Couples in Abu Dhabi have told how they swapped lavish wedding plans for intimate church ceremonies in order to tie the knot during a pandemic.
Weddings that often take months to carefully organise were arranged in less than two weeks after places of worship were permitted a limited opening with social distancing norms.
Three couples were married last month at St Therese Church within the St Joseph's Cathedral compound when permission was granted to conduct weddings, with five more ceremonies scheduled this month.
Guests lists have been slashed to just 10, including the bride and groom, in keeping with strict Covid-19 safety measures.
Instead of a live choir, priests have taken to playing phone recordings of the wedding march and hymns and friends have stood in for relatives who could not make it to the UAE as short half-hour ceremonies were watched via Zoom by families overseas.
Guests are required to wear masks inside church, with some exceptions such as the bride and groom when they exchange vows.
Laura Daher and Elie Abi Daher know they will be repeating stories for years of how they wore black and white silk masks with sequins spelling the words ‘I Do’ on August 17.
“I started crying during the ceremony because I wished all our parents were inside with us,” the 34-year-old newly wed said.
“But actually it has been memorable for us, a beautiful memory. We had so much fun and happiness even with a small ceremony.”
Ms Daher’s 66-year-old mother, who travelled from the US, and her 74-year-old father-in-law, who flew in from Lebanon, waited outside the church since safety rules at the time did not permit people over the age of 60 inside.
But the couple are overjoyed the ceremony is complete after months of uncertainty when international borders shut and large gatherings were banned to stem the spread of Covid-19.
The couple had planned to marry in Lebanon with hotel and restaurants reservations completed.
But after stay home restrictions eased and the couple heard of a spot opening in their Abu Dhabi parish, they decided to change plans.
“We checked flights for family who were able to take leave and we had to quickly book appointments, prepare the suit and dress,” said Ms Daher who works as an administrative assistant with a technology company.
“It was challenging considering the Covid-19 situation but we are thankful our dream came true even in the simplest way. This is something for us to remember as our history.”
Brides usually spend months choosing a gown and schedule multiple fittings.
Instead, Ms Daher chose a dress from photos her Sharjah-based sister-in-law sent from a boutique in the emirate.
There were some anxious moments when the gown was ready only a day before the wedding.
Covid-19 tests are required to enter Abu Dhabi and testing centres on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border were booked up.
But a sympathetic policeman allowed her brother-in-law to take a Covid-19 test without a prior reservation.
The couple said even a toned down celebration was worth it.
“What makes it special was that we finally got married,” said Mr Daher, 37, an information technology manager.
“We were to have 200 to 250 guests in Lebanon. Honestly, it was frustrating that all our family and friends could not attend and that some could not even make it inside the church. But we had to deal with it.
“We will always remember how we got married with masks. Overall what matters is being together.”
Another couple Prescila Akl and Fady Younes have overcome the initial disappointment of cancelling a July wedding in Lebanon.
Ms Akl was upset for days since invitations had been distributed, her gown reserved and caterers booked.
She gradually accepted it was better not to travel overseas for the wedding and jeopardise their jobs due to quarantine guidelines and travel approvals in place at the time.
Instead of a gown embroidered with crystals she had her heart set on in Lebanon, Ms Akl purchased a classic dress online.
“We had planned a fairytale wedding in Lebanon. My parents had distributed the wedding cards, our bachelor parties were arranged, we had arranged fireworks,” said the 24-year-old who works in real estate.
"After we decided to cancel, for three days I didn't want to talk to anyone, I was in shock. But then when we got a date here, I realised it was beautiful to just get married even if it's not what we had desired.
“From 140 people, you have 10 and even if your family are not here, the purpose of all of this is to be with the one you love.”
After the August 10 wedding service attended by friends and one cousin who lives in Abu Dhabi, the couple had a small gathering at home with cup cakes, baklava and chocolates.
“We actually love this wedding even if it was small,” she said.
She does feel cheated out of the festivities and will have a celebration at home later.
“I do feel sad deep down,” she said.
“But I will advise people to please not cancel your weddings. You feel that you did something special. It is all still beautiful and something one day you will tell your children.
"Small or big, it will always be in your memory and will make you happy.”
Fr Elie El Hachem presided over both ceremonies and said the initial disappointment of parishioners gives way to excitement on the wedding day.
“Everybody prefers to go to their country and get married with family around. But because of the corona problem the couples decided to celebrate their marriage here,” Fr Elie said.
He hoped the hymns he recorded would make up for the absence of a choir.
“There is happiness because the marriages are taking place.
“They can have a big celebration later. Now it’s important to have prayers and blessings. Life continues, life can slowly come back to normal.”