DAMASCUS, Syria -- Batoul is looking for a husband. He should be tall and smart and make a decent living.
“And preferably he also lives abroad, or at least he plans to leave Syria, so we can start our life together away from this war,” Batoul says.
In ordinary times, local customs would have ensured that 19-year-old Batoul had started to meet suitors by now. She would have received them at her parents’ home: young men accompanied by their mothers, who showed up armed with a dowry offer and honorable intentions.
The betrothal process typically takes several months, with many suitors falling through as the potential in-laws scrutinize their socioeconomic backgrounds and family reputations, and the prospective couples slowly get to know each other. Once everyone is finally in agreement, they would then tie the knot.
That was how most young, middle-class urban people got married in prewar Syria.
But the uprising-turned-civil war, now entering its fourth year, has complicated the courtship process, especially for displaced people such as Batoul and some 7 million other Syrians. Finding love in a war zone is complicated by logistical challenges, shifting allegiances and dramatic -- at times, violent -- challenges to cultural norms. The process of finding lifelong love remains remarkably intact, taking the same basic form it has for centuries, though war is the backdrop, acting as a frequent impediment and the final arbiter of everything.
About two years ago, Batoul and her family fled their embattled home district in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, to a safer haven on the other side of town. Their old neighborhood was subject to frequent bombings by government forces seeking to drive the rebels out. Today, air raids and rocket attacks target that neighborhood daily, and Batoul’s parents and two siblings can hear the mayhem from their new abode. The family has been renting a large room that provides decent shelter, but it is a far cry from their third-story, two-bedroom corner apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Seif al Dowleh.
Soon after they fled, it became evident to Batoul’s parents that their daughter, barely 17 years old at the time, had fallen in love with the teenage boy next door, and the young couple was talking about getting married.
“He was my first quasi-fiancé,” says Batoul, who refers to all her suitors as such. Calling them boyfriends would challenge cultural taboos and harm her reputation.
“We were very much in love, but then he went off and joined the rebels, which was a problem because my father works for the government,” she says. Her father is a civil servant in the Aleppo municipality. “We thought maybe we could elope and I would go live with him in the rebel area.”
Instead, her parents confiscated her cell phone and sent her to live with her grandmother in Damascus, an eight-hour bus ride away, hoping to cool off the love affair.
That was two years ago, and Batoul has since gotten a new cell phone and had several quasi-fiancés, though none have yet come to fruition.
“It’s OK if it’s taking this long to find the right one, but I would like to be married before I’m 21, with a one-year engagement period prior to that,” she says.
Twenty-one is the typical marriage age for urban women in Syria, and someone like Batoul -- intelligent, pretty, from a reputable family --would have had no trouble attracting a young man from her social milieu.
But now, because Batoul is displaced, along with her entire community and all the suitors she would have otherwise met, she faces many unknowns.
One quasi-fiancé who found her while roaming the WhatsApp messaging application wooed her online for weeks before he delivered a major disappointment. He told her about “the easy life” in Saudi Arabia, where he currently resides as a Syrian expat dairy shop owner, then sent his mother to visit Batoul at her grandmother’s home in Damascus to begin the engagement formalities in his stead -- because he’s essentially AWOL.
“He said he would provide me with a very comfortable life, and he wanted to speed up the process and join him right away,” Batoul recalls. “He said he was very lonely in Saudi, that he desperately needed a wife, and that we couldn’t meet in person because he can’t come to Syria because he’s fleeing military orders.” It is now extremely common to meet young Syrian men abroad who are on the run from the army, and many fear returning to Syria, where they could get drafted into fighting for the government in the ongoing war.
“But I didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable,” Batoul says. “My family was unable to find information about him.” The mother, it seems, was complicit in a web of lies that the young man wove.
In ordinary times, Batoul’s parents would have screened the suitor by telephone first. He would have had to be no more than seven or eight years older than Batoul and, like her, not previously married. If Batoul already held a college degree, her parents would require that the groom, too, be college educated. Batoul is tall, so physical attributes would be brought up as well. Is he too short for her?
He must be appropriately religious, because Batoul is conservative: She covers her hair in public and does not skip a prayer. Ideally, he would be local so Batoul could stay close to her family. The suitor and his family would have to have a good reputation in the community, something comparable to Batoul’s good name. Things such as having a criminal for a relative, a public family drama or a reputation for penny-pinching would be deal breakers. Financially, he would need to be able to support a family.
“What is his work? And his salary? Does he own a home? A car?” Batoul’s mother would have inquired of her potential in-laws over the phone. Lying about such things would have been near-impossible because Batoul’s parents would have inquired within the community to verify the facts. Only people who met the requirements would then be invited over “for coffee” at Batoul’s home.
The groom’s family would also inquire about their potential bride, her pedigree and, perhaps most importantly, her reputation as a chaste young woman.
