For Young Libyans, Old-Style Marriage Is a Dream Too Far

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Thirty-one-year-old Abdel Baset al-Assady dreams of getting married in the mountains, where Arabian horses would paw the air and prance in rhythm with his wedding drums.

Assady dreams of getting married in the city. His proud family would stream into the home of his bride bearing trays of gold for her.

But mostly, Assady just dreams of getting married.

As it is, the single young Libyan man lives at home in the capital, Tripoli. He shares six whitewashed rooms with his mother, father, and five brothers and sisters. His siblings are all underemployed, unmarried and restless -- like him.

"I want to get married now, and I believe this is the right time in my life," said Assady, who shows tiny white teeth when he smiles and tucks his head down when he laughs. "But I have to wait for cash, and marriage needs a sustainable job."

Custom and changing economies are frustrating millions of young people in Libya, Egypt and other less prosperous parts of the Arab world. The oil wealth gurgling into Libya with the lifting of international sanctions has yet to trickle down to its people. With few prospects of advancement, many of the young are finding marriage a luxury they can't afford.

Libyan custom demands that young men provide their brides with a home and a hefty dowry. But with increasing urbanization, 90 percent of Libya's 6 million people now live in cities, where housing is cramped and scarce.

Unemployment, estimated by the World Bank at 30 percent, hits the North African country's young people hardest. Few can easily afford the gold, furnishings and other dowry goods expected of young men.

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's government and his family provide sporadic help, with officials offering dowries and promises of housing.

In Tripoli, 30-year-old Aisha Mosbah ar Homa ran a finger down her thin gold bracelets, showing off the simpler pieces of her dowry. A foundation run by Gaddafi's oldest daughter, Aisha, gave Homa the bangles, along with an apartment and everything else Homa needed to marry, down to cooking oil to make the rice for the wedding guests.

"I was in love with my cousin, and he loved me, for 16 years," Homa said. "But his financial condition was very limited. Aisha's foundation saved me from a black hell."

The charity helps individual couples to marry and runs mass weddings once a year in a different part of the country, said Ahmed Ali Kajman, the charity's administrator. Last year, it helped 200 couples in the rural west.

Libyan families can spend $10,000 or more on a wedding, driven by tradition that once demanded villagers invite their whole village and clan, Kajman said. The financial burden can be devastating in a country where even a good job can bring in less than $300 a month.

For the group marriages, the charity makes a point of limiting each side to only five guests and prodding people to cut their spending. "We don't exaggerate the wedding," Kajman said. "Now, by example, we are raising awareness in society."

Libya has pledged to have enough apartments built by 2009 for every young man who wants to get married.

"I will get the first one!" Assady shouted in his family's small home, where his mother was serving tea from a low burner set up on the floor in front of cushions.

Assady's sisters pulled from a cupboard the satin clothes and flowered fans each of them hopes to wear in turn one day, when they get married.

Assady thumbed through stacks of proposals he and his brother prepared for a long-frustrated get-rich scheme. The two bought the parts of a passenger aircraft that had been sold as scrap, hoping to transform it into a theme restaurant for one of the beach developments Libya is planning.

Assady stared at his proposals. A girl cousin he always thought he would marry had wed another man that week, in the mountains. "If the plane project had worked out when I started it, I would have married years ago," he said.

"Everything's on hold," he said. "And whenever I have my eyes on a girl, she is taken."

In the darkness of a Tripoli side street, Khaled, a manager in an electronics store, drank tea with two friends. All three had gone to college together. All three were still single. They met in the evenings to indulge in long discussions of what they would look for in a wife.

"I'm 33, and I still have no clue when marriage will be possible -- or even if it can be possible," Khaled said.

Many of those interviewed declined to give their full names. Secret police remain a force in Libya. A middle-aged man in a plastic windbreaker sidled up to Libyans in wedding parties in Tripoli's main square when reporters tried to interview them, warning them to be careful with foreigners.

In this part of the world, staying single doesn't mean availing oneself of the Western options of dating or living together.

A woman's honor is paramount to her family. The Libyan government runs group homes for women whose families have repudiated them or tried to kill them because the woman had sex with a man, even if the sex was rape.

Even in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, a 2003 study warned of a "spinsterhood crisis" for both men and women, despite the governments' decades-old practice of handing out generous dowries.

In the middle and upper classes, money doesn't always guarantee an end to young men's loneliness.

In Libya, Egypt and some Gulf states, among other countries, growing numbers of women are resisting pressure to marry so they can stick with careers and educations.

Libyan society still looks askance at women who want to work after marriage. Gaddafi's own "Green Book," the collection of political musings that serves as the framework of Gaddafi's 38-year-old government, refers to day-care centers as "rats' nests."

Ekram, a 26-year-old doctor, has heard all the arguments against staying single.

"They say it's a sin," Ekram said. She spoke at a wedding, which by custom was held in separate halls for men and women.

Around her, young women edged on lip gloss with the tips of their pinkies. Low-cut gowns and transparent netting put flesh on display. Underwiring pushed it high.

Weddings here serve as a display case, where mothers and daughters pick brides for their sons and brothers to marry one day.

"A lot of my friends -- doctors, people like that -- looking at marriage think it's a relationship that brings you down," Ekram said, glitter shining from her cleavage.

Ekram's own dream was to do postdoctoral work in Canada. Asked if she planned to bypass marriage, she nodded. "Yes," she said. "I think so."

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