Love in the time of corona

Two mannequins in wedding dresses and face masks are seen through through a shop window

COVID-19 restrictions have hit Gaza’s hospitality sector hard. But lower costs have also seen a spike in the number of marriages.

Osama Baba APA images

Mosab Abu Zaid and Tasnim El-Khaldi may not have celebrated the wedding of their dreams.

And though they did miss the traditional hubbub, not having to shoulder the expense was a relief to both of them.

“I was delighted,” Tasnim, 20, told The Electronic Intifada. “I saw our close relatives. We got to dance and sing. Would it have been nice to celebrate in a fancy hall with a lot of people? Sure. But I am just happy to be married. And I am very satisfied with our wedding.”

Tasnim and Mosab are not alone in getting wed during lockdown. In fact, the Sharia courts in Gaza, which oversee civil legal matters, registered an increase of more than 20 percent in the number of marriages in 2020, with nearly 21,000 weddings.

Hassan al-Jojo, head of the Sharia Supreme Court and Higher Sharia Court Council in Gaza, attributed the increase to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that have drastically impacted the cost and manner of weddings in Gaza, where more than half the population lives in poverty.

Certainly, restrictions have meant that normally elaborate celebrations have been pared down to the basics.

In Tasnim and Mosab’s case that meant breaking with tradition as there was no party for the groom and his friends, no large wedding hall to be hired and no expensive catering to be arranged.

Instead, a subtly decorated car picked up the bride from her home in the Nuseirat refugee camp, taking her and her immediate family to the groom’s house, where Mosab and his own immediate family had decorated their living room in order to host the celebration at home.

Neighbors would offer their best wishes from afar but apart from that, no one else attended.

Costly traditions curtailed

The “party” was over by 8 pm, when the guests went home, leaving Tasnim and Mosab to start their new lives together.

“The pandemic has reduced the exceptional costs normally associated with a wedding here,” Mosab, 22, a multimedia graduate from Al-Aqsa University told The Electronic Intifada.

It was a relief to him. The groom and his family are expected to bear the costs of wedding celebrations. But Mosab is an only son. His father, a resistance fighter, was killed by the Israeli military in the late 1990s, he said, when Mosab was just a toddler. As a result, Mosab is looking after his mother today.

And in an economic climate in which more than half of Gaza’s two million people are unemployed, every little bit helps.

“We live in crushing economic times,” said Mosab. “And corona has changed everything. The poor and the rich are the same now. We all have to adapt and there is no time for luxuries or ostentatious celebrations.”

Traditionally, weddings in Gaza are elaborate affairs with attendant celebrations that can span several days.

This is not just about the wedding party, which is usually held in a big hall for as many guests as possible and is a sizable expense in itself.

Tradition dictates separate parties for the groom and his friends, which should include live music in the streets. The bride, her family and friends participate in a henna party.

There’s even a party for the groom’s mother, the laiali um al-rees.

Add to this the costs of transport, catering, entertainment, and the whole affair is a very pricey undertaking, sometimes leaving people in debt for years.

Pandemic restrictions have changed all this. Judging by the rise in the number of marriages, the reduced costs are to the relief of many.

“Extravagant costs”

Sharia courts head al-Jojo told local media that marriages before the pandemic were on the decline, something he attributed to the “extravagant costs” of weddings.

And restrictions have also forced young couples to be creative with their arrangements.

Eyad and Iman Abu Mosad celebrated their marriage in, by modern Gaza standards, very unusual style.

“All the [wedding] halls were closed and my house is small and not appropriate for a party,” Eyad, 26, told The Electronic Intifada. So he turned to his neighbor for help.

“My kind neighbor offered me his piece of land. I erected a large tent and added color and decorations. That’s where we had our party.”

Eyad, a farmer like his father, said he was only too happy with the cheaper expenses. Moreover, he said, they had a duty to others.

“This was a reality that was dictated to us. We have to be responsible and abide by the rules so we do not contribute to the spread of this virus.”

For her part, Iman, 22, who is a media student at the Islamic University, said she loved her party.

“The celebrations were lovely and my relatives were happy to see me in the white dress. The only regret is that most of my friends at university were not able to attend because of restrictions on movement.”

Since the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Gaza last March, measures taken by the local authorities have in many ways mirrored those taken everywhere else.

Travel restrictions have come, gone and come again. Closures have been imposed, lifted and re-imposed. Rates of transmission have gone up and down and up again.

But Gaza is in a unique situation. After 14 years of an Israeli-Egyptian siege, the economy has taken an enormous hit. Between 2007 and 2018, according to the UN, the blockade caused the area’s GDP per capita to shrink by over a quarter.

This has drastically reduced people’s capacity to absorb the economic pain brought by the pandemic.

A sector in decline

This is true of every industry, including the hospitality sector.

According to local media reports, lockdown and closures have precipitated the loss of 800 jobs in 150 wedding halls across Gaza.

Gaza’s interior ministry has taken several measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic, closing down wedding halls, gyms, schools, public markets and similar facilities.

On 11 December, the ministry also started to impose curfews during Friday and Saturday, the weekend in Gaza, when everything is closed and no movement is permitted anywhere in Gaza.

During weekdays, people can move until 7 pm, while shops must close at 5 pm.

Shop owners, particularly those catering to weddings and parties as with clothing stores and beauty salons, have suffered dramatic reductions in revenue as a result.

Khaled Jaber owns El-Ashi Center, a shop in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the middle area of the Gaza Strip. He told The Electronic Intifada that he has stopped importing any new dresses for the time being.

“Fewer people come to see what I have, weddings are now very simple affairs and people do not want to buy expensive dresses to wear at home,” he said.

Hanan al-Sheikh, who owns Shams Beauty Salon in the Maghazi refugee camp in Deir al-Balah, said she has lost a lot of clients because people are afraid of going out and weddings are now different from what they used to be.

“Before coronavirus, weddings were big and held in halls with many guests and relatives of the bride and groom. Everyone wanted to have their makeup and hair done. Now, only the bride will come to get ready for her wedding,” al-Sheikh said.

Worse, she told The Electronic Intifada, she has been forced to lay off two assistants.

“There is no work and no money. This crisis has affected us all.”

Nevertheless, young people will get married. And their wedding, regardless of circumstances, will always be “unforgettable,” said Iman.

Everyone will adapt, agreed Eyad.

“We are young people. We are full of hope for better days to come. Nothing will stop us from living this life with dignity and happiness.”

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.