On the outskirts of the vast Egyptian capital, Egypt ends and the latest Syria enclave begins. Women tie their headscarves in a distinctly Syrian way. They buy Syrian spices and trinkets from vendors whose shops are now tables lined along the streets. There is a constant murmur of stories about the desperate circumstances that forced the residents to flee places such as Homs and Damascus in the past year.
The only sign that one is still in Egypt is the sound of Egyptian men and their mothers, who flock every day in the hopes they can exploit the dashed hopes of the Syrian revolution. Too poor to take an Egyptian bride, the men have heard that Syrian refugees are cheaper, prettier, better cooks and easier to marry.
“I am looking for a Syrian bride,” a 39-year-old painter, his calloused hands showing his struggle to survive, tells a Syrian man selling pita bread and spices outside the local mosque. “They are less complicated.”
The Syrian has heard this a dozen times already that day and doesn’t even respond, but rather points to a professionally made sign in front of the mosque behind him. It says that the mosque “announces that it has nothing to do with the marriage of Egyptian men to Syrian sisters. That’s why there shouldn’t be any questions regarding this issue in any of the offices of the organization. May Allah punish those responsible for spreading these rumors.”
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The painter is undeterred. “Maybe there are Syrian women around the corner?” he asks.
The Syrian, who asks that he be identified only as Khalid, just shakes his head.
Before the sign, Khalid said, he fielded the question 100 times a day; now it is only 50. It’s difficult to know if he’s exaggerating.
“They ask us where the office is to buy a Syrian woman, as if they are buying a chicken. They don’t believe us when we tell them it doesn’t exist,” said Khalid, who said he was 26. “Our women are not for sale. We are here because we did not want to be killed.”
Men across the region are now seeking Syrian brides. In Turkey and Jordan, where refugee camps pepper the landscape, the desperation of the Syrians is far easier to spot as rich Persian Gulf men scour the camps to buy brides living in tents. Rape, child brides and temporary marriages are prevalent.
“People are marrying off their daughters for as little as 100 Jordanian dinars ($70) because of the bad circumstances inside the camp in return for money,” said Marwa al Saloumy, who works on women’s issues for a regional advocacy group called Al Zahra.
But in Cairo, where there are no camps, the dashed dreams of both Egyptians and Syrians in the post-Arab Spring world meet on more equal terms. Egyptian men, now poorer as the economy founders, find hope in the desperate Syrians, who can’t live in their own nation because a war that once promised revolutionary change has brought devastation and forced flight instead.
Syrian women say the men instantly spot them by their dress and approach them constantly. Alaa, a woman who fled Damascus three months ago to the Helwan neighborhood that has now become a Syrian enclave, said the harassment has been one of her biggest challenges.
In light of what is happening in Syria, “this is not the time to marry and celebrate and enjoy life,” Alaa said. And because of it, “Egyptian women now are starting to hate Syrian woman.”
That Egyptian men believe they could marry someone for less is changing marriage across Egypt. Men are demanding more of women and are willing to offer less, women report, and the standards for taking a bride are falling. Where an Egyptian man was once expected to provide a home and prove he can work before he could marry, now many believe they can have a Syrian bride for as little as $45.
The men come to the areas where Syrians have congregated all day, hoping to escape forced marriages or no prospects at all. They go to the mosque, to the makeshift Syrian vendors, to apartment complexes where Syrians are known to live. They approach one stranger after another, asking for a woman in the same tone they would ask directions – security guards at apartment complexes, Muslim clerics, anyone whose accent identifies them as Syrian.
For the Syrians, defending the women in their community has become a means to maintain their dignity even as they are living in dire circumstances.
“The thugs of Bashar Assad have spread these false rumors,” explained Khalid. “He has destroyed our nation and now he is destroying the reputation of our women.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are nearly 70,000 Syrian refugees living in Egypt, most in and around Cairo, all arriving in the last year.
But it is unclear how many Egyptians have taken a Syrian bride. Instead, it is a crisis built on rumor.
One regional women’s organization reported recently that 12,000 Syrian women have married Egyptian men in the last year. But according to the Ministry of Justice in Egypt, the official number of marriages between Egyptian men and Syrian women between January 2012 and March 2013 is 170, with 57 of those nuptials between January and March 2013, according to an Al Ahram online newspaper report.
Moreover, neither side wants to admit they are partaking. Syrians here find such claims insulting, and Egyptian women don’t want to admit that their men could find Syrians more attractive.
Some Muslim clerics have urged Egyptian men to marry Syrian women as an act of charity, and there are even rumors that top members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive religious society through which Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi rose to prominence, have taken Syrian women as second wives.
Earlier this month, the National Council of Women condemned the push to marry Syrian women, urging Egyptian officials to intervene. It even set up a hotline for Syrians to call and complain.
The number doesn’t work.
Egyptian matchmakers say they keep getting requests for Syrian women but refuse to oblige. They say they do not want to create yet another problem for Egyptian women – another obstacle to marriage.
Nashwa Soltan has worked as a matchmaker for a decade. For the first time, in the last year, two of every 10 men she meets ask for a Syrian bride.
“He has difficult demands,” Soltan said, referring to one such man she is working with. “He is a 54-year-old widower and he has three children, two of them are in college and the third is in sixth grade. And he wants a beautiful woman in her 40s who doesn’t have children and who doesn’t want to have any children.
“He wants someone to cook for his kids and wake up early for him and his children. He wants a servant,” Soltan said.
Soltan tried to hook him up with three Egyptian women, but the Egyptian women always turned him down.
“He tells the women from the first date that he won’t change anything in the house and that each one of his children likes certain types of food and he is expecting her to cook for each one of them,” Soltan said. When he asks to only see Syrian women, Soltan said she refused.
The painter, who refused to give his name, appeared to be just as unlucky. After the sellers lectured him on why he was on a fool’s errand, he walked quietly around the corner where no Syrian women awaited him.
Frustrated, he walked away. The Syrians vendors smirked as though they had won a fight.
“We still have our dignity” Khalid explained.