Gazans not giving up on wedding celebrations despite COVID-19

Despite the closure of Gaza's wedding halls, couples who want to tie the knot simply move the large weddings to their homes, much to the rage of the health authorities.

al-monitor A Palestinian bride and groom wear protective masks amid the coronavirus outbreak, during a photoshoot before their wedding ceremony in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, March 23, 2020. Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images.

Apr 1, 2020

Nothing, not even the closure of all wedding halls in the Gaza Strip would deprive Mohammad al-Qan of the large wedding he wanted to offer his bride, Basma. Brushing aside an Interior Ministry warning on March 21 that all gatherings in mosques, bazaars and wedding halls are banned until further notice, Qan simply went on with his plans to have a large wedding at home.

Qan told Al-Monitor that the Interrior Ministry's decision to close down wedding halls and hotel meeting rooms came on the eve of his wedding, to which the couple had invited 150 people.

“My wife-to-be and I were very upset because we had been preparing for this day for months. We wanted it to be the most beautiful day of our life,” he said. They first decided to wait for a few days, hoping the reopening would come after a week or so. Realizing it would not, they simply decided to hold the party at the groom’s family home on March 28. In Gaza, many weddings take place in spring, and particularly this year many couples reserved halls and hotels so they can get married before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which most Muslims fast until sunset.

Qan explained that he set up a mini-hall in his house, with chairs carefully placed apart, music and catering in place. 

Despite the strict demands of the health authorities not to attend crowded gatherings, most of the invitees attended the wedding. “I was delighted to see so many people share our joy,” Qan said, adding that the number had been around 150.

He admitted that some of the invitees turned down the invitation, saying they were observing social distancing, but this did not stop him from proceeding with his plan. The house was disinfected, the wedding only lasted for an hour and a half, and guests received hand sanitizers and masks upon their arrival. It was safe for them and not too expensive for me, he insisted.

Qan was far from being the only one who brushed aside the rules against huge gatherings. Many Gazans chose to turn a blind eye to the danger they might be putting themselves into and insisted on organizing weddings, despite warnings by the Health Ministry.

Mohammed al-Halabi, another groom, told Al-Monitor that his wedding party was supposed to take place on March 29 but after the Interior Ministry’s decision, he decided to hold it on March 27 at the house of the bride’s parents, which had enough space for such an occasion, he claimed. Again, some people turned down the invitation but nearly a hundred attended, albeit with masks.

Sabah Arafat, a teacher at a public school in Gaza City, told Al-Monitor that she refuses invitations to weddings whether they are at a house or outside. “No one knows where the virus could come from and how it might be transmitted. … I apologized for not attending my niece’s wedding party at her house because this beats the point of social distancing,” she said.

“I had decided not to go to weddings, but then, I got so many invitations,” said Diaa al-Agha, owner of a photography studio that takes marriage photos. He told Al-Monitor that he finally decided to accept work at the weddings, though he is taking precautions. “I am only photographing grooms in the studio room and all preventive measures and precautions are being taken,” he said.

Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Gaza, denounced house weddings. “The decision to close wedding halls, mosques and large public markets is aimed at preventing gatherings and crowds, so moving parties to other places totally beat the point,” he told Al-Monitor. “Weddings are of course joyful celebrations but it cannot be at the risk of jeopardizing human life. The citizens need to act cautiously and be the safety valve of the community as we fight the virus.”

He also brushed aside the justifications the wedding hosts give, such as that the invitees are not at risk. “No one can be certain in this regard. There may be people carrying the virus without showing any symptoms,” he said. “One cannot know whether or not a person is infected. And gatherings lead the virus to spread faster.”

Spokesman for the Gaza police Ayman al-Batniji told Al-Monitor that the health and security authorities suspended gatherings and concerts at hotels in Gaza following the detection of the first two cases in the Gaza Strip.

He stressed that people violating the decision will be fined or imprisoned, depending on the decision of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The police force is deployed throughout the Gaza Strip to ensure that the closures and social distancing is respected, he said.

Asked about house parties, Batniji stressed that if only a small number of people is gathered at a house party it is OK. A large house party gets reported either by the neighbors or the patrolling police, he added. The regulations, however, do not clarify what “a small number” is — and many Gazans believe that 100 wedding guests is actually “a small wedding.”

He said that, in the open air, if a large number of people get together and play some music in the street via their cars’ stereo and observe social distancing, this would not constitute any violation.

Batniji noted that the decision only bans gatherings involving hundreds of people, and ruled out that more stringent measures would be taken, claiming that Gaza is no longer in danger as the virus cluster is now under control.

“If the situation worsens, there will definitely be strict and preventive measures, and we may have to impose a curfew,” he added.

Qudra maintained that hygiene and social distancing are the main measures to fight the disease. Citizens, he concluded, should take this seriously so that the Gaza Strip does not turn into another epicenter of the virus.

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