In the hilltop town of Majdal Shams, Israel, bridegroom Asad Khlone waits for his fiancée. Because she lives in war-torn Syria-Israel’s sworn enemy, now rife with Islamic State terrorists-Khlone must get special permission from the Israeli government to bring her over the country’s threshold. The only son of elderly parents, Khlone feels unable to leave home, and the insurmountable obstacles of crossing a 65-mile border mean the two lovers haven’t seen each other in seven years.
“I’m usually not a patient guy,” says Khlone, a short construction worker with thick, black-framed glasses. From his wallet he takes out a photo of his fiancée-a classic, red-haired beauty. Although no one says it, this woman is clearly worth the wait.
Long-distance marriages between Syrians living in Israel and those still in the motherland are common in the Golan Heights, a mountainous area that belonged to Syria until Israeli forces captured it during the Six-Day War of 1967. The place is sparsely populated by Israeli settlements and leftover land mines, but the border is packed with Arabs who identify as Syrian or “Golanese.” Although the territory has been occupied for almost half a century, some remain hopeful that it will be returned to Syria, and arranged marriages and college sweethearts wedded across the border are seen as a way to maintain the link. (Khlone and his fiancée are in fact first cousins once removed.)
But for the first time since Israel and Syria reached a ceasefire 47 years ago, brides from both countries are crossing a border that is rampant with the activities of war. Mortar shells and gunfire are exchanged just miles from the only crossing, called Quneitra, where brides pass dusty, barbed-wire checkpoints in their white wedding gowns.
According to an official at the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least three brides have crossed the border every year since recordkeeping started in 1991-putting the Golan’s Syrian bride population at about 88, though locals say the number is closer to 300. But since the start of the Syrian civil war, three years ago, the number of bridal crossings has gone down by about 60 percent.
As I sit on the terrace of Khlone’s family home, we look out at the border, where mortar shells can be heard exploding on either side at night. Casually, Khlone refers to the hurdle of getting one’s fiancée out of Syria as “an exceptional situation.”
Although crossing the fence has always been difficult-Israel and Syria have intermittently been at war ever since the Golan occupation began-the current immigration procedure has become an emotional hell for grooms and brides alike. As men in the Golan Heights apply to Israeli immigration officials for permission to bring over their brides, fiancées in Syria deal with the ongoing realities of war-water and electricity shortages, inflation rates of more than 50 percent, and the threat of attack. Meanwhile, women already in the Golan Heights feel unable to help their Syrian families. Once the brides cross over, it’s almost impossible to go back. As their husbands did previously, the brides must get permission from the Israeli government to pass through what is essentially a closed border.
Just a few miles down a narrow road that winds between concrete stacks of homes, I meet with Hanan Fkeralden. A 38-year-old woman with blond highlights and a pink T-shirt, Fkeralden crossed the border with seven other brides back in 1998. Since then, both of her parents have passed away in Syria, and her nephew has been kidnapped.
“It’s the worst feeling,” she says from the dry-cleaning store she now runs in Majdal Shams.
Although Fkerladen wasn’t allowed to travel back for her mother’s funeral, she stays in touch with her sister daily with a mobile phone that’s constantly ringing with texts and calls via Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, and Tango.
“I’m deeply in love with my husband, and I knew the consequences before I came here,” she tells me. At seven years old, Fkeralden saw her first bride crossing on TV. Her youthful mind saw it as an adventure, an exciting journey for a young woman. Her mother, in turn, slapped her across the face, saying, “You’re not going anywhere,” Fkeralden recounts, now laughing at the distant memory.
But for Khlone, it will probably be many years before he can laugh at his current trials. For the past year and eight months, he has dealt with an immigration process that’s caused other star-crossed lovers to divorce or move abroad. He claims to have sent the Israeli immigration authority no fewer than 50 papers detailing his relationship with his fiancée. Last year, he hired someone “with connections” to help him fill out the paperwork-a strategy some grooms are convinced can speed up the process. After a few months, Khlone’s middleman told him that the application was successful and his bride would cross in February. On the Syrian side, she threw a goodbye party for all her friends and family. Khlone made his way to the border, bringing food and dessert for the guests who would assemble at the no-man’s-land between Israel and Syria. Just as he was about to put on his wedding suit, the authorities told him the crossing had not been cleared. The middleman had never sent in the papers. It was all a scam.
“We totally didn’t expect that to happen,” Khlone says. “We get to the last second and then it was all… it didn’t exist.”
As I listen to his story, I can’t help thinking of Diana Ross’s song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” originally recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell the same year this bastion of Syrian pride became disconnected from its mainland. I play the song for Khlone and translate the lyrics. He’s never heard of Diana Ross, but he immediately identifies with the message.
“It’s so true,” he says. “I mean, that’s reality for me.”
Although Khlone admits he’s a bigger fan of Celine Dion, he says he’ll try to squeeze the song onto his wedding album.