Gaza City, Gaza – When the Hamas authorities reported the first two cases of coronavirus in the besieged Gaza Strip earlier this month, it was accompanied by an announcement that a slew of businesses would be shuttered indefinitely, including restaurants, cafes and wedding halls.
The measures were introduced in an attempt to slow the potential spread of the highly contagious virus, which has overwhelmed health systems across the world. The authorities have since reported a further seven infections, bringing the total number of cases in Gaza to nine.
Experts say that an outbreak could be catastrophic for Gaza, where two million Palestinians live in a densely populated coastal strip, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than 12 years and suffers from shortages of medical supplies, as well as basic goods and electricity.
But the timing of the announcement posed an immediate dilemma for Nabil al-Hajeen, coming just two days before he was due to be married to Fatma.
“It was a shock for me and my bride,” Nabil told Al Jazeera. “I had spent five months planning for my wedding, and it was difficult to either cancel or delay it”.
With the wedding halls closed, the pair considered postponing. However, they eventually decided to get married on the planned date in Nabil’s family home in Gaza City, although it meant drastically reducing the number of guests at the ceremony from some 400 to around 25 female family members of the bride and groom.
“We didn’t know when this ban would end, so we decided to have the party at home,” Fatma said.
In recent years, weddings in Gaza have typically seen dozens or hundreds of relatives, neighbours and friends of the bride and groom attend the ceremonies at the wedding halls, which are decked out in colourful, elaborate decorations and bright lights.
But for Nabil and Fatma’s home wedding, Nabil’s sisters prepared the traditional Palestinian Somaqia dish for the party and decorated the lounge with plastic flowers and balloons, while they also set up disco lights to recreate the atmosphere of the typical wedding hall.
The wedding Kosha, in which the bride and groom sit during the ceremony, stood in the middle of the lounge and was also adorned with balloons.
“It looks like the marriage parties during the Intifada times of the 1980s and 1990s, when grooms were trying to get married in small parties”, Nabil’s sister, Huda said.
Amid fears of infection or potentially spreading the virus, some relatives decided not to attend, while those who did took some precautionary measures.
“Although it was only a small number of guests, we were scared, so there were no kisses and hugs to congratulate us as normal”, said Huda.
Weddings in Gaza are typically paid for by the groom and the costs can be prohibitive: lunch for the guests, renting the wedding hall, transportation and a cake all need to be paid for.
In a territory where the unemployment rate reached 47 percent last year, according to the World Bank, while youth unemployment is estimated to be even higher, the price of a typical wedding is not affordable for many young men.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 54 percent of the population in Gaza lives in poverty, while 36 percent are in extreme poverty, as derived by a formula based on consumption levels.
Fatma said that while she was upset when she realised she would not be able to have a large ceremony at a wedding hall, she said she was also relieved that married life would not begin with a mountain of debt.
“I cried a lot because I couldn’t do my party in the wedding hall, but I’m now very happy for the very cheerful party that we had, which has also reduced the cost on my husband so we will live with less debt”.
The closure of the wedding halls in Gaza has also not prevented newlyweds from arriving at Asma Awni Nassar’s photography studio in western Gaza city, where brides and grooms have kept appointments and continued to arrive in order to have their wedding portraits taken.
“I have received more grooms and brides for photo sessions in my studio to document their special day. They didn’t cancel the wedding party and most of them celebrated with family members in their homes”, said studio manager Asma Awni Nassar.
Even before the first cases were reported in Gaza, some grooms had decided to bring forward the date of their weddings amid fears of a potential outbreak in the territory, but after the wedding halls were closed, a number of couples decided to hold the ceremony at home.
Asma has prohibited her film crew from visiting family homes to record videos of the wedding parties, as requested by grooms, limiting work to photo sessions in the studio only, where her team wear masks, gloves and sterilise the equipment and the location.
She noted that she had seen a roughly 50 percent increase in the number of couples coming to her studio daily since the wedding halls were closed.
A police spokesman told Al Jazeera that they had received hundreds of calls from grooms and wedding hall owners to check under what circumstances a wedding could be held.
“We do periodic tours of the halls and restaurants to ensure implementation of the decision, and we also send patrols to homes to prevent large gatherings and emphasize the need for a small number in these parties,” Colonel Ayman al-Batniji, told Al Jazeera.
The recent limits on the festivities meant that Mohamed Abu Ali decided to hold his wedding ceremony in the family home in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, but the restrictions left him feeling slightly on edge.
“The government banned the male party even, which is supposed to be held a day before the wedding,” he told Al Jazeera. “Also the house was very small for the wedding party, but there was no other choice”, he said.
“My friends celebrated with me in the street before going to the bride’s house to bring her to the party in our home, but neighbours and relatives were afraid to join”, he added.
“We were afraid that the police will come to our house to ban wedding in home, even”, he said.
While weddings have continued apace in private homes, some families in Gaza have encouraged couples to wait and hold a traditional ceremony when the wedding halls are reopened.
After a year-and-a-half of preparation, Malak Nasser and her future groom Ismael, were set to get married on March 27 at one of the most storied wedding halls in Gaza City.
Earlier this month, fearing that weddings halls may soon be closed in Gaza, Malak tried to push forward the date of the wedding but the hall, and many others, were fully booked.
Running out of options, Malak and Ismael sought to convince their families to hold a small wedding party at home, but their families were not supportive of the idea.
Malak’s mother, Sanaa, 55, insisted that the wedding be delayed.
“I agreed to an earlier ceremony, but there were no available halls,” she told Al Jazeera. “I refused to have a small party at home because Malak is the first bride and my first joy of my four children, and if we are not sharing our happiness with relatives and friends then this can’t be called a wedding”.
“We have been preparing for this special family event for a year. We have designed special dresses and clothes for this celebration and spent a lot of money to celebrate, so it’s better to delay and to celebrate the big day after the end of coronavirus emergency situation,” she added.