My Big Fat Eritrean Wedding

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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

For just one day, they put it all aside – the protests, the strikes and the constant dread of deportation. And for just one day, hundreds of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv found an excuse to celebrate.

Bright and early Saturday morning, they packed themselves into St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Jaffa for a wedding ceremony not typically seen in these parts. Joined in matrimony on this sunny winter day were a local hero of sorts – the young Eritrean man who has helped lead their struggle – and the Dutch cultural anthropologist, who fell in love while interviewing him for her research project.

And celebrate they did. The festivities, which began virtually at the crack of dawn, carried on until way after midnight, wrapping up with a wild dance party near Tel Aviv’s gritty central bus station.

A rather unusual collection of guests attended the marriage of Kidane Isaac, the soft-spoken Eritrean protest organizer, and his Dutch bride, Laurie, in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Jaffa. Aside from scores of African asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea but also from Sudan, there were Israeli social activists and about two dozen guests from the farmlands of southern Holland – friends and family of the bride.

The couple met three years ago, not long after Kidane arrived in Israel, following a long and perilous journey that took him through Sudan, Libya and Egypt. Like many other Eritrean asylum seekers, he says, he was seeking an escape from a life of forced military conscription.

Along with working odd jobs here and there, he helped establish a now-defunct newspaper for asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, and has been actively engaged working on behalf of the community ever since. In recent weeks, Kidane helped organize the strikes that brought tens of thousands of asylum seekers to the streets, demanding freedom and recognition of their refugee status.

Laurie (who preferred not to be identified by her surname) met Kidane while conducting an ethnographic study of African asylum seekers for her master’s degree. “We were just friends at the time, even though I fell in love with him immediately,” recalls the dimpled 27-year-old woman. “Three months later, when I was back in Holland, he confessed that he loved me, too.”

Since then, she’s been traveling back and forth to see him, limiting her trips to three months at a time so as not to overstay her tourist visa.

Looking regal in their matching dark velvet crowns and purple-and-gold robes, the beaming bride and groom knelt before the priest as he conducted the two-and-a-half-hour-long service in Tigrinya. Standing behind the couple, also dressed in traditional Eritrean wedding attire, were their bridesmaids and ushers. And trying not to spoil the prevailing hush, several young Eritrean women, seated all in one row, nursed newborns, struggling as is customary to maintain a semblance of modesty.

Perhaps the sole reminder that this ceremony was taking place in Israel was the ringing of a cell phone that one guest had neglected to switch off.

After the bride and groom exchanged their vows, the crowd jumped to its feet, and singing and dancing, escorted the couple from the altar to the church courtyard, and from there, down the main drag of Jaffa to a scenic overview of Tel Aviv, where they posed for the formal wedding photographs. Local passersby stopped in their tracks to admire the colorful procession, some clapping their hands as the entourage passed by.

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Laurie and her bridesmaids.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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Kidane and Laurie.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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Kidane and Laurie.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Initially looking a bit out of place, the bride’s parents seemed to warm up as the mingling part of the festivities began. The bride’s twin sister seemed quite at home, dressed in an embroidered Eritrean dress, her hands painted with the traditional black designs worn by women at such celebrations. She was hanging onto the arm of her boyfriend – a South Sudanese physician who studied medicine in Cuba, opened a practice in Canada and eventually returned to his homeland when it gained independence.

Unlike the bride, the groom had no immediate family on hand. His parents and seven siblings are all in Eritrea, and he has no idea when, or if, he will ever see them again.

In the late afternoon, the guests changed into their evening attire – formal gowns for the women, and suits and ties for the men. The bride and her entourage took advantage of the break to make yet another visit to the local beauty salon, where they had their hair done even more elaborately this time.

Freshened up, the guests filed into a small banquet hall in south Tel Aviv and waited for the couple to arrive, meanwhile enjoying a feast of classic Ethiopian dishes, washed down with lots of Israeli Goldstar beer. When the bride and groom made their grand entrance, the guests, whose number appeared to have doubled since the morning, got on their feet, swaying to the sounds of the five-man band of African musicians. This went on until the wee hours of the night.

Kidane and Laurie still don’t know for sure what the next stop on their joint life journey will be. “In eight days from now, my visa expires, so I’ll have to leave Israel before then,” said the new bride. “Kidane can’t come to Holland, since he has no passport, and there are very strict requirements for being allowed in there. You need to speak the language, you need to have a child with your spouse, and you need to own property. Perhaps we will go to Ethiopia or Uganda. What’s important for us is to find a country where we can be together.”

Kidane and Laurie.Credit: Daniel Bar-On