A Zubeidi wedding
A Zubeidi wedding Photo by Miki Kratsman
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Picture the scene: 2,500 men form a long line that twists through the alley, waiting patiently for their turn. One after another they ascend the platform, which has been installed on an old truck, kiss the groom on the cheek twice or four times - depending on how close they are - and stuff a coin or a banknote - depending on how close they are - into the paper bag held by his friend. Afterward they pose for a photo together, hugging each other, chests puffed out, then descend and make way for the next in line. This goes on for hours.

Last week in the Jenin refugee camp: the wedding of Anton Zubeidi. Entry to this event is for men only. The women peek down from the windows and the roofs, bearing resemblance to the women's gallery in Orthodox synagogues. Their party will take place the following evening in a banquet hall in the city. The bride isn't here this evening, nor is her family. Only the groom.

The wedding band blares its music, the wedding singer croons softly to the groom and to the whole world. A huge circle of men dance through the wretched alleys until they feel like their legs will fall off. Strike up the band! It's the Marche Jenin.

One man brandishes an antique silver dagger, as the groom and his brothers are lifted onto the shoulders of friends. There are no firearms and no gunshots of joy at this wedding - not since two children were killed at an armed "oriental fantasy" celebration two years ago.

Even Zakariya Zubeidi, the onetime number-one wanted individual, is tonight without the pistol he always kept hidden under his shirt, and without the submachine gun that never left his hands during those accursed years. In their place is the key to his Volkswagen.

Zakariya is a cousin of the groom, Anton, and like a brother to him. After Zakariya's father died when he was a child, his uncle Jamal, the groom's father, raised him as his own. The wedding invitation carries the name of Zakariya's deceased father alongside Jamal's name. Our friend, the wanted man, is tonight playing the role of the host, escorting every guest toward the party. The wedding singer mentions Zakariya's name after almost every song.

But the new Zakariya is embarrassed by these gestures. He's dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and all the guests are also in casual garb - excluding the groom, who bought a suit for NIS 300. The buildings in the background boast gunshot holes in their walls. Though renovated after the devastation of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the ravages of time and the battles since then are already discernible. Colorful graffiti on one wall reads "We will not forget," in English and Arabic.

These are 2,500 suffering and struggling men, many of whose friends have been killed, jailed or crippled. But this evening is a joyous occasion: Anton Zubeidi, a glass fitter for cars and the firstborn son of Jamal Zubeidi, one of the brave, impressive and uncrowned leaders of this camp, will soon marry his heart's choice, Asama, a daughter of the city and a relative.

Welcome the groom. Now 24, we have known Anton since he was a boy, when we used to visit his father, Jamal - who with his own hands buried some of those killed in Operation Defensive Shield in the yard of his home, which was also hit. Less than three years ago we spent a night in that home and were awakened in the dead of night by invading Israel army jeeps.

Now Anton is working with Zakariya's brother in the glass fitting garage on the edge of town. Another of Zakariya's brothers works as a security man at the American University in Jenin. Zakariya himself is involved with The Freedom Theater and is an official in the Palestinian Authority's ministry for prisoners. Times have changed.

Also new is the Polo Zakariya drives - the Hebrew word "aviv" (spring ) appears on the window - without license plates, of course. Another of Zakariya's brothers, Daoud, who spent 12 years in an Israeli prison, his arms covered in tattoos, also drives a new Polo these days. After his wild past, he is now said to have "settled down" since becoming the head of a family. Daoud is married to the groom's sister, Safed - as in the Israeli city. Zakariya's wife might also give birth tonight, according to the doctor's promise.

We arrived in Jenin early in the afternoon on Saturday, a few hours before the start of the festivities. It was all hustle and bustle, as Zakariya drove the women to the henna ceremony for the bride, and on the roof of the house opposite, chef Kamal Mahamid prepared refreshments. Huge vats were seething: for the mansaf meat, for the rice, for the peas and carrots, for the yogurt - vat after vat.

