In opposition-held areas of Syria, matchmaking offices specializing in marriage are becoming a popular alternative to dating in wartime.
"Our work is governed by supply and demand," says Khaled, an imam and the founder of the al-Aman marriage service in East Idlib. "Young men and women seeking marriage register here provide their age, required dowry amount, place of residence, religious sect and social status: single, widowed or divorced."
Then Khaled and his staff identify a man and woman who they think would be a good fit, introduce them, and if things go well, "We register the marriage at the sharia councils affiliated with local councils founded by the rebels."
One Idlib imam says that marriage via the offices is in accordance with Muslim law if it fulfills a few conditions: a proposal, consent to the proposal, the paying of a dowry, the presence of witnesses and a public announcement.
Despite religious accordance, Khaled says business was slow at first. In a conservative rural society where marriage has long been governed by traditional parental matchmaking, including between cousins – or chaste courtships – "it took us a long time to convince people to resort to using these offices."
There's also been backlash from the locals. Musaab al-Sayyed, a 41-year-old lawyer, says Khaled and other matchmakers are exploiting the sacred institution of marriage for wartime financial gain.
"These people are merchants who trade in religion and in the dignity and honor of people," adds Jamal, a 54-year-old resident. "I would never allow one of my sons or daughters to be married through these offices even if that could mean that they go their entire lives without getting married."
Khaled opened his doors nine months ago; since then, he has arranged 23 marriages. He says the majority of these cases involved widowed and divorced women to men who have come from outside Syria, notably from Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He charges 2,000 Syrian pounds ($133) per person per match.
The perceived selling of Syrian women to foreign men is the major reason Khaled and his colleagues are seeing backlash.
"These are overseas brokers who sell Syrian women to wealthy Arabs outside Syria," says Mahmoud Suleiman, 36, an employee at a private-sector company in Idlib. "These bargains involve large sums of money."
"[Local] media outlets have reported that there is an organized network that runs and controls marriages of female Syrian refugees to persons in many neighboring countries in return for commissions or fees ... under the pretext of shielding and protecting the Syrian girls," Suleiman said.
But some support matchmaking as a valid substitute for traditional dating. Mahmoud, a 61-year-old army retiree, now works in a marriage office in nearby Binnish, in rural Idlib. "Our services prevent the outbreak of sin and adultery in society," he says, adding that the matchmakers play a pivotal role in encouraging young people preoccupied by the war to get married – especially now that the number of marriages have decreased due to the sheer number of men killed in battle.
Mohammad, 49, is a former employee of the Idlib Electricity Company and met his wife through a marriage office eight months ago.
"I studied the files of dozens of girls before selecting one," he says. "Had the office had not been there, my options would have been limited. The office also provided facilitation in registering the marriage at the sharia courts."
His bride is a 32-year-old war widow. The two now live at his home in the Khan Sheikhoun area. "Everything is going well for us," he says.
Ditto Hameed, 32, a taxi driver from rural al-Hamdyeh. Unable to find a suitable marriage partner, he contacted a matchmaking service four months ago – but is still looking to find the perfect wife.
"The majority of registered females are widows or divorced," he says, "and I'm looking for a virgin. I'm beginning to despair of finding what I want, and I think I will soon return to traditions practiced in my village and marry one of my cousins."