If you’re in south Tel Aviv on a Saturday, it’s not uncommon to see Eritreans living there all dressed up in white on their way to a wedding.
The weekly celebrations serve to strengthen this community of asylum seekers, but also convey a message to the extended family left behind — after all the trials and tribulations many experienced to get to Israel, they have reached a safe haven.
Of the roughly 40,000 asylum seekers in Israel, Eritreans make up about 75 percent. Most of them entered Israel via the Sinai Desert between 2006 and 2012, crossing over the Egyptian border before that route was cut off when Israel erected a fence in 2013.
They fled dire economic conditions, political or religious persecution, or the prospect of forced conscription for life in the Eritrean army. For many, the journey to Israel was harrowing, with theft, beatings, rape and even murder often perpetrated by the very agents they hired to smuggle them across the border.
Though asylum seekers only comprise one-fifth of the foreigners living in Israel — which include 80,000 legal foreign workers and some 75,000 tourists and workers staying in Israel under expired visas — they stand out. This is largely due to their lively community celebrations, and the fact that most of the population is concentrated in a single small area near the bus station in south Tel Aviv.
Eritrean wedding festivities are colorful and full of ceremony. On the Saturday before a wedding, families of the bride and groom often go out for a photo session in parks. Women wear white dresses with gold embroidery, the men wear stylish suits.
After the photo shoot, the group often heads over to Sunday mass at one of a number of churches operating out of neighborhood apartments. Though the US State Department estimates that 48% of Eritreans are Muslim, Christian denominations make up three out of the four officially recognized religions there.
A week later, on the eve of the actual wedding, balloons and brightly colored chains decorate the party hall — usually a venue in the basement of one of the commercial buildings in south Tel Aviv. The community elders sit on a raised platform beside the bride and groom, while the other guests, approximately 200 men and women, eat at long tables set with disposable plates and cutlery, beer and soft drinks.
As guests enter the hall, they are greeted by the aroma of strong coffee and thick smoke, which come from the traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony held in one corner of the hall. Women peel coffee beans over a flame until they are almost entirely burned.
The food — Eritrean cuisine, served buffet-style — includes a variety of dishes: lots of legumes, rice and potatoes alongside ground beef or chicken, cooked with spices such as cumin, turmeric, hot paprika and cardamom. The portions are served to the guests on spongy injera bread, which is usually made from corn flour.
During Christian wedding ceremonies, which are performed by the community priest, the bride and groom exchange rings and make their vows with their hands placed upon the cross. Later in the evening, the couple cut the wedding cake as confetti falls around them, and dance to African music until the wee hours.
Approximately three Eritrean weddings take place in the community each week – the highest rate among asylum seekers and migrant workers living in Israel.
The cost of renting a hall ranges from NIS 8,000 ($2,200) for something fairly fancy to NIS 3,000 ($830) for the temporary use of a bomb shelter or basement. To this must be added the cost of clothes for the couple and their entourage, the catering and the alcohol, the band and even fireworks. The total cost can reach tens of thousands of shekels.
There are three Eritrean wedding bands in Israel: Chorban, Santban and Koaliban.
“Our music is original Eritrean music, which is also played in Ethiopia and in every Tigre-speaking community. It’s based on the pentatonic scale — five tones, or five keys that are played with five fingers,” says Kibrom Bana, Koaliban’s 28-year-old lead singer.
“There’s not a lot of money in it, but we love the music and love to perform,” Bana says. “Our goal is to make progress and succeed, and make a profit from it. In the meantime, I make up the difference by cleaning streets, washing dishes, and working in construction. There’s no alternative. But I dream of being a great singer in my country one day, once the current government falls.”
The performers maintain close ties with family and friends back home, and some take a lively interest in Eritrean politics that can create controversy with their fan base.
“They watch us, and sometimes they even make trouble for us,” Bana says. “A year ago, for example, after we posted a protest song against the Eritrean government, the Eritrean state authorities contacted YouTube, asking them to take the song down. We fought with YouTube, and in the end we succeeded in keeping the videos up on the site.”
In addition to music, the constant flow of weddings creates a demand for all the services required to celebrate the big day, including caterers, beauticians, dressmakers and hairdressers.
Lamlam Kasso and Saharon Telekmaryam run a lively hair salon opposite Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Kasso used to teach a hairdressing course at the African Refugee Development Center, a grassroots advocacy group that assists asylum seekers.
Telekmaryam, who came to Israel seven years ago via Sinai, has had many jobs including cleaner, cashier, hotel chambermaid, dishwasher and kitchen assistant. She signed up for Kasso’s course and learned braid-weaving, hair-straightening, blow-drying and dyeing. On completing her studies, she joined her teacher, and together they invested their entire life savings into establishing their own business.
“Even as a girl in a small village in Eritrea, I dreamed of having my own hair salon,” Telekmaryam says. “One day I said to Lamlam, ‘I’ve had enough. We need to open a hair salon in order to make money.’ I was working in cleaning at the time, and it was hard for me, and she was working in a hair salon outside the city. We began gathering equipment, rented and place, and that was it. We set up a business.”
Many of their customers are brides on their wedding day. Beauty treatments for brides, which include a haircut and coloring, cost NIS 150 ($41). If the bride wishes, she can also have a manicure and makeup.
Because the majority of asylum seekers are men, there is a dearth in Israel of young, unmarried Eritrean women. A wedding seems to symbolize the success of the groom: If you have gotten married, despite everything, you have gotten somewhere in life.
But not everyone in south Tel Aviv is happy. On International Women’s Day, an event for women and children asylum seekers at a wedding hall near the bus station attracted a rowdy right-wing demonstration.
Nearby, a woman volunteer from a local organization that works for the asylum seekers’ rights, as well as a woman demonstrator from the residents’ organization that opposes migrant deportation, were lightly injured when they were attacked with pepper spray.
“This is an event of the infiltrators and their supporters,” says Sheffi Paz, a local anti-immigration campaign leader. “I live a few meters from here, and they act as if they own the place.
“The noise bothers me, and the very fact that this event is taking place bothers me. They have events every day and act like this is their home. We came to show a presence, and to make it clear that this is our home. We will come every so often, demonstrate, and break up their events,” she says.
Paz says she feels no solidarity with the Eritrean women, even on International Women’s Day.
“I have solidarity with our own women, who aren’t celebrating anything,” she says. “All the women in south Tel Aviv are shut up in their homes right now, on Saturday night.”
This article was adapted from a version published on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.