In dusty Turkish village, surfing the Web for brides

Turkey's rising status in the Arab world – along with the arrival of the Internet in this rural town – has helped men attract women from Morocco. Most are second wives.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Hasip Yildirim opened his Internet cafe two years ago. He has since become a kind of cross-border matchmaker.
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Since Hasip Yildirim opened his Internet cafe two years ago, the former truck driver has become something of a local matchmaker. Now that they have access to the Web, the men in this dusty rural village have started looking for wives online, where – thanks to Turkey's growing clout and visibility in the Middle East – they are suddenly seen as quite a catch by women in the region.

"Everyone's coming to the Internet cafe now to find a wife," says Mr. Yildirim, speaking inside his fluorescent-lit one-room outfit, which has some 20 computer terminals. "Sometimes, there's no space to sit down."

An intriguing example of modern technology put to use in the service of ancient tradition, Yildirim's virtual matchmaking business also has a somewhat unsavory twist: It's re-inforcing polygamy. Though officially outlawed in 1926, polygamy continues today in Turkey's impoverished and predominantly rural southeast.

Recommended: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.

In the past, the village's Arabic-speaking men used to hop across the border to find a second wife in Syria. But the arrival of the Internet in the village has changed that.

Locals have zeroed in on Morocco in particular, since its residents can come to Turkey without a visa. In the past year, some 10 Moroccan brides – all second wives, including one 45-year-old who married a man 30 years her senior – have come to Gokce. More than a dozen more are expected to arrive in the coming year.

"Everybody wants a Moroccan bride now," says Yildirim, who scouts out potential Moroccan wives on an Arabic chat website called habibti.com. ("Habibti" is the feminine version of "my dear" in Arabic.)

'I'm a pioneer'

The romance might wear off quickly in Gokce (pronounced "Gohk-che"), 2,700 miles from Morocco. Although Turkey's per capita income of $12,000 is three times that of Morocco, much of southeast Turkey is mired in deep poverty. In Gokce, surrounded by parched fields of stunted wheat, many homes are built from mud brick. Few roads are paved.

In the front courtyard at the home of Halit Oncel, the first villager to find a Moroccan bride online, sewage runs through a narrow open channel and chickens run freely. Because of modesty customs, none of the women in the house could be seen during the visit of a male guest. But Mr. Oncel says his second wife, Mona, from northern Morocco, is "happy" here. "A bride from Istanbul couldn't live here. But a bride from outside Meknes [a northern Moroccan city] can," says Oncel, a truck driver with a shy grin.

Oncel and Mona married a year ago, after a three-month online courtship. With 11 children in the house from his first wife, Oncel says he felt it was time to find another wife to help out with the housework.

After a failed trip to Syria to find a bride, Oncel came across Gokce's new Internet cafe.

"I saw some people were making friends online, and I thought I could do this to find a wife," he says, sitting on a rug in his spartan living room. Through habibti.com, Oncel says he met four potential candidates. When Mona agreed to marry him, he sent her money for a plane ticket to Turkey.

"I'm a pioneer, which makes me feel good. Others are following me," he says.

Turkey's image attractive to Moroccan women

When Yildirim, a former truck driver, opened the Internet cafe two years ago, he imagined it would be a place for children to play video games and surf the Web. But aided by Turkey's rising stature, Turkish men have become magnets for Moroccan women.

"The Moroccans think Turkey has prestige, that it's a strong country. They also trust Turkey – they know it's a Muslim country and that we pray and read the Koran," says Yildirim.

Issam Moussaoui, executive director of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, a women's rights organization based in Casablanca, says a poor economy and little access to jobs have forced many Moroccan women to look to marriage abroad – particularly in Europe – as a way out.

For some Moroccan women, being a second wife might not sound so strange. Polygamy in Morocco was only banned in 2004.

Meanwhile, after decades of not being involved in the Middle East, Turkey's stock in the region is rising. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel's recent attack on Gaza endeared Turkey to many in the Arab world. In recent years, several Turkish soap operas have become hits across the Middle East.

"Moroccans know a lot more about Turkey now," says Mr. Moussaoui, speaking by telephone from Casablanca. "Especially now with the television shows, people know Turkey a lot more. A lot of women watch these shows daily. They know a lot about Turkish culture and that Turkish men are more romantic than other ones."

A recent survey conducted by Bahcesehir University in Istanbul found that 89 percent of Turks oppose polygamy.

Mazhar Bagli, a sociologist at Dicle University in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, estimates that 7 to 8 percent of the region's population practices polygamy, compared with 3 to 4 percent in all of Turkey.

"This issue has been highlighted in the media and academic circles, and this interest gives an impression that there is a rise in polygamy practices," Dr. Bagli says. "But I believe that, comparatively, there is not much increase in these practices."

Turkish village 'lucky' to get Moroccan wives

In Gokce, at least, the arrival of the Internet may mean that the practice is not going to decrease. On a recent afternoon, Yildirim was sitting in front of a computer screen, holding simultaneous online chats in Arabic with three Moroccan women whom he was hoping to introduce to some locals. Huddled around him is a group of curious boys, munching away on sunflower seeds.

At a dimly lit grocery next door, store owner Abdulbaki Oncel – younger brother of Halit – still seems bewildered that brides from Morocco have come to tiny Gokce.

"Finding these Moroccan girls has been very lucky for our village," he says, shaking his head slightly. "Morocco is very far from Turkey."

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