The one-line email that greeted Mohammad Mertaban came straight to the point.
“Mertaban, find me a husband, k? I await your list of potential suitors,” wrote a woman who lives on the East Coast.
Mertaban was not surprised, although he knew the woman only slightly. “If it comes from a brother or sister whom I don’t know very well, I know that she would do it out of frustration, desperation or a strong desire to get married,” he explained later.
An information technology project manager who lives in Fullerton, Mertaban, 30, has grown accustomed to urgent requests — by phone, email and in person — since he began dabbling in matchmaking for friends and acquaintances about eight years ago. Those he helps are observant young Muslims searching for a modern path to marriage that stays true to Islam.
American Muslims regularly speak of a “marriage crisis” in their communities, as growing numbers of Muslims reach their late 20s and early 30s still single. Young religious Muslims tend to avoid Western-style dating, but many also reject the ways of earlier generations, in which potential spouses were introduced to one another by family.
Traditionally, in South Asia and the Middle East, older women — often called the “aunties” — and parents recommended matches by drawing upon their extensive networks of family, friends and acquaintances. Marriage criteria were typically limited to religion, ethnicity, jobs and looks. But in the U.S., their little black books of contacts are significantly thinner and many second-generation American Muslims see such methods as decidedly old-world.
So, many turn to young volunteer matchmakers like Mertaban, who have connections in their hometowns, college circles and vast online networks.
“The aunties don’t really know people very well and I think they’re just shooting in the dark,” said Mertaban, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon. “I think people have veered away from that.”
Amir Mertaban, Mohammad’s younger brother and a matchmaker as well, said the goal was “to keep this as close to Islam as possible. I’m trying to get people hooked up, but we’re trying to do this in a halal (permissible) manner.”
What is and isn’t allowed is debated within the Muslim community. But those who seek a matchmaker’s help tend to steer clear of anything resembling dating and to avoid meeting one another without a chaperone. And even though they may see their parents’ methods as too traditional, they are still more comfortable seeking help from a go-between than online matrimonial sites or singles’ events held at mosques under the guise of “networking.”
Mertaban, who is lively with a quick laugh and a wide, almost Joker-like smile, says he didn’t choose to be a matchmaker but fell into the role after he helped a number of friends.
He grew up in Diamond Bar and has lived in Los Angeles, Irvine and Fullerton — where he is now a youth mentor at the area mosque — which helped him establish a wide Southern California Muslim network.
In his senior year at UCLA, Mertaban was president of the campus’ Muslim Student Assn. and the following year he was president of MSA-West, an umbrella group covering much of the West Coast. With chapters at universities nationwide, it has jokingly been called the Muslim Singles Assn.
He was well-liked and known for making other students, especially freshmen, feel welcome. Many turned to him for advice about their problems.
“He’s a leader… everybody trusts Mohammad,” said Lena Khan, 26, an independent filmmaker who attended UCLA with Mertaban. “If you need something at 2 a.m., you know Mohammad is happy to help you.”
In a community that observes a certain level of gender segregation, Mertaban, because of his leadership roles, interacted regularly with both men and women. Soon, students began asking him for help finding potential mates.
His first attempt involved one of his best friends, of Palestinian descent, and an Indian woman the man was interested in. It didn’t work, partly because of their different ethnicities — a cultural lesson Mertaban now keeps in mind when suggesting pairings. He organizes his lists of single men and women by nationality.
The “Single Sisters” directory on his laptop begins with a 28-year-old Afghan woman and ends with a 25-year-old Syrian. In between are almost three dozen women, ranging from their early 20s to early 30s with details such as “Algerian only” or “wants to marry an Egyptian dr, mba or engineer.” Other notations include “not hijabi,” referring to women who don’t wear a head scarf.
His “Single Brothers” list, which is kept separate, is longer.
Mertaban, who has been married since 2005 and has two young daughters, said he has become well known as a source of reliable information about single Muslims — perhaps too well known. “I’ll get random emails from people that I’ve met once,” he said. “And sometimes it’s just really overwhelming and I don’t want to take these cases on.”
At a recent Muslim conference, Mertaban volunteered at the information booth of a relief agency with projects in the Middle East and Africa. But some at the conference still wanted to talk matrimony.
A man from Northern California stood awkwardly beside Mertaban, saying, “Maybe you can mention potentials” as young women walked by. The man, whom Mertaban had previously tried to set up but without success, stayed at his elbow as conference-goers browsed through religious books and other materials. Too polite to mention his discomfort with the request, Mertaban escaped only when the call to prayer was made.
He had greater success with Khan, the filmmaker. On Valentine’s Day 2008, he called to say that a friend, Ahmad, was interested in her. For a few weeks, Khan peppered Mertaban with questions about her suitor.
Mertaban told her that Ahmad was devoted to his prayers and very involved in volunteer activities, both of which were important to her. He helped fill the gaps in a courtship that took place mostly over the phone, Khan said.
“Mohammad told me he was funny and it would have taken me forever … to find out because he’s not going to start busting out jokes on the phone with a girl he wants to marry,” she said. “If you want to know about a guy, you need someone like Mohammad.”
She and Ahmad were married 10 months later.
Twice previously, Khan’s parents had entertained suitors for her — young men and their parents — and both efforts ended the day they began. “It’s just not as fruitful,” she said.
Even though Mertaban is a new-style matchmaker, his methods are relatively conservative. He is wary of suggesting matches for couples of different ethnicities and he declines to help any man who doesn’t plan to approach the woman’s father first for permission.
“I mean guys and girls shouldn’t be talking freely,” he said. “If you have the intention of getting married, the parents need to be involved.”
Sounding not unlike an “auntie” himself, he says those interested in marriage need to decide if they are compatible as a couple before emotions get in the way. He was introduced to his wife, Ferdaus Serhal, by his older sister who had worked with Serhal at a mosque. The couple emailed and spoke on the phone for two months before their families met.
Now he often consults with Serhal to get her opinion on a young woman or a possible pairing. He has matched eight couples who married and has about half a dozen more in progress. Still, he says he spends too much time counseling men with unrealistic expectations.
Two days after he ran into a college friend, Mertaban got a call from the man. They spent time catching up, and then the man volunteered that he was struggling to find a wife. Mertaban asked what he was looking for.
“He said he wants a girl with beautiful hair, tall, slender body and he wants her to have really pretty eyes and on top of that, get this, he wanted a girl who would not talk back to him,” the matchmaker recalled. “I thought this is not worth my time, this guy needs a lot more maturing.”
But he felt obliged to say something. He told the man, a doctor, that his criteria were unrealistic and noted that the prophet Muhammad encouraged men to marry women for their faith and character. He tried to be sensitive, knowing that asking for his help can be a humbling experience.
The man seemed to understand, but at the end of the conversation he just reiterated his requirements.
Mertaban hung up feeling frustrated.