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COLUMN ONE

His matches have sparks of tradition

Mohammad Mertaban is a volunteer matchmaker who helps observant young Muslims searching for a modern path to marriage that stays true to Islam.

September 23, 2011|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times | COLUMN ONE
  • Mohammad Mertaban, center, and father-in-law Kamal Serhal pray at Mertabans Fullerton home during Ramadan. At left is his daughter Layelle, 4. Mertaban, 30, has grown accustomed to urgent requests from friends and acquaintances since he began dabbling in matchmaking about eight years ago.
Mohammad Mertaban, center, and father-in-law Kamal Serhal pray at Mertabans… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

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."

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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."

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