Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) – Abdul Hakim Zoghbor and his wife Falestine resorted to unusual methods to finance their Gaza Strip wedding, including crowd-funding on the Internet.
In the Palestinian enclave, where youth unemployment is over 60 percent, and 80 percent of the 1.8 million residents depend on humanitarian aid, marriage is a luxury.
Couples, like the 27-year-old newlyweds who live in a small apartment, are becoming man and wife later in life and taking on debt which can take several years to pay off.
So-called marriage facilitators are even flooding the airwaves of local radio stations with commercials for interest-free financing for young couples.
“Getting married is much more than a contract,” says Falestine Tanani, who has kept her maiden name in keeping with Palestinian custom.
“They expect so much from us,” she adds, referring to the conservative Muslim society in Gaza, run by Islamist movement Hamas.
Family pressure weighs heavily on the shoulders of young couples.
“Nobody marries without going into debt which takes two or three years to pay off, sometimes by selling the gold jewellery given as a gift to the bride.”
A lavish ceremony is expected, with a white wedding dress for the bride, a rented function room, a meal for guests and a home ready to move into.
“You need to reckon on $15,000 to $20,000 (13,000 to 17,500 euros)” to satisfy the family, Zoghbor says.
The newlyweds could not raise such a sum on their own.
Zoghbor, an architect, had to retrain as an IT designer and interior decorator as he could not find a job in his field in Gaza where few buildings are going up.
“For that there is no need for cement,” or other building materials prohibited from import to Gaza under an Israeli blockade imposed in 2006, he said.
– Breaking a taboo –
Tanani, an engineer by training, works with children’s charities and her income is irregular, meaning that she cannot get a bank loan.
Her relatives also are unable to lend a helping hand. “They’re in the same situation,” says the young woman who grew up in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, the most densely-populated in the Palestinian territories.
To bankroll their wedding the couple broke a taboo, launching an online crowd-funding campaign to raise money from the public.
They are thought to be the first couple to take that step but their decision to lay out in public family finances drew criticism in conservative Gaza.
“People do not like to talk about it,” said Zoghbor.
Life is difficult in myriad ways in Gaza, where Israel and Palestinian militants have fought three wars since 2008.
With the imposition of the Israeli blockade, tens of thousands of permits to work in the Jewish state were revoked and unemployment spiralled
A side effect has been couples waiting longer to marry, economist Samir Abu Mudalala said.
Um Mohammed al-Mamluk was desperate to see her 23-year-old son married.
With her husband sick and unable to work she turned to an industry flourishing in Gaza, that of the “marriage facilitators”.
– ‘Seeking spouse with salary’ –
Mohammed al-Bahtimi runs one such company, Al-Saada, which offers a $2,500 wedding package to help couples marry before they turn 30.
“We ask (them) for a contribution of $700 and a monthly repayment. In return we provide the banqueting hall, studio photography, music, wedding outfits, meals and transport for the guests and bedroom furniture,” he said.
Um Mohammed (mother of Mohammed) was able to marry her son off on condition she repaid about $100 a month for 18 months.
“Now I ask myself how to get his little brother Mahmud, who is 21, married, and also his cousin who is already 26 and not yet settled.”
Bahtimi says his company only helps those who can reimburse the wedding cost.
The economic slump also means grooms are choosy about their future brides, says economist Abu Mudalala.
Over the past 10 years, the number of divorces has also doubled.
“They are looking for a working wife to help them, either because they are out of work or because their income is not enough to meet the costs that have soared in recent years,” he said.