Marriages Made Not in Heaven but in a Cleric’s Office
His Web site, ardabili.com, is so flooded that it closes several days a month to limit submissions. His office is filled from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday through Thursday with hopeful men and women. His smiling wife, Zahra Tafreshi, welcomes them into a room decorated with holiday lights and the sound of prerevolution love songs in the air.
They are all seeking his help — to get married.
”But I do not like to be called a matchmaker,” he said, laughing. ”It reminds me of old women.”
In business for the last three years — and swamped since newspaper articles publicized the opening of his office three months ago — Mr. Ardabili is doing a unique job in a country where, after the 1979 Islamic revolution, dating was banned and extramarital relationships became subject to severe punishment. Some restrictions eased after the election of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, in 1997.
Still, Mr. Ardabili is careful to work within approved Islamic standards. His Web site has links to statements of permission from half a dozen prominent Iranian clerics.
”I just want to be a true cleric, and as a cleric my job is to help bring balance and happiness to people’s lives,” he said, adjusting a white turban over his clumsily dyed brown hair. That, in Persian culture, means marriage and having children.
His first foray into arranging marriages, he recalled, was in 1996, after he received permission to work with student marriages at Tehran University. One terribly depressed fellow, Mahmoud Etemadar, confessed his love for a woman. Mr. Ardabili used her first name, Elaheh.
Both families were against a union. Elaheh’s parents, meanwhile, had moved the family to Dubai.
Mr. Ardabili was not dissuaded. He flew to Dubai to negotiate, and then to Shiraz, in southern Iran, to talk to Mr. Etemadar’s parents.
”I was so proud on their wedding night,” he said. Two years ago, the couple sent him a picture of themselves, still married and in love.
His count of successes has since grown to 180, with the recent wedding of a 30-year-old nurse named Afsaneh, who for family reasons did not want her surname used, and a 38-year-old dentist living in Norway.
Afsaneh said she went to Mr. Ardabili because she wanted to escape the arranged marriage her family was planning. She was interested in moving abroad. ”In a traditional family they keep on saying what kind of things a woman can do and what she cannot do,” she said.
Mr. Ardabili sifted through his applications, and found the dentist.
The two spoke on the phone and exchanged e-mail messages for four months. Then the dentist came for a monthlong visit. Love bloomed.
Afsaneh’s family was against the marriage at first, but softened when they learned that the matchmaker was a cleric, she said. The dentist has returned to Norway; his new wife awaits only a visa to join him.
This is all a far cry from traditional marriage — a complicated ordeal in which families first approve one another before the man proposes. Women do not go out looking for husbands.
But Iranian society is rapidly changing; both men and women are becoming more educated and familiar with the freer ways of the West. More than 62 percent of university students accepted this year were women; about half of graduate students are women. These women are increasingly articulate in demanding a more active role in society — and in their own lives.
Mr. Ardabili’s own relatively free spirit was influenced by a six-month stay in Canada in 2000, where he visited a brother and studied.
”I noticed that people were so happy there,” he said. ”They went out to dance and party over the weekend. So I thought as a cleric I should use religion to bring happiness to people’s lives in my own country.”
When he returned, he started his business online. He asked applicants for a short biography and answers to a series of questions about their expectations: ”How do you feel about your husband/wife working long hours?” ”What kind of a wedding would you like to have?”
He lines up several candidates for each applicant and they date, sometimes for months — a real departure from traditional marriages, in which the wedding might take place within weeks of the bride and groom’s first meeting.
He charges about $7 to process an application, but his income is supplemented by the donations happy couples often make after they wed.
Mr. Ardabili stays in touch with his matches. He tries to make sure they do well in many facets of their marriage. He even sends some to sex therapy clinics.
But he is also able to accept that not every couple lives happily ever after.
Maryam, 22, wrapped in a head-to-toe chador, came to him recently, desperate and hoping he could help, though he had not arranged her marriage. Three months into her marriage, her in-laws’ interference had grown intolerable. They had even told her husband not to see her — despite her accommodation to their every demand, even procuring a doctor’s letter before the wedding confirming her virginity.
”What?” asked Mr. Ardabili, shocked. ”Why did you give in to such a humiliation?”
”I don’t know — my mother said I should do it, too,” she responded. ”He has not touched me since we got married,” she added sheepishly.
Mr. Ardabili offered some advice.
”You know that you should not cover your hair when you are with your husband, and you should make yourself beautiful,” he said. ”Not like a doll, but in any way that you think you like to look.”
When she left, Mr. Ardabili said the union might need to be ended.
”Her parents rushed her into the marriage,” he said disapprovingly.
Photo: Jaffar Savalanpour Ardabili, 38, a Shiite cleric and marriage consultant, in his Tehran office, where applicants seeking a partner fill in forms. He is so busy he closes his Web site several days a month. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi for The New York Times)