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In Jittery Gaza, Till Peace Do They Stay Apart

Mideast: Palestinian couples are putting off their weddings, both out of invasion worries and a desire to respect the communal gloom.

June 03, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — Samir Shorrab and Najwa Sayes look sheepishly at each other across the coffee shop table and giggle as they describe how, with God's will, their destinies became intertwined: how he dialed her cell phone number by mistake, heard her voice and kept calling back with excuse after excuse until she finally agreed to meet him and become engaged.

That was a year ago. As the intifada rages and the Gaza Strip's 1.2 million people brace for a threatened Israeli invasion at any time, few things seem more inappropriate or out of reach to many young people these days than a wedding.

"It's so frustrating, we both have holes in our hearts right now," Shorrab says. "But whenever we think about holding our wedding party, we worry about shelling. How can you hold such a joyous event under these circumstances?"

The risk of large groups getting hit prompted the Palestinian Authority in April to impose a weeklong ban on weddings. Even without the restrictions, however, most people simply aren't in the mood these days, as even small details become an ordeal. Shorrab's family lives several miles south of Gaza City, for instance, which means there's no assurance his relatives could make it through the military checkpoints to attend the festivities.

Palestinian Authority officials confirm that weddings are on the decline, although they have no statistics to offer. But Gaza Strip residents say it doesn't take a calculator to see what's going on.

Salah abu Haseira, owner of Alsalam Restaurant and Wedding Banquets, sits in his empty hall looking out over the sea. Normally he'd have 90 weddings booked by May, running through late August. Last month he had just four. Grooms who used to spend $1,500 for the hall, dinner, a cake, flowers and a band now make do on a $300 bare-bones plan without food or live music. "It's the worst we've ever seen" during a half-century in business, Haseira says.

Among the biggest hurdles for young suitors in the Gaza Strip, an area economically depressed at the best of times, is the loss of jobs. Unemployment has spiked to 60% in a society where men are expected to bring a house, a steady income and a dowry of up to several thousand dollars to the wedding table.

'Most Young Men Don't Even Go Looking'

While some sheiks have called for a sharp reduction in dowry levels, that solves only part of the problem. The Israeli lock-down of Gaza, the destruction of factories and government buildings and the end of lucrative jobs in Israel has sharply diminished what most men can offer.

"Many people like me want a wife and a nice house, but there's no way these days," says Khalil Mosahaod, 27, a graphic designer who lost his job in Israel when hostilities flared nearly two years ago and now spends his days hanging out at his brother's struggling taxi company. "Since it's out of the question, most young men don't even go looking."

Even those who can afford it are under great pressure to show solidarity with the community at a time when many friends and relatives have been killed and the Gaza Strip bracketed by military checkpoints. Mohammed Salman, a 22-year-old electronics technician, recently came under sharp criticism when he went ahead with a high-profile 200-guest ceremony despite the prevalent mood.

"Now I regret we had that kind of wedding," he says. "I really didn't expect that kind of reaction."

In more peaceful days, Gaza City's traffic was regularly snarled by parades of cars and taxis blaring their horns exuberantly behind the bridal car. Nowadays, those few tying the knot slip quietly into the hall in separate cars or shun the public eye completely with family weddings at home.

Wedding halls aren't the only ones feeling the pinch. Formal apparel retailer Fares International Wear and portrait-maker Alnaji Photos say it's hardly worth opening their shops these days. And neighboring Tarzi Jewelers has seen business decline by 90%, with some customers even pawning their rings immediately after the ceremony to buy basic necessities.

"There's no happiness in people's hearts," owner Hani Tarzi, 44, says. "People just aren't confident about their futures anymore."

Family structure and strong tradition also play a part.

"In the West, the 'I' is very strong, while here the "we" is very strong," says Shahir Yagi, a psychological counselor. "There are no outright taboos against weddings, celebrating or having fun, but people don't want to stand out."

Though more young Muslims are meeting their future spouses without the help of intermediaries, mothers armed with wish lists provided by their sons still help arrange many marriages.

Upheaval has often weakened social strictures during key periods of history, but family experts say the hostilities are having the opposite effect on Palestinian society. Marriage-related traditions remain strong, they add, including the practice of having both families pre-approve any future spouse before courtship and requiring a male relative's approval before a woman can marry.

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