The idea behind Harmonica is to approach dating in line with local cultural norms
For example, explains Saleh, “During the initial match, users don’t see much,” referring to the first phase of Harmonica’s match-making. In stark contrast to applications like Tinder – which Saleh likes to call a “meat market” – female users have the option to hide their photos until they’ve approved another user to view them.
Hramonica also differs from other apps, due to its strong focus on monogamy. Unlike most dating applications, where users are encouraged to “swipe” through dozens of potential matches, Harmonica’s users are given two or three matches a day at most, all selected by the app’s algorithm based on a mandatory 30-question survey, and users can only pick one with whom to chat. They’re then given a seven-day period in which they can talk through the app’s messaging service, before choosing to progress with their partner further or return to the matching stage. “We call it ‘the journey,’” says Saleh.
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Harmonica doesn’t expect users to go on this journey alone. Instead, Saleh has tried to create an experience more in line with Egyptian cultural norms. “In the West, there’s a guy and a girl, that’s it,” he says. “In Egypt, it’s totally on the other end of the spectrum. The family will be involved from day one.” In an attempt to replicate this, he’s employed a small team of dating counsellors, on call to give advice to their premium customers every step of the way. The app also allows users to nominate a “chaperone” for “girls who don’t feel safe talking to a guy in private,” explains Saleh. “We’re adding this feature so they can send their conversation to one of their family members or one of their friends that they choose. It’s up to them, it’s not mandated or anything, and it just gives the app a more conservative side for those who choose.”
Harmonica isn’t the first app to provide mobile dating to a more conservative crowd. Outside of Egypt, a handful of apps already offer a similar service, such as Matchmallows and Salaam Swipe, based in Canada and the UK respectively. One entrepreneur who predates Saleh is Shahzad Younas, a 33-year-old from Manchester who launched Muzmatch two years ago as a way for young Muslim couples the world over to meet. Younas reckons that his app has paired up 7,000 married couples around the world, including one couple in Uganda; unknown to them, they were the only two in the country to have signed up to it.
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But despite their best efforts, entrepreneurs behind these sorts of apps often find opposition from the most pious observers, as Younas has discovered through his experiences with Muzmatch. “Some people always say: ‘Oh, it’s totally un-Islamic,’” he says, “‘this app is too modern; it’s haram [forbidden].’ But if you look at the real social problem, it’s that nobody is helping the youth find partners in a permissible way that works for them. You could argue it isn’t permitted but at the end of the day the greater problem is being caused when young people find it hard to get married.”
In the run-up to the launch, Saleh was slightly worried how people would react in Egypt, but in fact, the response was overwhelming. “Within a week of launching the Facebook page, we went viral,” he says, “20,000 users downloaded the app in that week alone.” Harmonica’s server, designed to accommodate just 10,000 users in total, crashed under the flood of downloads.