Islamabad -- As with many dramatic love stories, this one has three protagonists: the shy and comely Amreen, her generous lover, Tariq - and the Nokia cellphone that brought them together.
In some ways this is an old story, of the kind that has been heard in Pakistan for generations: Tariq Mehmood and Amreen Hussein met and fell in love in secret, a romance they had to hide from their families, who were anticipating an arranged marriage. They had to beg an older relative to intercede and smooth the way with their parents.
But there is one thoroughly modern twist in this story, one that offers a small window into how technology is changing relationships in conservative corners of the Muslim world.
Amreen is 17, and in her last year of high school in Islamabad. She lives with her family in a small mud house on the edge of the Pakistani capital. They cook over a wood fire and goats wander in and out of the small compound.
Her father, Faisal, is a security guard with an airline. But Faisal and his wife, Suraya, have ambitions for their children; their eldest son, Asim, 21, is studying at a local computer college, and youngest daughter, Asiya, 14, is a top student who they are determined will become a doctor.
A year and a half ago, Asim bought a cellphone, a cheap Nokia model of the kind that is ubiquitous in the developing world. And sometimes, he let Amreen borrow it. Late at night, when her parents were asleep, she used it to call or send text messages to friends from school.
One night Amreen called what she thought was the number of a pal. She called twice, got no answer.
The next day Tariq, a 31-year-old taxi driver, woke up and saw two missed calls on his phone. That night he called back - and Amreen answered. He asked why she was calling him. She said he wasn't. He asked her name. She panicked and hung up.
But the next night she called back, and they chatted for a few minutes. She told him a fake name. Before long, late at night, they were talking for ages - Pakistan's cellphone airtime is wonderfully cheap. She confessed her real name. And eventually, a meeting was arranged. Tariq bought her a phone of her own.
Soon, they knew it was love.
But what to do? Amreen couldn't tell her parents she had a boyfriend, and certainly not a boyfriend whom she met by calling up strange men on the phone.
In desperation they turned to Amreen's older half-sister, Shabir, who counselled patience. Gradually she introduced the parents to the idea that Amreen had met someone. (She left out the part about Amreen telephoning strange men in the dead of night and was vague about just how, exactly, their daughter, who attends a girls-only school, had met a man.) Amreen's startled parents ordered that the young man present himself for inspection at once.
Tariq was sick with nerves. Not his gal: "I knew they would say yes," Amreen recalled serenely.
But at first there was a bit of drama.
"I was angry! This is the age of studying, not for marrying," said Amreen's mother, Suraya.
Suraya had met Faisal on the day of their wedding, 22 years ago; the whole affair was arranged by their parents. That is more or less what Suraya envisioned for her daughters, too - a love match would be all right, she said, but she expected that she and Faisal (and assorted aunts and cousins) would have an instrumental role in the finding and vetting of any potential husbands. She was skeptical of this groom-out-of-nowhere.
"But she put pressure on me," she said with a scolding frown at her daughter.
"Until you gave in," Amreen said, pulling her orange hijab down, but not quickly enough to hide a grin.
The first visit went well: the parents could see that Tariq was a good fellow, and they were impressed with how hard he worked. Soon he brought his entire family for a visit, and everyone got on brilliantly. Tariq began to relax.
"He will be a very good son-in-law," said Faisal.
By now, Amreen could reveal her cellphone, and everyone had mostly forgotten the question of how they met.
Tariq hopes they can wed in the autumn. He is anxious to have a wife to warm his lonely bachelor's existence; all his visits to Amreen take place in the company of her family of six. Her family - and indeed Tariq - would like her to continue her studies after she graduates, perhaps at a Quranic college, but Amreen doesn't care much for school, and looks forward to life as a housewife, she said.
Today, Tariq's consuming preoccupation is how to pay for the wedding. He earns $60 a month, but his share of the wedding expenses will be about $2,800 - he must pay for the feast, and for the gold that is the bride price. Her family will pay another $5,700, for wedding entertainment, outfits for the family, and all the furniture and household items Amreen will need to outfit their new home.
Driving away from the Hussein home after a recent evening visit, Tariq sighed with longing. "Isn't she beautiful?" he asked rhetorically.
Right on cue, his cellphone beeped with an incoming text message: Amreen, sending a few quick transliterated Urdu words of love.