couldn't personally enter a matchmaking site, I sent off an email asking friends their experiences with online matchmaking and dating. In no time, my inbox was flooded with tales of "their friends" (supposedly) who either found true romance on the internet or who had met "stalkers" and "losers" who had made them fearful of experimenting with online dating ever again. "By the time I got up in the morning I would have at least eight text messages from the guy I met online," said one of these friends. She had been corresponding with a man online after seeing and liking his profile on a matchmaking website. Eventually she met him for a date here in Abu Dhabi - which is when her troubles began.

"We met just once for coffee, but ever since then, he has been hounding me with SMSs and asking me how my breakfast, my lunch and my dinner went almost each day." Her experience is comparatively mild compared to some of the other stories I was sent. One male friend had to change his cell phone number after an online date kept pestering him, while another issued a salutary warning about not believing what people told you online - or trusting the portraits that accompany their profiles. She had been corresponding with someone who, judging by his picture, was a handsome blond man with European features.

"I felt a real connection when we used to email each other," she said. Which is why she agreed to meet for a date. Far from being blond and European - or handsome - her online correspondent turned out to be a dark Indian. "When I met him in person, I didn't feel any attraction," she said. "I also felt that since he lied about how he looks, he probably lied about other things." Some of my friends, though, reported far nicer experiences, with a lengthy email correspondence culminating, finally, in a conversation over coffee and a relationship.

I'm still not sure if I would personally try online dating. I know how easy it is to get hooked on chat rooms and bulletin boards, especially when it is too hot to go out and most of your friends are away on vacation. I once took care of a virtual pet online, and almost killed it by forgetting to feed the thing, so my online friends - members of the same website whom I had never met - sent me a reminder to "feed your dinosaur". It touched me that they took the time to message me when they saw this purely virtual pet "starving".

It is funny how we can form really strong ties to persons we have never met. So I guess it is not impossible to believe that online friendship could turn into something more and have a fairy-tale happy ending. Or so I am told. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae