Bilal al-Jamal, 27, sat on a chair in his office in al-Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip sipping coffee. It was an unremarkable scene except for those who came to seek his professional advice.
Al-Jamal — full disclosure: he is a cousin of the author’s — is a marriage facilitator. His Dream Institute is part of a new crop of businesses that have emerged in Gaza in an effort, they say, to help young couples get married when they otherwise cannot afford the cost.
A majority of Palestinians in Gaza are young. Many are keen to get married. But in a moribund economy, few can now afford the cost, which can run into a prohibitive thousands of dollars.
“Thus, came the idea of marriage facilitation institutions,” said al-Jamal, a law graduate, who himself could not find work after graduating.
“We provide young couples with services and all the necessary items for a successful wedding day,” he said, all the while jotting down notes. To this end, he said, his institute has signed contracts with a number of relevant businesses and shops. He provides the upfront costs and the couple pay him back within 15 months.
The practice has not been without controversy. Mostly, critics charge that the marriage facilitation business is exploitative, taking advantage of young couples’ impatience and desperation to marry for an outsized profit.
Al-Jamal conceded that facilitators are also looking to make money but denied that profits were remarkable. “We are registered under the Ministry of Economy and we pay taxes. We are not a charitable organization. But the profits aren’t big,” he said.
Khalil Yousef, of the four-year-old Faraha Institute, also rejected the criticism. “This is not exploitation. We provide a service,” he said. “We help young couples and reduce the pressure they are exposed to … We get some money in return, but the offers we provide are cheaper than the local market.”
According to the Ministry of Economy in Gaza, there are currently seven marriage facilitation centers registered as profitable organizations at the ministry. Just one institution is registered as a charity, reports the Palestinian news site Al Quds.
There is certainly a market. The year 2015 saw the highest number of marriages in Gaza since records began, with nearly 20,778 couples getting married. The previous year, the number of marriages dipped due to the Israeli assault on Gaza that summer at the peak of the marriage season.
“I resorted to marriage facilitation because the situation in Gaza is tough,” said Mahmoud al-Beiruti, 23, from the Maghazi refugee camp near Deir al-Balah in central Gaza.
Al-Beiruti works at a food processing factory. He recently secured a loan from a marriage facilitation institution and will get married in March. “Young people are jobless and they can’t afford all these expenses. They have to look for help,” he said.
A battered economy
Al-Beiruti’s loan stands at $2,140 and he is supposed to pay it back within 15 months. The package includes furniture, food, use of a wedding hall and a bridal dress. The monthly repayments, he said, are not too high. He said he happily recommends the facilitation service to friends who can’t afford a wedding.
Summer is approaching, and more young people are projected to seek help from marriage facilitators, increasing competition between them and for the services they provide.
They will have little alternative. Gaza, according to the World Bank in 2015, suffers the world’s highest unemployment rate at 47 percent and youth unemployment is above 60 percent.
Under Israeli siege for nine years, the Strip is crumbling. Houses destroyed in successive Israeli aggressions have been left in ruins with neither the money nor the raw materials to rebuild available. With improbable Israeli restrictions on imports and exports industry is in tatters, and the World Bank estimates that the siege alone has shrunk GDP by 50 percent.
Need of course creates opportunities for some. New jobs — like generator repair specialists — have sprung up realities on the ground where electricity supply, dependent on Israel, is sparse and unpredictable.
Marriage facilitators are a part of this phenomenon.
But critics also suggest that pressures on married couples in Gaza are already high and starting out with debt will only increase them.
Recently, local authorities in Gaza have begun a test run of couples’ counseling courses aimed at, according to the authorities, reducing divorce rates that have been increasing with the worsening economic, social and political situation. The courses have been implemented in other Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, where they have proven effective.
Depression and despair
Ibrahim Isleem, a sociologist at the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza, argued that a service like facilitating marriage might better be left to charitable institutions.
“We have charitable organizations to help those in need, and they could help based on the economic circumstances. The other type of institution is not charitable and they seek profit,” he said.
Options, he conceded, are limited. In the past, “people would borrow money from their friends and relatives, which is not possible now due to the economic situation,” he noted.
But starting married life in debt will only increase pressures on newly married couples. While people outside Gaza think about their honeymoons, young Palestinians in Gaza think about paying back their bills.
This is not a phenomenon restricted to Gaza, but Gaza also suffers a “man-made disaster,” said Isleem, of such proportion that it has “pushed many of Gaza’s young people into depression and despair.”
Some international organizations provide financial gifts to help young people get married. But there isn’t enough assistance to meet demand.
With no sign of any letup in the Israeli siege and improvement in the Gaza economy, young people will likely continue to turn to marriage facilitators.
It’s either that or give up their dream to be married.
Yousef M. Aljamal is a writer based in Gaza.