Eighteen Dates in Ninety Minutes

On a cold New York night in a dimly lit dive in the Lower East Side, I went on eighteen dates in exactly ninety minutes.

A close friend from college forwarded me an e-mail with details about a South Asian Muslim speed dating event.  With the curiosity of an amateur anthropologist and the idealism of a single girl hoping to finally meet a guy to take home to her parents, I decided to sign up and walked into the evening with an intrigued and open mind.

The e-mail instructed participants to arrive promptly at 7:15 pm. Given the Desi propensity for lateness, I thought this would be the first obstacle to culturally adapting speed dating to a South Asian audience.  I was wrong. Participants not only showed up on time, but the vast majority arrived early to smoke sheesha and warm up with pre-event mingling in the common bar area.

Showing up solo, I initially felt intimidated and out of place. To calm my nerves, I quickly befriended a couple of girls nervously sipping their grapefruit pink and lime green martinis.  They were already giddily exchanging glances with our communal male dates for the evening.

A speed-dating veteran, who goes by “Junior,” extended a sweaty palm for an inappropriately long handshake. When I politely tried to pull my uncomfortably sweat-drenched hand away, he coquettishly asked “So, it looks like you are a first-timer, huh?” I sheepishly nodded hoping that would be the end of our conversation. When he gave me a wide, unselfconscious grin, I knew I would be in for a long night.

After a few more minutes of waiting around, a slim brown girl in a perfectly-fitted, short red dress began to usher all thirty-six of us into the bar’s private lounge. Like herds of cattle being readied for an auction, we each received a number. Girls sat at a table with their designated number and with the sound of a bell, the men rotated from table to table so that by the end, each participant had gone on eighteen dates.

To keep things organized, we were all given a scorecard and a page for notes to help keep track of who is who. I thought it would be rude to take notes and tried to make mental clues. Given that the vast majority of the men were disgruntled investment bankers, they all started to blur together and by the ninth round, I was already confusing Mahmoud for Munir and Ali for Abbas.

It was fascinating to be exposed to such a wide range of prospects. From adorably quirky “Junior” who refused to tell anyone his real name and claimed to be from Guyana, Morocco, Egypt, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan, to the straight-laced, Blackberry-checking Muppie who tried rather poetically to explain the beauty in calculating mortality risk for life insurance companies in less than three minutes. The smooth-talking British banker who thought my nonexistent Texan accent was a turn-on preceded the lovably awkward, fresh off the boat, Bangladeshi finance analyst who diligently went through all major bio-data points from my parents’ occupations to how many kids I would like to have. I was amused to find a Desi-version of the Williamsburg cliché replete with trendy black rectangle glasses, bald head, and tight skinny jeans.

There was also the shy, twenty-something history teacher I developed a mild crush on who lived in Queens and reminded me of my idealistic days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, and the thirty-three year old dentist responsibly settled in New Jersey who represented the pragmatism and stability my parents yearn for me to find in a prospective mate. If only I could adopt the Frankenstein approach to speed dating and take a quality from one and match it with the other to create the perfect mate.

By number sixteen, I found myself on auto-pilot regurgitating the same story, boring myself and surely the person in front of me. Number seventeen had had so many cocktails, he couldn’t even spell his name. He insisted his name was the letter “J” and our five minutes consisted of a mini-therapy session of how lonely he felt in New York and how impressed he was that most of the Muslim girls he had met that evening drank alcohol. I wanted to discreetly slip a note to join AA into his wallet, but the bell rang and I was transported to the next date.

When lucky number eighteen rolled around, we both looked at each other and smiled with mutually acknowledged exhaustion. I had been on more dates in two hours than in my twenty-eight year life span. The last one ended well. I joked with him that I now could no longer remember who any of the people were and had no idea how to fill out my scorecard. He suggested the strategy of marking yes to all eighteen, and then seeing who responds. I wasn’t gutsy enough to allow “Junior” and “J” to access my coveted gmail address so I carefully vetted my scorecard.

As with the vast majority of mixers and singles nights, I almost always feel more comfortable chatting with the girls. I’ve never been a fan of bars and traditional pick-up-scenes, so I avoided the sketchy glares of some of the men who lingered to pounce on the meat they had taste-tested earlier in five-minute intervals. The entire process made me think of the livestock auctions I attend when I go home to visit my father, a hobbyist farmer in Texas. He instinctively bids on an animal at first glance going with his gut instincts on what will presumably be a healthy goat capable of reproduction. Selecting a mate from this particular speed date event wasn’t so different from my father’s approach to livestock selection.

Perhaps I was being too harsh on these men who were only following their procreative, evolutionary instincts, where hip-to-waist ratio correlates to general health and fertility. Regardless, I felt uncomfortable auctioning off of my assets during the speed-dating after party and opted to blend into the background with my conservative black sweater and pants.

As I get older and frighteningly closer to my marriage marketability expiration date, I wonder what compromises I will have to make to get noticed. Drop down the neckline? Hike up the skirts I wear to above the knee? Dumb down the conversation? Or go the other extreme: start wearing hijab, praying five times a day, and hoping my newfound displays of religiosity would catch the eye of an “Aunty” at the mosque for her eligible son?  My mother naturally gravitates to the latter of the two extremes. My own identity is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Having tried setups ranging from friends of mutual friends to the well-meaning introductions by aunties, the anonymity of speed dating was a welcome change from the awkwardness that lingers after a failed mutual friend or family setup. And unlike the sense of entrapment I sometimes feel during the obligatory half-hour minimum of a Match.com or Shaadi.com blind date, speed dating lasts a relatively painless five minutes.

In the world of online dating, you can filter your companion based on education, profession, and – in the case of Shaadi.com – even skin color.  Even though the speed dating event I opted into was filtered to include South Asians and Muslims, I found the pool to be more diverse and random than had I pre-selected people online who I thought would be a good match.  The experience honed my intuition of the guys I connected with and the ones I didn’t.

I ended up going out on a couple of dates with the activist teacher.  On paper, he matched my interests exactly.  We shared a lot of the same politics, but ultimately there was no chemistry.  I realized that though I can choose men based on politics and interests, I can’t guarantee chemistry.

Although no love connection was made that night, adopting a more random approach to dating has helped me to break out of my own filter bubble. I’ve become more creative and less fixated on a specific prototype of a perfect match.

Qamar Arastu is a freelance writer currently based in the Middle East.