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.

It's a midsummer Thursday night in Ramallah, a party night ahead of the Muslim Friday Sabbath. People feast and watch the fireworks. But for Shawki, the sound of celebration only heightens his frustration. He says it makes him more aggressive too.

"I'm nervous all the time. I begin hating people, even my friends," he said. "Of course I don't want to be a virgin, but I simply can't afford to marry."

Shawki's feelings are not uncommon, according to Atshan. "People get obsessed with whatever is prohibited, whether it is hunger for food or sexual deprivation."

She adds that Palestinian unemployment and an imploding economy "have caused a lot of communities to regress to being very conservative. Even social interaction between the sexes in school or cafes is not allowed."

While the Palestinian society is more open than many others in the Middle East, there is still much frustration these days and not only for economic reasons, says Bassem Ezbidi, a political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University. "The political stalemate with Israel and internal violence between Hamas and Fatah also contribute."

Cell phone use has skyrocketed over the last five years, he says. His students often walk around with high-tech phones they can barely afford.

"The unfortunate part is they use the phones not to communicate, but to surf porn and download useless ringtones. It's raised issues at the university," where cell phone chatter and the constant beeping of messages have become a campuswide scourge, he says.

Back in the shopping center, the four men are done watching the porn clip. They head back inside to what they call a couples bar. Here men and women sit in darkened corners, close, but never touching. Just being here unchaperoned pushes the boundaries of acceptable social behavior.

Virgin at 50?

Muhammed and Muna are to marry next month. Muhammad is a construction worker who makes about $700 per month. They are not wealthy. They wanted a cheap wedding, but tradition and their parents compelled them to do otherwise. It's taken a toll on Muna, who unlike many other women here, married for love.

She says she feels nauseated when at home. "I fainted the other day from the pressure. They want Muhammad to incur all the expenses and to invite the whole village to the wedding." That's at least 2,000 people, she says, all of whom must be fed.

On the one hand, Muna considers herself a modern woman. She works and doesn't feel the need for a traditional celebration to mark her marriage. On the other hand, she says feels unable to buck tradition and family.

It's ironic that in a place where a couple holding hands in public is rated X, cell phone porn is on the rise.

Every week, says the graduate student Shawki, his phone announces new clips with a double beep. He says he watches them once, then deletes.

Suhaib, also a friend of Shawki's, is getting married in January, but it's hard for Shawki to feel happy.

"I promise you," he said. "The way things are going, I'm convinced I'll still [be] a virgin at 50."