Finding a partner for life is a formidable task. But help is at hand, whether from your closest relatives, singles groups or even the Merchant of Marriage.
The labour of love
He calls himself Dubai’s celebrity matchmaker, the one and only “Merchant of Marriage”. When he talks of celebrity, it’s not Angelina, Brad or Anil Kapoor he is referring to, but himself. “I came from the land of Ghandi in 1976,” he tells me, sitting in his “office”, the cafe of the Ramada Hotel in Burj Dubai. “I was a very young, energetic man full of dreams.” Usman Merchant (yes, that really is his name) got a job as a marketing executive with the Kanoo Shipping Group in Dubai where he worked for 12 years before he realised that his true vocation lay elsewhere. He is now of a certain age, somewhere over 40, slim and well-groomed, with slicked-back hair and a smooth complexion that suggests he is a man who takes care of himself. First impressions count for a lot in his business.
“I started matchmaking in 1994,” he says. “I realised there were a lot of Indian and Pakistani families who had settled here in the 1970s whose children were brought up and educated here and who don’t want to go back and settle in India or Pakistan. But how do they find their match?” How indeed? The younger generation may have been brought up in a different culture, but the traditions of home are still respected. Young people do not often go out and meet each other in nightclubs. Their marriages are arranged, or at least facilitated, by their families.
If that family is away from home, then it is more difficult to find a suitable match. “In Dubai you don’t even know your neighbour,” says Merchant. “How can you expect to find the right match for your son or daughter?” Enter the Merchant of Marriage, a worried mother’s dream in a shiny black suit, the answer to a desperate father’s prayers. Merchant assures me that however difficult the subjects are, he commits himself to three months’ work on their behalf for Dh3,000. If he is not successful during that time he carries on and takes no extra money. If he does succeed (and according to him he has more than 3,000 happy marriages to his credit), then clients can slip him a tip, a sort of “thanks for the spiffing son-in-law”.
“I am available from 10.00am to 10.00pm without break,” he tells me. “I have had an unbelievable response from families; this is a very useful service and a lot of people really need it.” The process is simple. Say parents have a daughter they are keen to marry off; they go for a cup of tea with Merchant. He talks to them about the criteria they are after: well-educated, tall, handsome, rich, all the usuals.
He tells them whether or not their criteria are likely to be met, bearing in mind what the daughter is like. “I have to meet the daughter,” he says. “I have to see the quality of the daughter. Sometimes I have to tell the mothers, ‘Madam, you are looking for a very high-level kind of boy, but your daughter is not up to that level.’ For example, I had a mother of a divorcée who was 39 and she wanted a rich Indian businessman. I asked her, ‘Why would a rich Indian businessman marry your daughter when he could marry a 21-year-old?’ Sometimes the girls are chubby. Indian and Pakistani men will not like them. I tell the mother to ask the daughter to lose some weight. Men like women with fair skin as well. Sometimes they have to work on that.”
Once they are married, of course, they can get away with more. “If they are good-natured and kind, then one or two minus points don’t make a big difference, but before marriage it does,” he says. after the initial meeting, Merchant writes an advertisement that the parents agree on, stating what they are looking for and a little bit about their daughter and family. About 70 per cent of the personal ads in local papers for people seeking wives or husbands within the Asian community are from Merchant, disguising himself as a prospective mother-in-law.
After this, the hard work for Merchant begins. While a daughter is busy dieting and using skin-lightening cream, he will be busy interviewing prospective sons-in-law. These interviews go on for at least an hour and he gets more information than her parents might want to know, including salary details, the size of his bank account, whether or not he has already been married and even if he has any erectile dysfunctions.
“This is not the kind of question a mother can ask,” he says, nodding sagely. Does he get all that information from women too? I mean about bank accounts and salaries? “I don’t check for girls,” says Merchant. “A wife might work today and not tomorrow. A boy’s income is very important but a girl’s is not.” However, he concedes that due to the high cost of living in the country, 90 per cent of young men are looking for working wives.
After these interviews, Merchant will prepare notes on maybe five suitable candidates and then arrange meetings between the families. How does he pick his shortlist? “I know their mentality. I am a little like a psychologist. I know who will fit with whom, their education, the way they talk, the way they behave, their languages. I put them together when I know they will fit.” After the parents have met their prospective sons-in-law, they (and/or their daughter) get to choose which one is the lucky winner. What if the two disagree? What if the daughter likes a man the mother doesn’t? “I try to talk to them, to tell the mother that your daughter likes him and he is a good boy and she has to be with him for a lifetime, which if they are in their twenties could mean another 75 years. Every daughter has a limited life with her parents. Her choice is more important. You cannot force her opinion.”
