Tawfiq Abdullah is a teacher who lives in Khormal, east of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. He is also a legend among local romantics. He is well known because, as locals say, in 25 years he has arranged over 2,000 stable marriages. He claims that of all of these, only one has ended in divorce, and it was a divorce that both partners agreed to.
His phone is continuously ringing and he fields calls from young men and women in the semi-autonomous northern region, as well as from other parts of Iraq and the world. And Abdullah does this all for free; he believes it is his social responsibility. “Actually mostly it only brings me headaches,” he jokes when asked if it is making him wealthy.
As he was speaking to NIQASH, Abdullah's phone rang. It was a young woman who wanted to get married. Although arranged marriages are not always the norm in Iraqi Kurdistan any more, with some modern couples choosing their own love matches, there are still many young people who do use this option. Even those who don't completely arrange their marriage, will often seek the advice or services of a matchmaker, who would then negotiate the terms of the marriage between two families. Most of the match makers tend to be women, which also makes Abdullah unusual.
“Are you serious about getting married?” Abdullah asked the caller. “There are many kind-hearted young men who want to marry kind-hearted young women like you. If you are serious about getting married, then come and visit me together with one of your family members. If you don't want to do that, then I could also come and visit you, together with one of these young men, so you can get to know him.”
After a little more conversation, the caller agreed to come and visit Abdullah with her mother in order to be introduced to a potential husband.
Abdullah says his first match was almost accidental. He went to a refugee camp to ask a young woman if she would marry a certain young man. He was successful. “And I felt so happy that the two people connected, and even happier when they made a family,” Abdullah explained.
Abdullah displayed three large notebooks full of names, addresses and personality profiles.
After arranging a meeting between a young man and woman, and ascertaining that the couple like one another, Abdullah collects information from other people to try and work out what sort of personalities the pair has. “From the very beginning I try and collect detailed information about them to figure out if they could actually live together,” he told NIQASH. “When I register their names I also get their addresses. Then I may go personally to their neighbourhood and ask around about the person. I might also send others to follow up. Things don't necessarily happen because a young man and woman like one another. I won't complete the marriage before I assess the case properly.”
Females are easier to deal with, Abdullah says. “They have humble demands. A woman mostly just wants a person who will respect them, who is good and generous, who is not jealous and who will treat her well. Men have many more demands,” Abdullah says. “They want tall, beautiful women who have a job. Some of them even want to marry women who already have their own cars.”
In terms of match making trends, at the moment many Iraqi Kurdish men want to wed Arab women, from further south in Iraq. There are many of them in Iraqi Kurdistan at the moment, having left their hometowns for the comparative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own military, borders and Parliament. Locals say this is because the costs of marrying an Arab woman are lower and because many Kurdish men still want to take a second wife; this is much more strictly regulated in Iraqi Kurdistan (in fact, it's almost illegal) and it's also well known that many Kurdish women won't allow a second wife.
“There are also many Arab women who want to marry Kurdish men and they call me all the time to find a suitable husband,” Abdullah notes – locals say this is because if an Arab woman from further south marries into Iraqi Kurdistan, so to speak, she may also be able to bring her family to the relatively safe region.