THE CITY OF GAZA – When Wasfi al-Garosha returned to prison shortly after sunrise on a September morning in Gaza City, her daughter did not cry and her brother was still asleep.
Mr. al-Garosha, a 29-year-old plasterer, started the journey back to prison as his niece and nephew packed their bags for school. His wife and mother were making tea. And her father – unemployed, like almost half of Gaza – had barely woken up.
It was the 17th stint in Mr. al-Garosha’s detention since the beginning of 2020, or even the 18th. He had lost count, and the Gaza authorities do not have specific records. Mr. al-Garosha took out a loan to pay for his marriage in 2019, and now regularly endures stays in a police prison because, unemployed like his father and brother, he cannot repay the debt.
“It’s become normal now,” al-Garosha said as he walked out of his apartment. “Just a normal part of my life.”
And so it is for many in Gaza City.
Debt – and especially marriage-related debt – has become emblematic of the economic crisis here. In the first nine months of 2021 alone, Gaza City police alone issued 448 arrest warrants for indebted spouses – already more than the cumulative total recorded in the city in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Figures for 2020 were not available.
Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt have increased pressure on the militant group by imposing a blockade on the strip. This has helped to hurt Gaza’s economy and is one of the main causes of an unemployment rate of over 40%. For young Gazans, one of the results is that they often cannot afford a wedding ceremony.
But for many, a great wedding is an important rite of passage. Not wanting to delay marriage – in a conservative society the only accepted route to sexual intimacy – young men take out marriage loans, often worth around $ 2,000, or close to an annual salary. average in Gaza.
If, like Mr. al-Garosha, they don’t pay him back, they usually end up in jail, the result of a 2015 law, which makes it even more difficult for them to reduce their debt.
On the morning of September, when he returned to prison, Mr. al-Garosha came down to his landing, still holding his one-year-old daughter, Dina. She was born after he began his cycle of prison terms, and it has only been an intermittent presence in his life. Mr. al-Garosha gave Dina a final kiss, before returning her to his 20-year-old wife, Samar.
Reaching the street, he quickly took a seat. He walked past the tire merchant opening his shop, past the wasteland where a missile struck during a brief war last May, past a line of schoolchildren jostling each other waiting to buy snacks at a refreshment stand .
It was at a similar street stall that Mr. al-Garosha first met Samar, one afternoon in 2017. Mr. al-Garosha was running the stall with a friend, selling tea and coffee. One day, the friend’s sister introduced herself and Mr. al-Garosha had a brief chat with her. It was Samar, then 16 years old.
They only spoke for a few minutes and he was unable to provide for a spouse. But Mr. al-Garosha felt a connection and, perhaps equally important, felt that there was no time to get married.
Many Gazans married in their late teens, and he was already 25 years old. As most marriages in Gaza are still arranged by the parents of a bride, he called Samar’s father to ask his permission to marry him. They got engaged four days later.
After passing the brawling children, Mr. al-Garosha accelerated his pace. The jailers were waiting for him before 8 a.m.
To its left was a closed cinema – abandoned, like almost all cinemas in Gaza, since the late 1980s, when the combination of a Palestinian uprising and the rise of Islamist extremism forced cinema owners to leave. shut down their businesses.
To his right was a wall covered with paintings from the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Stranded in Gaza since the start of the blockade, Mr. al-Garosha, like most Gazans, had never seen the mosque in person.
A single Israeli shekel – legal tender in Gaza – glistened in the dirt outside a school, not far from a dead cat. He bent down to pocket the coin, which was worth a little over an American quarter, half smiling, half shrugging. More than 5,569 shekels to pay off his debt.
Mr. al-Garosha first got into debt as soon as he and Samar got engaged. Like most married couples in Gaza, he had to pay a dowry, in his case about $ 3,500, to the bride’s parents. To raise money, he sold his phone, laptop and furniture, as well as his drinks cart, depriving himself of a source of income.
Then, 17 months later, came the costs of the wedding. Poor as he was, Mr. al-Garosha did not want to skimp on a rare chance to prove his social status to friends and family. So he rented a wedding hall for 70 guests, a motorcade, an outdoor stage and several speakers – and bought the furniture needed for his new marital room.
In total, this amounted to 7,500 shekels, or about $ 2,375. To pay it off, he took out a loan from Accord, a company originally founded to finance the wedding expenses, but now focusing on more profitable markets.
“There are so many married couples losing their jobs,” said Accord owner Louay Ahmed. “There is a higher risk in lending money. “
For four months, Mr. al-Garosha managed to make his monthly repayments, relying on irregular work as a plasterer. But in the summer of 2019, it fell behind schedule, which led the loan company to take legal action. In October 2019, just five months after Dina’s birth, he began the first of six three-week prison terms, beginning a continuous cycle of freedom and incarceration. He risks more jail time if the debt is not repaid.
Each three-week quarter is generally divided into three parts: He is allowed to go home most weekends.
As he approached the prison this September morning, Mr. al-Garosha stepped forward in front of a monument commemorating a Hamas attack on Israeli soldiers – a giant fist making its way through a replica of an Israeli armored vehicle. Then he passed under a huge banner honoring Hamas.
Seeing the banner, Mr. al-Garosha shook his head. He respected Hamas’ military campaigns against Israel, he said, but his domestic approach angered him. In his opinion, the group funnels money, jobs and social support to its members, leaving people like him to fend for themselves financially.
He walked up Omar Mukhtar Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, passing several clothing stores that had not yet opened for the day.
If given a choice, Samar al-Garosha said she would work in a store like this, eager to help her husband pay off the debt. But Mr. al-Garosha refuses to let her. He considers it dishonorable that his wife works alongside men.
Spotting a street vendor, Mr. al-Garosha stopped to buy two cigarettes, for one shekel each, along with a five-shekel coin his mother had given him. What were two more shekels, he said, when he owed thousands of dollars?
He turned into a side street. The detention center was in sight, and another prison term was about to start. Inside, a cramped cell awaited him, often filled with 40 men, generally accused of minor offenses.
Fatherhood was worth it, he said. No marriage would have meant no Dinah – and he believed in raising children while he was still young himself.
Although still half an hour early, he walked briskly inside without bothering to savor his last moments of freedom.
He nodded at the guards on the portal, their faces now almost as familiar to him as his daughter’s.
Sometimes in prison, Mr. al-Garosha admitted, he even forgets what Dina looks like.