Virus scuppers Lebanon dream weddings

Shemlan (Lebanon) (AFP) –


For months Maya and Rakan had looked forward to their dream wedding in the Vatican -- but the coronavirus pandemic forced them to settle for a tiny church ceremony in Lebanon.

Spring usually marks the opening of the Lebanese wedding season. But this year the novel coronavirus has dashed plans and hit the Mediterranean country's thriving events industry hard.

Maya Khadra, 26, had hoped for a magical day when she finally tied the knot with her fiancé -- not, she said, just a dozen guests in "an empty church".

But on Sunday in the village of Shemlan south of Beirut, they exchanged vows before a few close family members as rain gushed down outside.

"Corona(virus) changed everything, including our wedding," the green-eyed bride told AFP.

"They called us from the Vatican and told us they had cancelled all weddings for nine months, so we had two choices: postpone, or get married anyway," she said.

They opted for the second.

"You don't know when corona(virus) will end, and postponing is a waste of time," the young journalist said.

On Sunday, she wore an elegant white dress and a flower in her hair as she wed 28-year-old gym owner Rakan Ghossein.

The groom said they decided on a "shorter wedding" to keep guests safe.

At the reception hall, the bride's sister fielded a stream of video calls from well-wishers unable to attend.

Khadra said the hardest part was celebrating her big day without her friends.

"They were more excited than we were," she said, her eyes welling up.

- Fireworks, drones -

Lebanon has been on lockdown since mid-March to reign in the COVID-19 respiratory illness, which has infected 721 and killed 24 people in the Mediterranean country, according to official figures.

The airport and restaurants have closed, and mass gatherings are forbidden.

It's a serious disappointment for young couples in a country where hundreds are usually invited to celebrate.

Outside the church, Rakan's father said he would have preferred a wedding with "a thousand people" for his son, but the coronavirus had dashed the hopes of both families.

For the more wealthy, weddings normally include lavish buffets, DJs, fireworks, flowers, photoshoots and even buzzing drones in the sky above.

Thousands of young Lebanese living abroad flock back every year to tie the knot in their homeland, especially among those living in the Gulf.

Events staged by professional wedding planners can cost from $200,000 to $800,000 on average, but sometimes reach as high as $2 million.

In recent years, banks have started offering special wedding loans for young couples to cope.

Chanel Fayad too had been excitedly counting the days to her wedding, but she and her fiance had to postpone when the government imposed confinement measures.

"We'll just have a short ceremony," the 29-year-old school teacher told AFP by telephone.

Chanel and her fiance had originally planned to have a wedding dinner with her friends and family over Easter, but they had to cancel the event after the government introduced an all-day lockdown on Sundays.

She hopes they can gather with friends when the coronavirus confinement ends, but she noted life will not return to normal for some time.

"Anybody who thinks it will get better after the end of coronavirus is wrong," she said.

"It's going to get a lot worse, economy-wise."

- Double trouble -

Lebanon is grappling with its worse economic crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, with tens of thousands losing their jobs or part of their salaries even before the advent of the pandemic.

The wedding industry has long kept thousands in jobs, working in catering, the hotel sector, flower arrangement as well as decor, furniture and lighting.

But¨Pamela Mansour Muhanna, co-owner of the Mine event planning agency, says business is looking dire.

"More than 75 percent of our events have been cancelled," she said.

"We're facing a twin challenge. Even if the coronavirus crisis ends, we'll then have to contend with the economic turmoil," she said.

This is why she and her partner a few months ago started up a business in Saudi Arabia's capital.

After the pandemic, "we'll work on strengthening our business abroad," she said.

Perhaps a gradual easing of restrictions over the next few months will allow her agency to hold a few events at the end of the summer.

But inside the church in Shemlan, priest Hanna Khadra says he thinks weddings should go ahead as planned.

"Love is stronger than coronavirus and death," he said, smiling.

"Love cannot be postponed."