Amid pandemic, large wedding ceremonies 'our most problematic issue' for Palestinians

Large ceremonies are customary in Palestinian society, where weddings bind the couple to each other — and to the community. In the absence of physical distancing measures, weddings have proved an incubator for the novel coronavirus.

In absence of physical distancing measures, weddings an incubator for coronavirus

During an engagement party in Kufr Aqab, near Ramallah, women crowd into a room without masks. (Irris Makler/CBC)

Back in the spring, it seemed the Palestinians were getting the coronavirus pandemic under control. Despite limited resources and a struggling health service, by the end of May, they saw the fruits of a three-month lockdown: only two deaths and about 400 coronavirus cases in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

But then the wedding invitations went out. Coronavirus infections began to rise and have been climbing inexorably ever since. 

"The wedding ceremonies are our most problematic issue," said Dr. Wael Taadan, a physician and administrator at the Palestine Red Crescent Society and a member of the committee advising Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on managing the virus. 

He said Hebron was a revealing case study. It was the worst-affected town in the West Bank, and he said infections could be traced back to one super-spreader wedding in June. 

"A lot of people were attending that ceremony, around two-three thousand people, and a lot of people were affected. We saw hundreds and hundreds of cases," said Taadan. 

Large ceremonies are customary in Palestinian society, where weddings bind the couple to each other — and to the community. Registry office weddings are almost unknown. 

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In a village, all the residents will be invited, which is why a cast of thousands — literally — is not unusual. Ceremonies are spread out over a number of days. The preferred present is cash, so guests help pay for the wedding, further tying the community together. You return the "debt" next time round, when you're a guest.

In the absence of physical distancing measures, weddings have proved an incubator for the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness. 

Um Yusuf, mother of the bride-to-be, with coffee for guests. She said she wasn't worried that no one was wearing a mask. (Irris Makler/CBC)

At one celebration

And it's not just Hebron. Despite public education campaigns, the prevention message hasn't filtered through. In Kufr Aqab, near Ramallah, almost no one wears masks in the streets or at wedding parties.

In a six-storey apartment building, above a long narrow street crowded with traffic, Um Yusuf was preparing to celebrate the engagement of her oldest daughter. 

As her second daughter was fixing a friend's hair for the evening, she explained why no one wore masks. 

Sister of the bride-to-be said wearing a mask is 'boring.' (Irris Makler/CBC)

"At the beginning, we did wear masks, but then it became boring. People said, 'I'm suffocating. I'm dying from this mask. I'd rather be sick,'" she said above the noise of a hairdryer. 

That evening, dozens of guests came to the women's celebration in the small family apartment. An equal number attended the men's celebration in an apartment across the road. Both were indoors, and both were packed. 

Um Yusuf (mother of Yusuf), who didn't want to give her surname, greeted people with long happy hugs and explained why she had no safety concerns. 

"I'm not worried that there's no one wearing a mask since most of the people attending are family," she said.

She maintained that she wasn't worried, even though the guests included women from Hebron, the town with the highest infection rates in the West Bank. 

"No, the people who have come from Hebron are even cleaner and more careful than we are," said Um Yusuf.

Um Mohammed, right, greeted the bride-to-be at the engagement party in Kufr Aqab. (Irris Makler/CBC)

There was loud Arabic music playing, and some women sat in a circle, shouting above the music. At times, different women moved into the centre to dance. They also drank coffee and ate meat pastries, waiting for the bride to arrive. Then everyone got up, greeted her with ululations and crowded around to hug and kiss her. 

One of the guests was Um Mohammed, a woman in her 40s wearing a headscarf and a friend of the bride-to-be's mother. 

Um Mohammed shows a photo of her mother, Anfe, who contracted Covid-19 at an engagement party in the Jalazone camp north of Ramallah in August. (Irris Makler/CBC)

"I've gone back and forth with the coronavirus. Now, I shake hands normally, and I kiss people. I believe coronavirus doesn't come to a healthy person," said Um Mohammed (mother of Mohammed), who didn't want to give her surname.

Her attitude is all the more remarkable, because last month she attended another engagement party, in Jalazone, north of Ramallah. She said that there were guests from Hebron in attendance, who infected dozens of people with the virus — including her own family. Her father, mother and 15-year-old daughter all became sick. 

"Yes, they were all in isolation, and they have all recovered now, al Hamdilullah, praise God. I am not worried. Everything is in God's hands," said Um Mohammed. 

Other groups holding large weddings

There are parallels in Israel, where infection is up for two groups that also live traditional lifestyles, in poor crowded communities — Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Both also hold large weddings. 

High rates of infection in these groups have seen new cases in Israel shoot up to around 3,500 a day — the highest rate of infection in the world this week, according to a comparison done using Johns Hopkins University data.

"Please, no weddings now, no mass gatherings, no illegal gatherings, no disrespect for regulations, in any restaurant, in fact, anywhere!" Israel's coronavirus commissioner, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, berated the public as infection rates climbed. 

Despite opposition from ultra-Orthodox politicians, Gamzu persuaded the Israeli government to impose a nighttime lockdown in 40 high-infection municipalities. Keeping people indoors after 7 p.m. is a move partly aimed at tackling the issue of weddings. (This strategy has not proved successful yet, with two huge weddings attended by thousands being held this week in the north of Israel, one in an Arab community and the other in an ultra-Orthodox community.)

The conflict and coronavirus

Inevitably, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians also plays into the coronavirus outbreak in the West Bank. First, thousands of Palestinian labourers work inside Israel, without really being checked by either side when they come and go. 

The complex relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli troops has meant that physical distancing guidelines are not being enforced. 

In fact, Palestinians seek out wedding halls in areas of the West Bank that fall between the two, where they know they can break the rules with impunity. Another super-spreader wedding took place in a village near Ramallah in late August.

"We saw something like 200 cases in two days," said Palestine Red Crescent's Taadan. "If I was the prime minister, I would put the bride and groom and their fathers in prison straight away, because that is something that is not allowed."

But that didn't happen, and that's part of the problem. Without strict enforcement, infections in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have doubled over the past month from 15,000 to more than 30,000. 

Both Palestinian and Israeli governments know they have to take steps to prevent weddings from turning from sources of joy into tragedies — but they haven't had much success so far. 

WATCH | How to maintain physical distance in tricky situations:

How to physical distance in tricky situations

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Physical distancing has radically changed how we socialize. But there’s still some scenarios where it’s difficult to limit our physical contact with others. Here’s how to best navigate them.

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