Sex and the Single Palestinian

The four men are huddled over a cell phone screen. Its faint color splashes over the stairwell of a dingy shopping center in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital.

In the 30-second video, a man pressures a young woman to perform a sex act. She appears to be a conservative, veiled Muslim, but grudgingly complies. The men watching shift their feet anxiously — being caught watching the clip would bring immediate disgrace.

The men, all in their late 20s, all considered middle-class professionals, watch with eyes sprung open, and with apparent self-disgust. It's the closest thing to sex they've ever had.

In a place where tradition prohibits premarital sex, young, frustrated men are increasingly turning to outlets like cell phone pornography. Some unmarried men seek out Ramallah's few prostitutes, but the vast majority remain virgins, bursting with pent-up sexual energy, until their wedding night.

Cell phones are selling at a blistering rate. Ramallah is packed with cell phone shops, offering not only the newest Nokia models but accessories like leather holsters and shiny, new touch pads. And the Palestinian Telecommunications Co., the primary cell provider in the West Bank and Gaza, has grown to become the largest stock traded on the Palestinian Securities Exchange, according to the PSE Web site.

Suhaib, 28, is a researcher for the Palestinian Authority. "When I first watched it," he said after leading this reporter back into a cafe, "it made me desire more and more and more. I felt ashamed by it, and I only watched each video once."

Marriage Prospects

Some of the porn comes from Ramallah and East Jerusalem, typically forwarded from acquaintance to acquaintance. Some of the clips come from as far away as Kuwait.

Unlike his friends, Suhaib is getting married in January. He's lucky. He'll marry his cousin, who is 14 years old. The family connection, he says, worked to his benefit.

"Because she's my cousin, they gave us a good price of $4,000 for the dowry. That's considered an average dowry these days," he said.

That's not all he had to pay. Grooms traditionally foot the bill for the customary gold that becomes a mother's heirloom to her children, the wedding feast and all the other wedding expenses.

Grooms' families used to chip in, but these days few can afford to help. In Gaza most Palestinians live on less than $2 a day, and unemployment hovers near 40 percent. It's not much better in the West Bank.

In the past, says Palestinian behavioral psychologist Leila Atshan, people got married younger in unions traditionally arranged through their families.

"When people were just farmers, it was easier," she said. "They lived their lives around their extended family. They shared a house and everything else, but now there are concepts of privacy and concepts of modern life, cities, new demands on grooms."

And these days, most urban middle-class Palestinian males say they don't stand a chance of getting married. The Palestinian economy is a shambles, and they simply can't afford it.

'Nervous All the Time'

Shawki is a 30-year-old graduate student at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University. He makes $500 a month. It's enough for him to buy the snappy outfit he's wearing, but not enough to pay for a wedding, a dowry or even rent an apartment.

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