And if a boy doesn’t want to get married? “I say it’s better to marry! Being single is for big losers. When your wife comes you double your income. You are not eating outside the home; you are doing your laundry at home. Being single in the UAE is too expensive.” Deepak Jangla is a fan of Merchant. He came across him in the Swagath Indian vegetarian restaurant in Dubai that Merchant uses as his second office.
“The thing about him is that he is very honest and is doing an extremely good job,” says Jangla. “He found a husband for my cousin’s daughter, who was extremely fussy. All girls now want men to be handsome, successful, sophisticated, smart and always exciting, never boring. Anyway, she got what she wanted thanks to Merchant and they have been living happily in the States for the last two years. We look upon Mr Merchant as a member of the family now.”
Merchant is invited to a lot of the weddings he facilitates. If they are in the UAE he will try to go along. Sadly, he has never enjoyed a wedding of his own. “I have been in love three times,” he says. “Each time they were from a different religion and the parents objected and I didn’t want to marry without the parents’ blessing.” He tells me he is looking for a woman who is 39 or under. It doesn’t bother him if she’s already been married or what religion she is, as long as her parents accept that he is a moderate Sunni Muslim.
Maybe he should write an advert? “Dubai’s only celebrity matchmaker, aged forty-something, seeks life partner…?” “No, it would go very wrong,” he says. “I cannot sell myself. Anybody interested can approach me directly. No fee.”
All unhappy marriages are the same, says Husna, a Pakistani woman living in Abu Dhabi, and all happy marriages are arranged. “Arranged marriages are better,” she says. “I think in an arranged marriage your chances of it working are much better than in a love marriage.” Husna is now 40. Her marriage was arranged by her family in Islamabad 15 years ago. She had already had several proposals, which she rejected because she wanted to complete her studies before settling down. “My husband Aban was my cousin’s brother-in-law. He introduced us and we liked each other. It never occurred to me to look for someone myself. This is the way I was brought up, and I am very happy with it.” Malika, who is 35, agrees with Husna that an arranged marriage can be a better option, even for those of a younger generation. “Marriage is a gamble either way,” she says. “In an arranged one, if your family has done their job, then at least you know you have the same values and the same background.” Malika had only seen a photograph of Salim, her future husband, before they got engaged. What did she think when she met him? “I thought he was so handsome,” she says, laughing. “My experience has been very good. We were engaged for a couple of months and then we got married. I have been very happy, but I think one of the things about an arranged marriage as opposed to a love marriage is that you don’t go into it with high expectations.” Malika adds that she could have rejected Salim’s proposal if she had wanted to, but she liked him. And it was the only one she had so she said yes. “I also knew that if there were any problems we had the support of our families behind us, which makes a big difference. The fact that they arranged it takes the pressure off us as a couple. Sometimes your family knows more about you than you do and they are acting out of a sense of history as well as hope for the future.” The author Amitav Ghosh sums this feeling up in his novel The Glass Palace. “Suddenly she understood why people arranged marriages for their children: it was a way of shaping the future to the past, of cementing one’s ties to one’s memories and to one’s friends.” Yalda was just 16 when she met her future husband. They have now been married for 35 years and she doesn’t regret a single day. “Of course I know the world is changing and that I was very young, but at the time that was normal. It didn’t occur to me to rebel, that was how our world worked. I saw it as an opportunity to leave home and enjoy some freedom as a married woman, to have my own home, to go shopping and see friends.” Yalda has three daughters and says she will not arrange marriages for any of them in the strict traditional sense. “They wouldn’t listen to me. But I will point them in the right direction of families we know.” One of her daughters, Amani, tells the story of a friend who is still in Pakistan where arranged marriages are still very much the norm. The friend is 30 now and married, but when she was 16 her mother would insist on bringing potentially suitable families home for her to meet. She had set her sights on becoming a doctor, and didn’t want to marry young, so she would do everything she could to discourage potential suitors: she would show up looking her worst, pick her nose and wear rags. “The next day at school we would all have a good laugh about it,” says Amani. “And using this method she managed to remain single until she completed her studies.” In Pakistan, the pressure to marry is greater than abroad, as Amani confirms. “We were brought up mainly in the UK and Abu Dhabi, but every time we would go back my father would say to my mother, ‘The girls have to marry’, then when we got back to the West he would forget about it until the next time we went home.” But what if an arranged marriage goes wrong? Malika says that after 10 years of being miserable, her sister finally discussed the idea of a divorce with their father. “Everyone thought they should separate, even the children. But my father said it would be unbearable for the family. So they stayed together until he died, 10 years later. Some topics are just not open for discussion.” And if you want to reject a potential suitor? Does that not create strained relations between families who are obviously already close if a match was being considered? “You have to be diplomatic and say something like, ‘Our daughter still wants to study’,” says Husna. Malika says she has a male cousin living in New York for whom she is always trying to arrange a wife. A year or so ago she came up with someone she was sure would finally get him to settle down. “I thought she was perfect and I was really happy, after all these years I had finally hit the jackpot.” They left the restaurant and once the date had got in a taxi, Malika excitedly asked her cousin what he thought of her. “I cannot live with that nose,” he told her. Malika found a kinder excuse for the rejected woman and is still looking for suitable candidates. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals interviewed.