Chef Kamal used to work in the Tabun and Mangal Restaurant on Yehuda Hamaccabi Street in north Tel Aviv. He remembers the owner, Eli Jerbi, who was the goalkeeper for Beitar Tel Aviv, and his brother and partner, Roni. Afterward he worked in a shawarma place in Afula. Now he's here, the chef.

"I am making meat with yogurt. I know it's against your religion," he tells me in his polished Hebrew from his Tel Aviv days, "but it's the best we have. This is Abu Anton's celebration. Abu Anton is not just anybody. Abu Anton is the sheikh of the shabab. Not of the old timers - of the shabab, the young people. May he stay healthy - 2,500 guests. Two hundred guests? What are we, in some Tel Aviv banquet hall at $50 a plate? I worked in those halls of yours and I know all about them."

In the alley below, the truck carriage that will become the platform is being readied. The street is dirty, as always. A neighbor clears away a few sacks of garbage, in vain. Naim Sadi, the director of the Jenin branch of UNICEF, arrives in his BMW to take the groom to his home, where Anton will shower, dress and preen himself.

 

A neighbor, Ribhi Shalabi, sits down next to us as the preparations are completed. We were in his home after Israeli soldiers killed his son-in-law. That was six years ago. Shalabi's daughter, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy at the time, emerged from the untargeted assassination as a young widow with a bullet in her leg. Her 55-year-old husband was an innocent passerby who merely exited a taxi and raised his hands, but the undercover soldiers still shot him in the stomach, killing him before her eyes.

Fares, a boy of seven, listens to the familiar tale of terror in a black suit, tie and shiny black shoes. He's here with his family from Tul Karm - they are from the groom's mother's side. Everyone is from the groom's side this evening.

"If only we could tell Netanyahu to let our children out of jail. Enough," Shalabi says. A few dozen residents of the refugee camp are still in prison and more than 100 were killed in the second intifada. There isn't a family here in which at least one of the sons was not wounded, jailed or killed. The army continues to invade the camp occasionally by night - and this week was no exception. But the real concern this evening is that it not rain.

Gel is poured onto the heads of the young men like water. A truck packed with hundreds of plastic chairs is unloaded in the alley. T. has a cup of coffee with us. He was a member of a six-man squad that was very high on Israel's wanted list. Five of them were killed, T. alone survived. He was recently pardoned and can now go back to sleeping at home. And here is the guy who accidentally shot himself in the knee just after leaving his house.

Miki Kratsman shows photos he took here five years ago, at a memorial ceremony for the fallen. The pictures are an instant hit. "Here I am," some say, and "Here's my friend who was killed." The photographs are passed from one to the next. As I observe these young men, whom I saw when they were being hunted and whom I now watch celebrating, I ask myself when they were happier. Meanwhile, Zakariya is blowing up balloons for the children crowded around him.

The waiters, in turquoise shirts and black ties, go up to the roof. Evening has fallen. Never have I felt so relaxed here - even though we, the only two Jewish Israelis, accompanied by a female Swedish journalist, the only woman among the sea of men, are surrounded by the celebrants. No one gives us a second glance. Stars in the sky instead of the Apache helicopters and pilotless planes of the recent past, the orchestra truck instead of tanks, folkdances instead of the pell-mell flight of wanted men. And now, bring on the food.

We ascend to the roof. Row after row of tables stand crowded together, covered with nylon tablecloths. We are led to our places, the waiters serve each guest a portion of mansaf on a disposable tray, another waiter adds a soft drink. The food is wonderful, we eat standing up in utter silence, then clear off the roof for the next wave. Only one intifada victim sits in his wheelchair eating, also in silence.

On the streets below, the harsh atmosphere of the beginning of the evening gives way to furious dabke dancing that sweeps everyone in. Dancing with stars, dancing with fighters, and never have I seen such happiness in the Jenin refugee camp.