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Married 203 Times, He Has Only Memories, Not Wives

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget about Liz Taylor and her paltry seven husbands (eight if you count Richard Burton twice). Move over, Ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi Arabian state, who took a mere 17 wives (though his were at the same time). And step aside, Glynn “Scotty” Wolfe, whose 28 marriages landed him a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Here comes Mustafa Eid Samida, a very skinny, three-pack-a-day musician who has married and divorced 203 times. The 70-year-old started his marathon nuptials when he was 15 and figures his longest union was 10 years, his shortest a few hours. He’s single again and hoping to find the perfect women. This time he wants two wives, just in case one doesn’t work out.

“I have never asked anybody for their hand,” Samida boasts through a raspy smoker’s cough. “They all wanted me. Why? I have no money. I am not good-looking. I have nothing.”

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Talk to Samida for a bit more in his run-down apartment, where flies buzz past lovebird stickers on the refrigerator, and he admits to knowing exactly why he was so much in demand: Many of his brides married him for protection.

It seems they had been with other men out of wedlock and feared that if anyone found out--like a future husband--they would be disgraced, perhaps even killed. To have been married and divorced is permitted by Islamic practice. To have slept with a man who is not your husband is a sin. In extreme cases, it can lead to what is known as “honor killing,” a practice that is illegal in most countries but is still all too common.

So they married Samida. That gave them a document that effectively cleansed their honor and protected their families’ reputations--and gave him, once in a while, a bit of what he coyly calls “married life.”

“Most of them needed me, and I stood by their side,” he says, lifting his hands toward the heavens. “What I did is a public service.”

To religious authorities, what he did, while permissible within Islam, is an embarrassment. Samida took advantage of a process called orfi, which allows a couple to be married by declaring their mutual agreement and signing a document in front of witnesses. The union is never registered with the state and therefore is informal, though still deemed legal.

Religious scholars said orfi is mostly meant to be used by young people who may not be able to afford a formal marriage, which would include the need to pay a kind of reverse dowry and to provide a home. Instead, it has often become a way for partners to have sex without incurring the wrath of religious authorities.

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In Iran, a Shiite Muslim state where a similar type of marriage is recognized, prostitutes often carry informal marriage documents in case they are stopped by authorities. In Lebanon, it’s known as a “pleasure marriage.”

“It is a marriage, we can say, but we are opposing it,” says Mohammed Laila, a department head at Al Azhar University, the Cairo-based seat of Islamic learning. “This is on the margins of the law and the margins of sharia [Islamic law]. We don’t welcome it.”

The Samida case also underscores some of the problems women face throughout the Arab world and in Iran, where, under varying interpretations of Islam, women often have second-class status. Throughout the region, divorced women are allowed to keep their sons until the boys are 9 years old, and their daughters until they are 12, before the children must be turned over to the ex-husband.

“We are seeing an increase in fundamentalism, and whenever there is an increase in fundamentalism, women suffer,” says Nawal Saadawi, Egypt’s most outspoken feminist.

When it comes to marriage--formal or informal--Islam decrees that women can marry only if they agree to it. But divorce has been quite a different matter. In most Arab countries, only the man has the right to divorce. Usually, a man merely has to say “I divorce thee” three times.

Some nations have sought to protect women by requiring that the divorce declaration be made before a judge, although others have entered the modern age with a different view: The Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, for example, recently ruled that divorce could be granted via a mobile phone text message.

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The downside for the man in such a quickie split is that the woman is entitled to whatever financial severance was promised in the initial marriage contract. Women’s rights advocates say that as a result, abusive men will often push wives to such limits that they will relinquish their financial rights to obtain a divorce.

Two years ago, Egypt set off a controversy in the region when it legalized a process called khul, which allows women to seek divorce--as long as they give up their financial claims and return all property received during the marriage. Hundreds of cases were filed in the courts in the first year, says Nehad Komsan, an attorney who heads the Egyptian Center of Women’s Rights.

“Islam respects women,” says Komsan, whose agency is representing 300 women seeking divorces. “But what has happened to women is political. There are those who want us hidden and cloistered, but that is not religion.”

In Samida’s household, however, none of this was necessary. Women stayed as long as they liked, then he divorced them when the moment passed. He’s like a onetime playboy who lived the fast life, doing gigs with the band he headed and taking up with beautiful belly dancers and singers.

“I don’t like to deal with courts,” he says. “When they wanted a divorce, I gave it to them.”

Although his father had only one wife--four are permitted in Islam--Samida started collecting marriages at a young age. When he was 15, he married a 16-year-old named Madhia, whom he says he decided to help because she was very poor. Over the years, he claims, poor women would ask him for help, and they would marry.

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“The poor people, they just needed affection and love, and I could give that to any class of woman,” he says.

But the bulk of his marriages were of the emergency type. He says he became the partner of last resort for many “artists” who found themselves in difficult positions because of their past relations.

He says he would get a phone call from a local sheik, who would explain the troubles a young woman found herself in and ask him to help out with a quickie marriage. In most cases, he says, he got at least a week of “married life” out of the deal, although sometimes it lasted six months before he decided it was time to divorce and move on.

Out of all these unions, he has three children. His adult daughter, whom he asked not to be identified, recently visited him and said that if he didn’t stop giving interviews, her wealthy stepfather would have him beaten up. Her paternity, apparently, is an embarrassment.

Samida lives in a walk-up in a small, crumbling building in the heart of the city. The rooms are tiny. The ceiling sags, and only one sink has running water. Samida is a bit of a dandy and keeps mustache scissors and brush near the front door and 25 bars of soap stacked by the sink.

But these days, living in poverty, alone, he says he feels like a victim.

“I blame them all,” he says, showing traces of an explosive temper. “I blame them all because they are all living happy lives thanks to me, and not one of them even picks up the phone and asks about me.”

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On the bed in his room, he has spread out pictures and documents from his many marriages--and divorces. He is most proud of one that shows him as a young man beside a raven-haired singer who went on to prominence in Egypt.

“She drove up to my house in a Mercedes,” he says. “What makes me upset is after 70 years I am still where I am.”

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