It’s midweek at The Montgomerie Golf Club, and the Balenciaga bags and Jimmy Choos are out in full force. Young women gather in clusters, deep in conversation but breaking away every now and again to cast a coy glance around the softly lit venue. Welcome to Single in the City, a new social networking group set up to entice a generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings to mingle at a series of upmarket events, from masquerade balls to golfing circles. As in the TV series Sex And The City, from which it heavily borrows its name and logo, only the über-chic need apply. Judging from the crowd gathered for its launch, a designer dress code is a prerequisite. So too are model-like looks and an air of studied indifference. Lara Young, 27, who also works for a make-up distribution company, set up the organisation after getting bored with going to the same venues with the same friends. “I have lived here for two years and while I love Dubai, it is a very difficult city if you are young and away from your home and family.” There are three levels of membership. Silver is free and gives singles access to general membership evenings; Pearl, at Dh5,000 annually, allows entry into four more exclusive parties a month; Diamond, costing Dh25,000 a year, allows members to bring two friends to events and access concierge services to organise private parties. Despite its suggestive name, Single in the City is not a dating agency, Young insists. “The usual options for socialising are a bar, nightclub or restaurant so I thought, why not set up a network with organised events? It is not about dating but meeting people who do not have a family, partner or friends here or even if they do, are sick of going to bars.” “If I had a partner, I would be in every night having dinner, but I’m not. That is not to say we are all sad lonely hearts or telling people they are going to meet the man of their dreams.” Sixty per cent of the 1,000-odd members who have signed up are men, Young says, in a city where men outnumber women by nearly four to one, according to a recent study. Most of the women are either near or over the age of 30 and plaintively explain that they want someone serious to settle down with. Elodie Calvet, 29, and her friend Samira Soltani, 33, who are both property consultants, are surveying the scene with a hawk eye. Samira, who has a French-Algerian background, sighs: “We have already looked around tonight, and there is no one here who is suitable. We were pretty curious about what kind of men it would attract, but they are very disappointing. Everyone is in transit. They are not looking for anything long term. In the three years I have been here, I have not found anyone who is a long-term prospect. Dubai is not the place to find a husband. There are a lot of beautiful girls here so the men are always going for the best-looking.” Calvet, who is from Paris, adds: “I am nearly 30 and want to settle. I want a family and stability, but I think men mature after us and the ones our age are not ready for those things. They want to show off with their new car and flash watch. We want to meet quality men with values, but I do not think we will meet people like that through these events. “The Single in the City slogan might give guys the wrong idea about available girls. I am looking for the right man, but I am not desperate. I will carry on coming to future events because I don’t like to hang out with the same people I work with. You need new blood and new faces. Going out with the same group gets boring. You spend so much time at work that it is difficult to meet new people and at least here, even if it is cheesy, you know the person is looking for the same things you are. It is easier to try to meet the right person if you are both single.” Farah Syed, 33, who has lived in Dubai all her life, is more blatant. “My main priority is to meet someone to settle with. I have been looking for two years for something like this where you can have a decent conversation with a man,” she says. “I am a thriving thirty-something making my own money but I have not met anyone suitable to settle with. When men first arrive in Dubai, they are very human, but after a few weeks, what I call the plastic side of them starts to come out. “There are so many gorgeous girls out there and not enough eligible men. I would like to find someone like-minded with brains. I can spend Dh2,000 on a night out and come away without having a single conversation that matters, but then, you are never going to meet your soulmate in a nightclub.”
For more on the group, visit www.singleinthecity.ae
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019