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A Wedding in Wartime

Friends of Mariam, a Syrian refugee, celebrate her marriage to Mohammed at Za'atari camp in Jordan.

Friends of Mariam, a Syrian refugee, celebrate her marriage to Mohammed at Za’atari camp in Jordan. © UNHCR / B.Szandelszky

In Syria, I’m told, wedding celebrations can last up to a week—and sometimes even a month.

The night before the wedding, the groom is typically fêted at home or at the hamman. On the day of the ceremony, the bride spends hours getting ready with young relatives and close friends – applying intricate henna designs and make-up before putting on one of her many outfits for the party. The evening starts off with an “Arada” band—a traditional music group that performs songs and swordfights. After the ceremony, the celebration is filled with endless spreads of food, belly dancing, and music—often until the sun comes up.

Today, many, if not most of these centuries-old traditions have been put on hold by the war. For Walaa, a 22-year-old Syrian woman I met in Za’atari, her wedding was everything but the typical, traditional wedding in Damascus she had always wished for.

Walaa and Qassim, 24, were engaged for nine months. They were waiting for the war to end to host what he called a “double party”: a simultaneous celebration of their marriage and the end of war. At the time, the couple and ten of their family members were living “a great life” off the income Qassim generated from his two fruit and vegetable stands in Damascus.

But as fighting escalated in the capital, the parents of the two young lovers pressed them to marry without delay. And with no sign of imminent peace in sight, the couple acquiesced and planned a wedding in haste.

Qassim and Walaa hoped their wedding would also be a celebration of the end of the fighting in Syria. After being engaged for 9 months, they could not wait any longer.

Qassim and Walaa hoped their wedding would also be a celebration of the end of the fighting in Syria. After being engaged for 9 months, they could not wait any longer. © UNHCR / K.Mahoney

The newlyweds recount the story of their engagement and marriage to me in a place they would have never imagined starting their lives: on the floor of their first home together, a tent located just off the main market road in Za’atari refugee camp.

I don’t know much about Walaa and Qassim’s wedding. I don’t know what she wore, or if Qassim went to the hammam the night before as Syrian tradition dictates. I don’t know what food was served or if there was a band. I don’t know what this young couple managed to organize for their wartime wedding as a way to mark their marriage and begin their future.

I don’t know because the surge of memories at the mere mention of their union was enough to bring Walaa to tears. She begins to shake, covers her face, dabbing her eyes with a paper tissue. Her pain fills the plastic walls of the tent that shelters us, and the silence becomes a testament to the moments of happiness from which she was robbed.

Qassim gently comforts his wife and breaks the silence in an attempt to explain her suffering. From the two details Qassim shares, I can only begin to imagine the pain of the memories that haunt her in exile.

“I’m probably not going to have kids in Za’atari. I’m not able to support my wife and myself. How could I support another mouth to feed?”

On the night of the wedding, Qassim tells me that two buses of bodyguards were hired to protect the bride from being kidnapped. The party went on without incident and the couple retired to their bedroom. “Shells fell all around our bedroom on our wedding night,” Qassim says. Somehow, nobody was injured in the attack.

“Of course just like any other girl, it’s difficult not to have had the joyful wedding I always dreamed of,” Walaa tells me. She says that the couple left almost immediately after the wedding to Za’atari. As a young girl, the first time away from her family, she says she is often brought to tears from homesickness.

After an engagement and a wedding, a natural next step is often having kids. But for these two, bearing children is not something they even contemplate.

Qassim, wounded in Syria, still has shrapnel lodged in his foot. He suffers periodic fainting spells, and often wakes up disoriented in one of Za’atari’s many health clinics.

“I’m probably not going to have kids in Za’atari. I’m not able to support my wife and myself. How could I support another mouth to feed?” It’s hard to hear this from a man who was once a successful and self-reliant shop owner able to feed twelve mouths.

Like many young men in the camp, he also wrestles with social pressure that is sweeping through the ranks of male Syrian refugees: the pressure to return to Syria to fight and even become a martyr. For Walaa, she says that martyrdom is something “everyone is looking for,” but that she won’t allow him to leave.

A young couple, unable to imagine what comes next or even the thought of bearing and raising a child in a tent.

This encounter has rocked me, rendering me silent, speechless out of respect for their pain but also triggering an internal deluge of questions I can never ask Walaa. How does it feel to be these young, twenty-something honeymooners of Za’atari? To start your married life on the rocky ground of the Jordanian desert in a refugee camp? How does this foundation shape a future that you can neither control nor predict? How does it feel to hear your once entrepreneurial, self-reliant husband express his inability to feed the mouths of the unborn children you might have planned to have? Or to know that you’ve just started a life with a man whose sense of duty pressures him to risk his life in war?

The war in Syria forced this young couple to fast-forward their marriage, against their will and desire. But at the same time, it has pushed the pause button on their future. A young couple, unable to imagine what comes next or even the thought of bearing and raising a child in a tent.

By: Kathryn Mahoney, originally written September 17, 2013