Marriage in Gaza: Young Palestinians take on crippling debt to tie the knot

Gaza Strip - Khan Younis - a Palestinian bride and groom (Ashraf Amra - APA Images)

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  January 18, 2022

The Gaza Strip has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – more than 50% – and an exceptionally young population. As more young people fall in love under the blockade, couples are turning to loan agencies to get married, and falling into crippling debt in the process.

Hussam Ayman, 32, desperately wanted to get married. It was something he felt would make his difficult life under siege in Gaza, a little sweeter. He was in love with a girl, Fatema, who he had met in college.

They both wanted to be together, but in a conservative society that proved to be a struggle. They had to sneak around to meet each other, using art galleries and literary events to steal glances at one another, and if they were lucky, get some time to chat. 

For Hussam, marriage seemed like a faraway dream that he’d never be able to reach because of his financial situation. His family had offered to help, but it was still not enough to cover the expenses of marriage. And in the meantime, his love Fatema had been left waiting.

Hussam and Fatema graduated in 2017 from the accounting department at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. After graduating, they watched the years pass them by, only ever able to secure temporary job offers for a period of a few months at a time, here and there.  They both wanted to be together, more than anything, but they understand how hard marriage is, and what a big financial burden it can be in their society.

“I wanted to start a life with the company of a wife that I love,” Hussam told Mondoweiss, as he sat on a plastic chair in the middle of his unfinished house, with pale walls and a barely working kitchen. 

“She understood my economic situation, and told me that she would stand with me and face life together. All we needed was to start, but that was the hardest step,” Hussam said. 

Sky-high costs

Traditional Palestinian weddings in Gaza and across Palestine put a lot of financial pressure on the groom and his family, as there is a list of demands they must meet before he can get married, each one costing him a significant amount of money.  

First on the list is the bride’s dowry which can range anywhere from  $5,000-$7,000, followed by an engagement party, and court fees to get legally married.

Then comes the house, which if the groom hasn’t already built himself, he must rent. The house, of course, needs furniture, with prices of bedroom furniture alone starting anywhere from $1,500-$2,000 and up. 

Finally, comes the wedding day. He’ll need to rent a hall for around $700-$1,000, thousands of shekels for food for a pre-wedding lunch for the bride and groom’s families, sweets and cake, cars and buses to move the bride, groom, and their families to and from the hall, as well as the costs of the bride’s dress, hair and makeup, and new clothes and accessories gifted by the groom’s family to the bride to prepare her trousseau. 

Hussam is one in a family of seven; his parents are older and were unable to help him financially to get married. “I asked my sister to lend me some cash for the dowry, and she supported me by selling some gold jewelry from her own dowry and loaning the money to me.”

That money from his sister helped Hussam take that first step to ask Fatema’s family for her hand in marriage. As he was now able to pay her dowry, the two got engaged. 

But soon after their engagement, Hussam was faced with another predicament: how was he going to get enough money to pay for the remaining costs of getting married?

A booming industry 

In Gaza, where more than 50% of the population is unemployed and millions are living below the poverty line, wedding costs are nearly impossible to cover.  

Over the past decade, as the Israeli siege on Gaza continued to tighten, and the economic situation in Gaza continued to deteriorate, dozens of “marriage facilitation” organizations began to crop up around the territory, opening their doors to struggling young men looking for financial assistance in order to get married. 

The organizations work by lending grooms the money they need to get married at a high interest rate, or by purchasing the goods the groom needs; for example furniture for the house, the cost of renting the wedding hall, etc. 

Accord was established in 2011 in Gaza City and registered as a non-profit marriage facilitation organization. According to the company, it provides loans at an interest rate of just 1% to Gazans for an array of different purposes, not just marriage. 

Hamza Ahmed, head of Human Resources at Accord, said the organization offers loans in the amount of “between $5,000-$10,000 loans, but not in cash.”

“We supply debtors with their needs to start a new life. We offer bedrooms, furniture, wedding accessories, suits and dresses for the groom and bride, lunch for the wedding guests, and the costs of renting a hall,” Ahmed said. 

