Rawan El Helo had dreamed of this day for as long as she can remember. A large reception hall by the sea, an immaculate crinoline dress, the music blending with the murmur of the waves: it would be the most beautiful day of her life.
"I wanted to be happy and have a beautiful wedding, just like the other girls," the 23-year-old told The National.
“Then the coronavirus came."
Instead, the man who was to become her husband picked her up from her parents' house and took her to her new home on April 16. Before that, there was a lunch with relatives, and a small reception at a neighbour’s house for the women - but not the large-scale celebration Ms El Helo had imagined every detail of.
"My daughter and I will have had the same kind of marriage: she during the coronavirus crisis, and I during the first Intifada. There was a curfew at that time, so I couldn't have a real ceremony either. I still remember the gunshots," Ms El Helo’s mother, Eman, said with a chuckle.
"That's not what I wanted for her, but we couldn't put off the wedding indefinitely either as we don't know when this crisis will end," she told The National.
The Gaza Strip has recorded 61 cases of the coronavirus, including one death, since the first infection was reported on March 22, according to local authorities.
While a mass contagion could have disastrous consequences in this densely populated, poor enclave with a moribund health system, the 14-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt has provided a particularly effective shield to prevent any infiltration of the virus.
In addition to closing its borders and imposing mandatory quarantine on new arrivals, Hamas, the Islamist organisation in charge of the Palestinian territory, has also banned large gatherings.
Restrictions imposed to stem contamination have paradoxically pushed many grooms to organise small ceremonies at home in order to save money.
Despite the closing of wedding halls, “there was only a slight decrease in marriages compared to the same period last year,” said the head of the Supreme Sharia Judicial Council in the Gaza strip, Sheikh Hassan Al Jojo.
“Marriage is a human instinct that cannot be stopped by a pandemic or an earthquake … We were prevented from holding ceremonies in Sharia courts so instead our personnel went to the couples’ houses,” he added.
Traditionally, grooms are expected to pay for a lavish wedding that can accommodate hundreds of guests, whether they can afford it or not.
The pressure is such that they often turn to money-lending companies and accumulate debt that can amount to several thousand dollars - a fortune in a territory where the unemployment rate among young people stands at about 60 per cent, according to the World Bank.
Three wars, an airtight blockade, and tensions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have plunged Gazans deeper into poverty.
More than a quarter of Palestinians lived in poverty before the virus. The World Bank said in a report published on June 1st that the figure has likely risen to 30 per cent in the West Bank and 64 per cent in Gaza.
The health crisis has therefore become the perfect excuse to get married at a lower cost.
Moamen, Rawan's partner, doesn’t share his wife-to-be’s disappointment at having to throw a low-key gathering. His income as a taxi driver would have forced him to marry on credit had they opted for a traditional ceremony.
"All this money spent on a party means taking the risk of going into debt," he said. "But if you plan a low-cost ceremony, you can instead use the money to secure your future.”
"I know many Gazans who have managed to spend half as much by holding their wedding during the coronavirus crisis," said Jihan Abu Okal, who runs a hair and make-up salon in the Jabaliya camp in the north of the strip.
She welcomes this new trend, as weddings can become a crippling economic burden for low-income families. “These loan companies swindle young Gazans," she warned between sips of tea, her beauty salon now emptied of its last customers.
"My advice: marry with the money you have and try to cut costs, but do not turn to these agencies.”
"A spokesman for the police in Gaza, which is governed by the Hamas group, said that of 100,000 debt-default cases opened last year, 22 per cent were linked to marriage loans. Honeymooners risk jail if they can no longer pay back their loans.
Yasser Ahmed Al Basyouni, 31, has bitter memories of his wedding celebration, paid for with a credit. "I didn't have the money to rent a hall or to prepare food for the guests, as is the tradition in our Palestinian society. I am the eldest of my family, so I had to bring joy to our house. But the joy turned into tears," he told The National.
In April 2017, this salesman in a clothing store borrowed 25,000 shekels (about $7,000) to organise his union. "Sometimes the owner of the money-lending association sympathised with me because of my intermittent work and pushed back my payments by a month or two. Sometimes not. When I was first arrested, they kept me in jail until I paid the amount due that month,” Mr Basyouni explained.
He was then forced to sell the gold he had offered to his wife as a dowry - but even that wasn’t enough. He said he was arrested a total of six times, each for a period of less than a day, and is now debt free.
"The judge did not take into account my financial situation. I was very disappointed. I hope that no young man will deal with these companies ever again.”
In recent days, Gazans took to social media to express their outrage that thousands of grooms are allegedly wanted by the police for failing to pay back their debts. “Marriage has become an ambush,” one local journalist wrote.
However, the coronavirus has brought some good news to jailed spouses. Due to the pandemic, 1200 inmates deemed not to represent a threat to society were released from prisons to avoid an outbreak, a prison administration spokesman told The National. Among them were many grooms crippled with debt.
Anyone who fails to pay back his loans once the crisis is over will risk being jailed again. The law provides for a maximum jail time of 91 days per year for debt-default cases.
With the money they were able to save, Rawan and Moamen plan to set up their own apartment on the first floor of the family home. "I have no regrets, it was the right decision," said Moamen. “A marriage is a marriage, with or without the joy of a big celebration.”