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In Turkey’s Gaziantep, weddings are dispelling some post-earthquake sadness

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Gaziantep, Turkey – Gazi Muhtar Pasa Boulevard in downtown Gaziantep, an elegant district of bridal shops and venues in a city known as a wedding destination, is much livelier than a year ago, the sidewalks clear of debris and shattered window glass.

Businesses have been open since the early morning and, despite a drizzle, the street bustles with life and brides-to-be seeking their dream wedding dress – like Aysenur from Pazarcik, who is window-shopping dreamily.

Primary school teacher Diana Hajj Assad, 37, remembers when she, too, was excitedly browsing shop windows in January 2023, not knowing that her big day, scheduled for February, would be called off by a natural disaster.

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Dreams shattered and postponed

On February 6, 2023, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked southeastern Turkey and northern Syria at 4:17am, killing more than 50,000 people, displacing millions and causing an estimated $34bn in damage.

In Gaziantep, just 68km (42 miles) from the epicentre, it shattered homes and buildings as well as the dreams of many couples who were about to start their futures together.

Hajj Assad was expecting her fiance, Shareef, to finally fly from Saudi Arabia to Gaziantep to get married after waiting months for his visa – but everything changed overnight.

“It was horrific,” Hajj Assad recalls. “I remember similar fears during the war in Syria.”

Shop windows on Gazi Muhtar Pasa Boulevard are filled with dreamy confections of dresses for brides to celebrate their big day [Giulia Bernacchi/Al Jazeera]

Gaziantep, which is among the bigger and richer Anatolian cities, has had many big bridal shops and wedding venues set up here and, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, many Syrian refugees like Hajj Assad have settled here.

Some started wedding businesses to cater to the ever-growing Arabic-speaking community, like 36-year-old Reem Masri, who moved to Gaziantep from her native Aleppo, Syria, in 2013.

Masri and her wedding planning agency Dantel were hired in late 2022 to organise Hajj Assad’s big day.

The creative design graduate had not wanted to be one of the thousands of refugees forced to open food ventures to survive – so she set Dantel up in 2016.

After surviving a war, living in exile and enduring her mother’s death from afar, she says the earthquake days were some of the toughest of her life, especially as a single mother of two young girls.

“We were alone in the house when the tremors started shaking our beds,” Masri recalls.

“My first thought was to grab the passports in case we had to run, like during the war. We slept three days in our car, then left for Istanbul by bus with some friends.”

The earthquake came at the busiest time of the year for her – most weddings are in the spring, so the winter is when a lot of phone calls, appointments and shopping happen.

Weddings earthquake first anniversary Turkey
Preparing the Sato Saloon for a wedding celebration [Giulia Bernacchi/Al Jazeera]

That day, Masri lost her home, one of her employees who was visiting family in Hatay, and her only source of income. Before the earthquake, she organised about four weddings a month, but suddenly there were no more events on her agenda.

“I was scared I had to start all over again,” she says.

Finding space for succour

From a city of joy and celebration, Gaziantep became a place of sorrow, with even the places built to celebrate happy moments turned into temporary refuges for the displaced.

Aykut Goktenik, 80, director of the famous Sato Saloon wedding venue in Masal Park, also known as the “fairytale park” – decided to open his venue on the night of February 6 to survivors who were outside in the cold, not knowing how long the emergency would last.

Goktenik has been in event planning for the past 40 years, 13 of those at Sato Saloon. “The night before the earthquake, we organised a henna event, a Turkish traditional ritual that takes place one or two days before a wedding,” Goktenik recalls.

“Within hours, the same saloon turned into a shelter. We were lucky to have a storage full of food for planned events.”

With three big rooms and a maximum capacity of 1,500 people, the building offered a safe refuge to the many displaced in the city. For the first eight days, Sato’s seven staff members volunteered to deliver hot meals to nearly 3,000 people daily.

Weddings earthquake first anniversary Turkey
The Sato facilities were opened for earthquake survivors on February 6 last year to provide them with warmth and safety [Giulia Bernacchi/Al Jazeera]

“Weddings are a symbol of unity and happiness, a very important celebration deeply rooted in Turkish culture,” Goktenik adds. “It was our duty to keep this spirit in our saloon even during the emergency.”

In the 10 provinces affected by the earthquake, weddings were suspended for six weeks after a state of emergency was declared. But even after the suspension was lifted, few were in the mood to celebrate after so many families were wiped out and swaths of homes destroyed, particularly in the surrounding villages, where most Antepians have roots.

Although part of her mother’s family had died in the earthquake, Hajj Assad and her fiance were motivated to resume the wedding preparations. “We had been engaged for four years and it took so much effort for Shareef to get that visa that we felt like we couldn’t wait any more,” Hajj Assad says.

“We also wanted to share some positive moments with our relatives after all the tragedy.”

When Masri received Hajj Assad’s phone call asking her to reschedule the wedding, she burst into tears.

“When the day finally came, I didn’t even remember how to put makeup on, I had lost the habit of getting ready for parties.”

On May 2, Diana and Shareef’s wedding was one of the first to be celebrated after a long period of mourning. Masri has organised three more since then as the summer encouraged people to celebrate life again.

‏‏Last August, Ayhan Kahriman and his Italian partner Giuliana Ciucci celebrated their wedding in a small ceremony with a limited group of friends.

Weddings earthquake first anniversary Turkey
Earthquake survivors huddled in one of the opulent wedding halls [Giulia Bernacchi/Al Jazeera]

They had originally planned their big day for the spring, but Kahriman lost many family members in February in his hometown of Islahiye, one of the most affected areas.

The couple was no longer in the mood for big celebrations. “Even finding wedding rings was a challenge, because the jewellery shop I planned on getting them from closed for months,” Kahriman says.

After the ceremony, the newlyweds visited Kahriman’s village to celebrate with his relatives. “We couldn’t celebrate [traditionally], with drums, a parade and lots of gold as gifts,” Ciucci explains.

“To respect the mourning, wedding celebrations were openly discouraged. So we just sat at a small table and talked quietly while sipping tea. It was not the day I had in mind before the earthquake.”

‏‏Because Gaziantep was spared heavy destruction, many people from other provinces flock there to shop for or celebrate their big day. Masri is currently organising the wedding celebration for Aysenur and her fiance Ali, to be held in a month.

“After having to postpone for one more year our happy day, it’s such a relief to wrap up the last details, it means this time it’s really happening,” says Aysenur, whose hometown in the Kahramanmaras province was heavily destroyed.

“Although it’s a heartache having to celebrate it far from our hometown, but at least we get to celebrate.”

Giulia Bernacchi contributed to reporting from Gaziantep.

Weddings earthquake first anniversary Turkey
A Sato wedding hall being put together for a celebration [Giulia Bernacchi/Al Jazeera]

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