A few months into his engagement, Hussam went to an organization similar to Accord, and was given a loan to cover all the costs of his marriage. He was finally able to marry the love of his life. 

Not-so-newly wedded bliss 

Shortly after the wedding, however, Hussam and Fatema’s newlywed merriment quickly faded when the deadline for their first payment of their $4,000 loan arrived. The pair were both unemployed, only able to find a few odd jobs here and there, barely enough to make a living. 

“I cannot meet all the demands of married life. It’s different, there are new responsibilities and my income usually does not even amount to $100 per month from the different odd jobs I do,” Hussam said.  

“I know I have to pay the money back, but if I do, I won’t have anything to eat with my new bride.”

Ahmed from Accord told Mondoweiss that, like other marriage facilitation organizations that operate in Gaza, it takes “legal measures” against debtors who do not make their loan payments on time. 

“The organization pays to help the debtor start his life, but then the debtor must pay that amount back to the company within 36 months. If he fails to make the payments according to the contract, he is given two warnings. If he does not respond, legal measures are taken,” Ahmed said. 

If a debtor’s file reaches the courts, a warrant is issued for their arrest. If they are jailed, they will only be released once the debt is paid off by family members.

“I was able to make the loan payment in the first month, but I couldn’t make the second payment. When I didn’t make the third payment, I was sent a court summons. Now, if I don’t pay, I can be thrown in jail,” Hussam said. 

Hussam, who took out a loan from Accord, claims his rate is much higher than the 1% rate claimed by the company. Mondoweiss spoke to two other gentlemen who took out loans from Accord, and made the same claims about higher interest rates. 

The licenses of organizations like Accord vary – some are registered as nonprofit organizations, others are registered as LLCs, while some are not registered at all. Currently, there is no official body that registers these companies or regulates their work. In fact, the government has no real record of just how many of these companies are operating in Gaza. 

A representative from the Interior Ministry in Gaza told Mondoweiss that their records showed only two registered non-profit organizations for marriage facilitation in Gaza, but that he estimated there were “hundreds” more organizations than that. Separately, the Gaza Ministry of Economy reported seven marriage facilitation organizations registered as non-profits. 

“Many of these organizations were already working in the lending field, and by that license they are able to lend people who want to get married, even if that is not their registered purpose of operation” the interior ministry representative said.

Mondoweiss visited a number of offices belonging to marriage facilitation organizations operating in Gaza City. Their representatives declined to comment on the total number of offices they have working across the Gaza Strip.  “These are secret details and we won’t release them to the press,” one representative said.

‘Everything has changed for the worse’

Eleven months have passed since Hussam got married, but now, because of his low income and his mounting debt, what was once his dream has now become his main source of stress. 

“Everything has changed for the worse, even my relationship with my wife and family,” Hussam lamented. “Debt is a heavy burden that you can never escape.”

Khames Helo, a 34-year-old Gazan, used a marriage facilitation organization like Hussam when he wanted to get married. The main difference between the two, is that Helo had a steady income at the time, and was able to pay his loans back. 

“These organizations can really help relieve a lot of the pressure of getting married. But if you want to get a loan, you have to be somewhat financially secure in order to pay it back, and in Gaza that is hard,” Helo said.  

“It is hard on people who have no income, but people do it anyway because they are helpless, and just want to live normal life,” Helo said, sympathizing with people like Hussam, who have been unable to pay their loans back. 

Hussam has a tougher stance on these organizations, saying that he believes they take advantage of the situation in Gaza, by knowingly providing loans at high interest rates to young Gazans who have no job security. 

“These organizations promise you a new life, but they are just making new poor families in Gaza,” he said.

“It is very hard to be newly married when you are broke. I can’t even buy some sweets from my wife to make her happy,” he said. “It is a sad life, not even close to the one we imagined we would live.”

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union

Editor’s Note: The names in this article are pseudonyms to maintain anonymity