Shuhrat Ayomov gave Tajiks something to talk about when he set out to revive a bankrupt matchmaking agency.
As the young entrepreneur would learn well, locals in the northern city of Khujand were no stranger to arranged marriages. Having anyone other than family doing the arranging, however, was difficult to fathom.
Six months later, however, Ayomov's labor for love has paid off, and the Yusuf & Zulaikha matchmaking agency, billed as the first such service in Tajikistan, is thriving.
"We have received more than 200 applications from men and women looking for a potential spouse, and the number is growing as more people are hearing about our service," Ayomov says. "So far, eight people we introduced to each other have gotten married."
Electrical technician Firdavs and nursery-school teacher Nigora -- who declined to give their full names -- were married just weeks after the agency arranged their first date.
It's the second marriage for Firdavs and Nigora, each of whom has a young child from a previous relationship and was finding it difficult to find a new mate. "In our traditional society you don't go out and socialize with the opposite sex when you're a divorced man in your mid-30s," Firdavs says.
It was Firdavs's grandmother who "heard some gossip about a matchmaking agency in the neighborhood" and encouraged him to check it out. "I didn't know what to expect and it didn't seem like a good idea at first," says Firdavs, speaking outside the electronics repair shop where he works in downtown Khujand.
For Nigora, a busy single parent, the matchmaking agency was the last resort. "Nearly a month after registering with Yusuf & Zulaikha, the agency called me to tell me that Firdavs liked my profile," she says. "The agency arranged our first date. We met a few more times but we clicked right from the start."
Better Luck The Second Time
Divorced, middle class, and in their 30s or 40s -- that is how the agency would describe its average customer.
It's common in Tajikistan to get married in the late teens and early 20s, but Ayomov says the agency has not had a single applicant from someone in their 20s. "Most of our clients were either divorced or widowed," he says. "Ironically, most of the divorcees say their first marriages were arranged by families."
Traditionally, Tajiks marry young to someone chosen by their families.
Ayomov notes that while families often play a major role in arranging their children's first marriage, "they don't usually have the same enthusiasm in finding a spouse for their divorced or widowed relative."
And that is where Yusuf & Zulaikha can help, charging the equivalent of $4 to play the role of matchmaker. If its efforts result in a marriage, then the agency stands to make a commission.
The agency carefully vets applicants, who are required to provide a clean bill of health and an official document verifying their marital status.
"We have three major requirements," Ayomov says. "An applicant has to be physically and mentally healthy. If they have some kind of disease, we tell them to get medical treatment first. We don't accept people affiliated with illegal extremist groups. And we don't accept applications from married men looking for a second wife, because polygamy is illegal."
After a thorough checkup, the agency introduces the client to another client whom the agency has determined might make a good match. The agency is aware that its reputation is on the line and does its best to prepare its clients for the long term.
Clients are required to attend workshops on how to manage a household budget and how to deal with in-laws, and female applicants are offered cooking and sewing classes. "Most of our male clients are looking for a fairly good-looking, intelligent woman who is a good homemaker and has strong moral values," Ayomov says. "Female customers as a rule want a good husband who is financially capable of looking after his family."
That, at least, are the ideals going into the process. To help avoid high expectations from ruining a potentially good matchup, consultations are provided to remind clients to be realistic.
Bringing In Business Acumen
The agency was initially registered by a friend of Ayomov's in 2009, but it only attracted a single customer.
Ayomov, a graduate of a business school in Malaysia, took over the business earlier this year, moving it from a tiny, one-room office in an underground passageway to a prominent office building in the city center.
Ayomov and four other staff members began a vigorous campaign to advertise the business through local television and radio stations, as well as posters and leaflets.
With Tajiks becoming more urbanized and their traditional social and family ties loosening, Ayomov says, it's only a matter of time before the matchmaking business expands throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the agency's first love story, Nigora and Firdavs, are preparing to take the natural next step: "having a child together."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Masum Muhammad-Rajab in Khujand