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Tuesday, August 17, 2010 - 2:49pm

In Egypt, Carrie Bradshaw In A Headscarf

Egyptian writer Ghada Abdul-Aal chronicles the nightmares of Egypt's matchmaking culture based on her own experiences. She sees herself as Carrie Bradshaw in a headscarf.

The witty 31-year-old writer turned her popular blog, I Want To Get Married, into a best-selling book and now a television satire, also expected to be a hit.

She is a fan of the American program Sex and the City, which defined the dilemma for American singletons. Abdul-Aal speaks for a new generation of young, professional Arab women under intense pressure to get married in a conservative Muslim society.

"Some people call my show Sex and the City, but without the sex. It's just the city," she says with a hearty laugh.

She attributes her widespread appeal to a sense of humor that she displays in abundance.

"Everything started in 2006 when I had a crazy idea about starting a blog. It was the first time a female blogger made fun of herself in public. It's a popular way of dealing with our problems in Egypt," she says.

The problem that she tackles is the marriage crisis across the Middle East. Getting hitched is getting more expensive at a time when youth unemployment is at an all-time high. Unemployment among college graduates in Egypt is 25 percent, and 48 percent among vocational school graduates, according to Egypt's Population Council.

Across the region, 50 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 29 are not married. For women, the average age of marriage is rising, too, along with deep anxiety, Abdul-Aal says.

"Thirty is the death sentence for single women. When you are 30, it's like you have this big label of, like, failure, or pathetic or ugly," she says.

Abdel-Aal is none of these things and has had the courage to say no to a parade of unsuitable suitors. But in the clash between tradition and reality, she is still faced with relentless family pressure to tie the knot.

"It's controlling us. They are pushing us to take wrong choices. And I feel we are obligated to humiliate ourselves to obey all the rules of the society," Abdul-Aal says with a sigh.

The pressure comes because marriage is an important right of passage between adolescence and adulthood, says Cairo-based sociologist Ghada Barsoum. "It's this whole issue of completeness. You're not a complete person unless you're married. It's so different from the West."

Tradition and religion dictate that everything a married couple will need is bought and paid for before the couple say, "I do." There is the wedding party, a flashy expensive affair, but that is only a small part of the cost.

A housing shortage is driving the exorbitant price of marriage, which means weddings are often delayed for years, says Diane Singerman, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who has conducted extensive research on the economics of Egyptian marriage. Singerman calls the price for this young generation "waithood."

"They are stuck in this period of not being children, not being adolescent. And they don't necessarily consider themselves adults. And at the same time almost everybody, if they are not married, they are living at home with their families," she says.

The family plays a major role in matchmaking.

Abdul-Aal's blog skewers the Egyptian custom known as gawaaz al-salonat, or "living room marriage." She pokes fun at this awkward courtship ritual that requires the would-be bride to make her decision on a life partner after a chat in the family living room, chaperoned by both sets of nervous parents, who are on the side of Mr. Right.

"Sometimes, when you ask for more time, he will be offended. He will think, like: 'Why do you need any more time? Can't you see I'm perfect? Can't you see I'm great? What else do you need? I'm Gods gift to women. I'm a man; I have an apartment; I have a job. How can you say no?"

"There is a real problem in the way we get married in this country," says historian Hanan Kholoussy, who has written a book on the marriage crisis.

She teaches the subject at the American University in Cairo because, she says, it is a lens to examine Egypt's rapid social change. There is the changing role of women -- more educated and independent -- a traditional society that has embraced the materialism of the West, and the frustration of the young who are angry at the government about a stagnant economy that cannot keep up with their demands.

Kholoussy hopes the new sitcom I Want To Get Married sparks a national discussion. "I predict it's going to be a huge hit, without a doubt. It will invite controversy and discussion and debate, and that's the exciting part," she says.

Abdul-Aal's approach is to make fun of this serious crisis, which has given her writings wide appeal. She is famous now -- but still lives at home.

With her success, it is no easier to get married. "No, it's much harder because everyone is so afraid to approach me," she says. "Because they are frightened to find their stories in the next book."

Her next book is in English. A translated version of I Want To Get Married will be published in the fall by the University Of Texas Press.

Deborah Amos' report is a joint project with America Abroad, a monthly public radio program about international affairs. America Abroad is currently producing a three-part series on the challenges confronting Arab youth. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]