Summer in Gaza is the season of wedding and engagement parties. Just like the rest of the world, Palestinians enjoy celebrating the happy occasions with flowers, music, dancing, food and gifts. During my summer in Gaza, while I was stuck there for more than four months, I noticed that wedding parties provide the only venue where Palestinians could celebrate free of politics and free of sorrow, allowing themselves to escape a dim reality of a life under siege. I know especially well because while there I planned my own engagement party -- booking a party hall on the sandy Gaza beach, hiring a DJ, a photographer and caterer as well as ordering a cake. In it all I had to deal with the reality of Gaza where many services have been affected by the siege and where limited goods are allowed into the narrow strip of land.
I first found that a number of wedding halls were bombed in the recent war, making fewer venues for wedding, and causing prices for them to soar as the summer demand increased. And fewer available construction materials meant no new wedding halls anytime soon. The hall I did rent, therefore, came at premium and so did the cake as the prices of refined sugar, flour, cooking oil and shortening have all seen a price increase. Photographers also have limited numbers of digital tapes and memory cards as those are hard to come by and because the prices of gadgets in Egypt is high, making it hard for tunnel smugglers to bring in. Instead, we had to use old rolls of film for pictures -- the pictures were all ruined as the film was too old. The DJ had to use my music collection as his internet was too slow and he could not download the latest songs -- music albums are not allowed in as they do not qualify as humanitarian good. Thankfully, I had already made a CD for the occasion.
Finding dressy shoes in Gaza was to be a hard task. In the past, Palestinians would get their shoes from factories in Israeli or the Palestinian West Bank, or whatever imported name-brand shoes they were selling in Israel. None of those manufactures and vendors are proving Gaza with shoes now due to the siege restrictions. While it is true that many humanitarian organizations like UNRWA and ANERA in Gaza have carried out shoe campaigns, and, in most cases, Israel allows those organizations to import the shoes of their choice; those programs target mostly school children. The Gaza tunnels do bring a large supply of shoes into Gaza, but the Egyptian market has a protection law to protect its locally made shoes, thus imposing a high tariff on imported shoes. And, naturally, the Egyptian made shoes are of inferior quality and there is no choice of imported shoes. Finding a pair of dressy shoes took me on trips throughout the Gaza business district for two days, and I am not even that picky.
My quest to find wedding favors in Gaza proved to be the most daunting one. Traditionally, Palestinians would slaughter a cow and cook a large meal to their guests. But with soaring meat prices and urbanization, most weddings now give out party favors instead. A Gaza party favor is often a china plate, a mug, or a small vase with a few sugar coated almonds and toffee. That was exactly my idea for our engagement party, to order few hundreds of these and hand out to well-wishers. Little did I know, those items no longer make it into Gaza. In fact the whole sector of kitchenware items took a serious hit as most of the items included in it are not classified as humanitarian goods, thus making them next to impossible to bring into Gaza. To cope with the siege, people of Gaza tried to go back to their old ways of slaughtering cows and feeding guests. That is not a viable option any longer for two reasons: a high unemployment rate means a lot of uninvited guests, and the price of a cow in Gaza has soared from 1,500 dollars into upward of 6,000 dollars. Few Gaza families can afford that. So that took slaughtering a cow off of the table.
Here came the news to highlight the resourcefulness of the Palestinians of Gaza - under the current blockade, a copy of the Koran is the popular party favor choice. Handing out a copy of the Koran has become increasingly popular for many reasons. Spiritually, it turns out that the desperate times in Gaza brought people back to God and thus giving a copy of his book seems a proper thing to do. Logistically, printing paper does make it into Gaza and thus printing copies of the Koran is not a problem. And, there is the other reason - if you want a job with Hamas, handing out copies of the Koran tells them you are a pious individual and it helps build your credentials for a job.
Naturally, my father suggested we do just that, use the holy Koran as a party favor. I immediately informed him that it this was not an option. First, I respect the holy book, I wanted no part of using it as prop; I did not want to signal that I am pious. I also found it inappropriate to hand out copies of the Koran at a party. Knowing that I was out of options, I accompanied my dad to the Gaza market, Souk Alzawyah, and visited some of his old friends who used to provide him with those party favors prior to the siege. A few trips made giving out the Koran seem like the right thing to do, but I was not ready to give up. A former business contact of my dad's came to our aid as he just has smuggled about two thousand Egyptian-made, clear coffee mugs with floral etching. Prior to the embargo, because of their inferior quality, those mugs would never be used as wedding favors. But even though I settled for mediocre coffee mugs, they weren't cheap. But I was happy just to find something that would capture the spirit of the party, and my father was relieved that he found something my Fiancé and I approved of.
This is just one story of the decisions and obstacles the people of Gaza have to live with. Elsewhere, a mother there has to choose the right baby formula, a father has to find pipes to fix a water leak, a college student searches for thumb drive, and a bride has to find wedding shoes. One thing is for sure: while finding the right person in Gaza is priceless, throwing an appropriate Gaza party in besieged Gaza is an uphill battle.