For Gaza's broke grooms, the coronavirus crisis has been the perfect time to get married.
With wedding halls closed and public gatherings forbidden to prevent the spread of the virus, many couples have celebrated their marriage in alleyways and apartments — so grooms can save the fortune they're normally expected to spend on big parties.
Palestinian tradition dictates that the groom pay for the wedding, not the bride or her family.
"I have saved at least $5,000 on renting a wedding hall, having a banquet, two wedding parties, renting cars and other details," said Aziz Masoud, 26 and jobless, who was carried on his friends' shoulders in an alleyway of Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp earlier this month.
Officials do not collect statistics on wedding parties, but one hair and makeup salon for brides reported a 60% jump in business since Gaza imposed restrictions in March, and the chief justice of Gaza's Islamic court in charge of registering marriages said he'd noticed the unseasonable wedding boom.
Marriage is one of many financial burdens in beleaguered Gaza. The strip is sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, which imposed a blockade on the territory after the Islamist group Hamas took it over in 2007.
Most of the territory's 2 million residents live in poverty and 43% were unemployed at the end of 2019.
Many young men in Gaza delay marriage because they can't afford the two traditional parties they're meant to sponsor: a bachelor party with a traditional marching band for the groom and his male friends, and a big celebration in a wedding hall for the families and friends of the bride and groom, featuring a banquet during the day and dancing at night.
The newlywed Masoud signed a marriage contract a year and a half ago, but in Gaza's socially conservative society, he couldn't live together with his wife until he threw the requisite parties. He asked his father for cash, but he too is out of work.
In March, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ordered wedding halls, schools, mosques and some markets shut in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza imposed the same restrictions, despite its deep rivalry with the West Bank leadership.
"Use the coronavirus crisis to save money"
"I whispered in my son's ear to use the coronavirus crisis to save money, especially because I don't have work anymore," Sami Masoud, the groom's father, said.
His son's several dozen friends sang, danced and set off celebratory fireworks in the alleyway until neighbors complained, mistaking the booms for Israeli airstrikes. Outdoor parties aren't allowed anyway, due to coronavirus restrictions, so they moved the festivities indoors.
No one wore masks or was concerned about gathering. Officials warn of disaster should the virus spread in the small seaside territory with health services frayed from years of war and blockade. But the young men shared the confidence of many locals that the virus is contained in Gaza.
There have been only 17 confirmed virus cases, all were quarantined, and all but five have recovered, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. About 1,900 Palestinians who crossed into Gaza from Egypt have been held in quarantine centers to ensure they are not infected. Testing has not been widespread, but Gaza's suffocating blockade prevented an influx of travelers able to bring in the virus early on.
Dream wedding deferred
Couples rushed to hold wedding parties before the April 23 start of Ramadan, a month of prayer and fasting when weddings are not typically held. By the time Ramadan ends, many Gazans expect coronavirus restrictions to be lifted, wedding halls to be reopened and social pressure back again to throw lavish wedding parties.
One big hidden cost of a low-cost Gaza coronavirus wedding: Couples do not get the wedding of their dreams, perhaps in one of Gaza's fancy wedding halls with beach views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Mohammed Aqel, 24, called off the two parties he'd planned, canceled his wedding hall reservation and held a small gathering inside his house in March with plastic chairs and balloons.
"It's awesome that I saved at least $4,500," Aqel said. "But honestly, I have pain in my heart." His wife, Islam Abu Matar, was not happy.
"I lost the most important night in my life. It will not be repeated," said Abu Matar, 20. She compared herself to her married friends. "They did their night with lots of guests and a big wedding hall. But I had very limited number of guests with no hall."
Another bride, 23-year-old architecture student Diana Aqel, of no relation to Mohammed, faced pressure from her fiancé and his family to ditch the traditional wedding party and have a more modest event this month. She refused.
"If I did it, I would feel remorse for the rest of my life," said Aqel. "Happiness is more important than money."
Sami Abu Salem reported from Gaza.