Batoul’s grandmother points out that if she were still part of her home community in Aleppo, and still living in her parents’ home, she would not be “chatting with this man and that.”
“But maybe here in Damascus she feels she’s anonymous,” her grandmother says. “She’s sort of letting her hair down a little, and I need to be always on her case, because at her age -- you know, they don’t think with their head.”
Alone with her grandmother in Damascus, Batoul also finds it extremely difficult to verify facts about the quasi-fiancés she keeps meeting. The one who lives in Saudi Arabia turned out to be older than he had initially let on, and divorced with a child, rendering him totally inappropriate for Batoul.
“She deserves to marry someone like her: young and never before married,” her grandmother reiterates. “But he was not an honorable man, and his mother lied to us, too. Clearly he’s having trouble finding a wife because of his situation, so they wanted to rush things and make it a fait-accompli.” She adds that the man may have been attempting to exploit her granddaughter’s displacement and war-related misfortunes. “People are like wolves, they see a pretty young woman away from her family, and they come charging with knives,” she says, glancing at Batoul. “That’s why we have to be super-vigilant with her suitors. Too many dishonest people.”
There were other “quasi-fiancés” that Batoul was unsure about. There was the one she met while standing in line to pay her cell phone bill. He kept badgering her to join him out on a date by herself, a total break from tradition, as he made excuses for not wanting to send his mother for the customary visit just yet.
“He said he wanted to fall in love first. I told him: ‘Oh, sure. You’re going to get married by telling random women on the street that you want to fall in love?’ Of course I never went out with him to the coffee shop,” she pointedly declares, her grandmother within earshot.
Then there was the one she met while interviewing for a job as a cosmetics salesgirl. He did eventually send his mother to Batoul’s grandmother’s home for the formal visit, though as things progressed, his family made an insultingly low dowry proposition.
In Islamic culture, the man pays a dowry to the bride up front, and agrees in the marriage contract to a sum of money that he must pay in case he initiates a divorce. These amounts must be agreed upon in writing before the couple marries, and they depend upon class and local custom. In Damascus, upper-class brides eschew cash dowries, which they consider crass. They accept only jewelry (and sometimes houses and cars).
But for middle-income families such as Batoul’s, a cash dowry equivalent to $2,000 to $3,000 is customary nowadays. The money goes toward buying the bride a wedding gown and a new wardrobe, complete with sexy lingerie, which incidentally is something of a fetish in Syria, as illustrated in this media report and this book.
The groom also gives his bride jewelry and pays for all wedding expenses, the extravagance of which is often a sticking point in pre-engagement negotiations between in-laws.
“We know times are tough, and we’re not asking for the dowry Batoul would have gotten in Aleppo, if there was no war and if she’d been living at home with her parents,” Batoul’s grandmother concedes. “But I also don’t want people to think that just because she’s displaced, living in Damascus with her grandma, they can get away with a lousy offer for our Batoul. That’s not right.”
Lately, Batoul’s luck may have finally turned, as family friends have sent someone her way, though Batoul is not holding her breath.
“He’s very good-looking and tall, with big, green eyes,” she says, dreamily. The 28-year-old man, whose name is Ayman, has already visited Batoul a couple of times at her grandmother’s house, along with his mother and sister. He has held a steady job for several years at a car dealership, and makes a nice extra sum of money on the side as a car mechanic. He served his mandatory military conscription before the war, and hopes he will not be called up as a reservist.
“We chatted. He asked me if I snore at night,” Batoul says with a laugh. “I felt embarrassed by the question. Then he said his work might take him abroad and asked if I would mind leaving Syria. I told him not at all. Leaving Syria would be my preference.”
Asked if she thought this might finally be the one, she shrugs.
“I don’t know. I worry maybe he’s too good-looking, that he’ll be a snob with me because of it. Anyway, after the last visit, they said they’ll be calling us soon, so let’s see what they propose,” she says.
Meanwhile, the war rages on. Batoul’s parents and siblings remain in a relatively safe area in Aleppo but are still unable to return to their home. Batoul got the sales job she had interviewed for, and now she must figure out the best way to commute “given all the checkpoints” between her grandmother’s house and her new work, a distance that in ordinary times would have required about 15 minutes by public minibus. Now it can take more than an hour as commuters are subjected to long and humiliating searches by armed government guards.
Like all Damascenes, Batoul has grown accustomed to the daily litany of air raids and bombardment one hears in the city, as government forces pound rebel areas in the suburbs. Also like everyone else, Batoul has become fatalistic about the daily dangers of walking around, as mortar shells fired upon Damascus by rebels in the outskirts routinely fall at random times and places.
But now, none of that is on her mind. She declines an invitation for lunch, saying she is in a rush. “Ayman and his mother are coming over later to propose, and I must help grandma prepare refreshments,” she says.