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The married widows of Gaza Add to ...

The betrothed sit scant centimetres away from each other on the black leather couch, leaning in close but never quite touching. Anxiously, they ask the man they call "doctor" how soon they can get married.

"Please give me the marriage contract so we can move on faster. We want to know each other, to complete this," begs an impatient Mohammed Abu Samaha, giving the head-scarf-clad woman sitting beside him a furtive smile.

The doctor, a burly, sweaty man named Ramadan Tamboura, leans back in his chair and smiles from behind his desk.

"I will do it," he says magnanimously. "But don't tell the others. This is an exception so you can get to know her. So you can visit her and she can visit you."

The pair relax, and eventually he puts his arm around her. Soon she's feeding him sliced fruit.

This is how love is often found and made amid the violence and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. Mr. Tamboura is a PhD of political science, but he is the love doctor of Beit Hanoun.

As the head of the Al-Falah Benevolent Society, a charity backed by money donated by rich Muslims in Europe and the Persian Gulf, Mr. Tamboura runs one of the world's most unconventional matchmaking services in this dirty and chaotic corner of Gaza. The goal, he says, is to rid this conservative society of a pressing social problem -- unmarried women -- even if it means fixing them up with married men.

"The objective is not just to get people married, but to engage in a social task. We wanted to highlight this issue of spinsterhood and why women become spinsters," he says earnestly.

Three weeks ago, Al-Falah launched a campaign to help unmarried women find husbands. Pink posters that look like Valentine's Day cards have been posted at mosques all over the Gaza Strip, advertising a program aimed at "getting the spinsters and the wives of the martyrs married."

It cites the declining number of men in Gaza, a result of violence stemming from "the political situation the Palestinian people face," as the reason more and more women are without husbands.

"If it were not for this service, I would never have gotten married," said Mr. Abu Samaha's bride-to-be, Firyal Kafarneh, flashing a gap-toothed grin. At 40, she's looking forward to finally starting to realize some of her dreams. "I hope that now I will have my own house. I've always dreamt of my own house. God willing, I will have kids."

Since the program began, Mr. Tamboura said his office has been flooded with "hundreds" of phone calls and applications, and 200 couples are expected to take part in a mass wedding after the feast of Ramadan. Al-Falah has been praised by the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, and inquiries have flooded in from across the Islamic world from charities looking to replicate the program.

The wives of "martyrs" who have died fighting Israel are a special concern. "The perception that a widow has to stay at home out of allegiance to her husband is wrong. She has to move on," Mr. Tamboura said. "In doing this mission, we are keeping her away from sin."

But the program is also causing some rifts in the home. Mr. Tamboura acknowledges that many of the men who have applied are those who already have one wife. He says he has been encouraging such men to take on a second spouse as an act of charity, recalling that the Prophet Mohammed had nine wives "because he wanted to do a favour for these women."

Not all women in Gaza see polygamy in such a positive light, and Mr. Tamboura, who acknowledges his life is full with just one spouse, said he's received more than a few calls from women angry that his program has their husbands thinking of taking a second wife. "But others say 'if my husband wants to get married, let him get married.' "

Mr. Tamboura said the program has had a "positive side effect" by revitalizing more than a few marriages in Gaza, as the prospect of the husband taking a second wife has caused some wives to "take better care of their husbands" in hopes of convincing their man that such drastic steps are unnecessary.

But other women have come in with their husbands to peruse the applications and photographs on file, Mr. Tamboura said. "We encourage women to participate with their husbands in choosing the second wife so that they can live together as sisters."

Mr. Abu Samaha and Ms. Kafarneh are contemplating exactly such a future. The 45-year-old Mr. Abu Samaha, a shop owner and member of the militant Islamic Jihad movement, already has a wife and seven children. He said he applied to al-Falah because he was having "big problems" with his wife.

Things have smoothed out since then, he said, and he recently introduced Ms. Kafarneh to his current wife. Asked how the meeting went, Ms. Kafarneh stifled a laugh before responding obliquely, "I am capable of living with another woman."

Mr. Abu Samaha beamed at her with something like love in his eyes.

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