Inside a secluded Arab-Canadian elopement on Toronto Island

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Samiha, a marketer for Google Cloud, and Nabil, an advertising exec, met at the AGO in 2014, shortly after they each moved to Toronto from the Middle East. They got engaged in December 2019, and planned on doing multiple celebrations with friends in Toronto and family in Lebanon and Egypt. Once Covid hit, they settled on an intimate elopement on Toronto Island. Here’s how it went down.

Samiha: I’m Egyptian, but I was living in Qatar working on their bid for the World Cup in 2022. After we won the bid, I figured it was a great time to get some other experience in my life. Qatar is a small place, and I felt like I could have more opportunities elsewhere. My brother was living in Toronto, and I decided to move here, enrolling in a master’s program in development studies at York University.

Nabil: I’m Lebanese, and I moved to Toronto after working in Dubai for nine years. My brother had been living in Toronto for a while, so I would visit frequently. I loved the vibe here, and I was ready to start a new chapter of my life. I work in advertising, and Toronto is a global hotspot for that kind of work. For the past few years, I’ve been working at The&Partnership, an ad agency.

Samiha: We met at the AGO’s First Thursdays in March 2014. I had been living in Toronto for a year, and Nabil for six months.

Nabil: I wasn’t planning on going, since I had no close friends to go with, but I decided to go at the last second. Samiha was there with a friend of a friend who I’d met before at a party. I recognized him and said hello. I saw this beautiful woman by his side and assumed she was his girlfriend.

Samiha: I was immediately interested in Nabil. We had both just moved to Toronto from Gulf countries. We chatted about how hard it is to adjust to the winter here. I thought we had a connection, but he never reached out afterwards.

Nabil: The second time we ran into each other was at Electric Island, a music festival on the Toronto Islands. I was with a group of friends, and so was she. I saw her from a distance, we locked eyes, and she walked in the opposite direction. It got me thinking, Why?

Samiha: I was annoyed that he didn’t reach out after the first time we met.

Nabil: I finally did reach out on Facebook after that run-in. We messaged briefly and set up a date at the Drake Hotel’s rooftop patio. Everyone who meets Samiha will tell you she’s as bright as the sun. Everyone is blinded by how sweet, positive and upbeat she is. I was going through a stressful time in my life when we met. It was my first year in Canada, and I didn’t have many good friends yet. Every time we were together it was a pause from everything that was going on. She came into my life right when I needed someone like her.

Samiha: He was so funny and confident. I’d also been going through a lonely time. I was still getting used to a new country, and I was spending all my time working on my master’s and job hunting. We clicked so much on the first date. We couldn’t stop talking, and had so much to share about what we were going through. I left feeling like I met someone who understood me and who could be a fun, happy companion on this journey in Canada.

Nabil: About five years later, we’d planned a trip to Quebec City. I wanted to propose then, but it felt too predictable. I eventually proposed one Saturday morning in December 2019 while we were having breakfast watching TV. We have two guinea pigs, Cheech and Boogie, that we’re obsessed with. I tied the ring with a ribbon on one of the guinea pigs and placed it on her lap.

Samiha: It was a beautiful, chill moment—I wanted it to last forever. Once we had reached that milestone together, I wanted to take a few months to enjoy our time as an engaged couple before making any concrete plans.

Nabil: Between December and February we talked about a few different plans. We didn’t want a traditional wedding with hundreds of guests. Since we have a lot of family in Egypt and Lebanon, we wanted to do a couple of small celebrations with each of them overseas. For our Toronto celebration, we considered hosting 50 or so people at a restaurant or winery. Just as we were getting serious about our plans, Covid hit. We decided to press pause to see how it would affect everything. A few months later we realized we would have to re-think the entire wedding.

Samiha: We knew early on that Covid wasn’t going to disappear.

Nabil: Samiha works for Google, one of the first companies that said their staff would be working from home for the rest of the year. By July or August, we agreed it didn’t make sense to delay any longer, because we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last. We decided to bite the bullet and do something small and sweet—and do it very quickly.

Samiha: As soon as city hall started accepting appointments for marriage licences, we booked one, and settled on September 17, which was a month and a half away. We wanted to make sure we could have it outside so people could socially distance.

Nabil: I wanted some family members to be there, and so we invited my brother, Youssef, and Samiha’s sister, Alya. We didn’t want to put any older family members in danger or make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Samiha: We also didn’t want anyone feeling excluded, so we took it out of their hands by only having two guests.

Nabil: We liked the island for a couple reasons. Traditionally in Arab weddings, there are two celebrations: one on the groom’s side and another on the bride’s side. When it’s time for the wedding, the groom and his closest relatives go in a procession to the bride’s celebration area, meet their new relatives and bring the bride over to their celebration. The idea is to pick up your bride to spend the rest of your lives together. That journey to meet Samiha was important, and I thought the boat ride to Toronto Island would symbolize that. We chose a part of Ward’s Island that’s hidden and secluded.

Samiha: I wanted someplace private for the ceremony, and knew we wanted to be in nature. I ordered my dress on a whim from Bhldn, and didn’t even check the sizing. Luckily, it fit.

Nabil: I wore a Lebanese fez, called a tarboosh, for part of the ceremony, as a nod to my heritage. We kept our requirements simple. We wanted a nice wedding by the water, with some champagne and beautiful pictures.

Samiha: On the morning of the wedding, my sister and I took the ferry to the island and got ready at an Airbnb we rented. The makeup artist and hairstylist met us, and we spent several hours chilling with coffee and snacks. I video called my sister in Egypt, my friends from Qatar and Nabil’s mom, who had her own celebration organized in Lebanon.

Nabil: My mom’s celebration was bigger than ours. She had a bunch of relatives over.

Samiha: We listened to classical and modern Arabic music the whole day. We said our vows to a song by Abdel Halim Hafez, an Egyptian artist who Jay Z sampled in “Big Pimpin.’” It’s actually a very elegant song.

Nabil: While Samiha was getting ready, I was at home with my brother, feeling very nervous. We met the photographer at the docks and took a water taxi over to the island. We waited in the backyard of the Airbnb while Samiha finished getting ready before having our first look.

Samiha: I always thought first looks would be cheesy, but it was actually beautiful.

Nabil: We both teared up, and kept on tearing up the rest of the day. Then we walked for 10 minutes to the ceremony location. Strangers smiled at us along the way. We were worried about the weather, since it’s hard to predict in September. The day was overcast and cloudy, but every time our photographer set up somewhere, the clouds parted and we were hit by this ray of sunshine.

Samiha: There was so much kismet on the day. It felt like everything cooperated for us, and we knew this was what we were supposed to be doing.

Nabil: As we were getting married, a massive barge passed by and honked for us. It was a joyous start to the celebration. After the ceremony, we walked back to the Airbnb, popped some champagne and returned to the city in a water taxi. Two older women congratulated us—before warning us not to go and have a big Covid-spreader wedding.

Samiha: We changed quickly, and met my stepmom and some other family members for a small dinner at Scaramouche in Forest Hill. Even though we were exhausted, it was a great way to cap off the day. When I was a kid I fantasized about eloping, but never thought it would be realistic because we have such big traditions and families in the Middle East. Although I missed having my family there, Covid helped us refocus the importance of the day on the commitment we’re making. We kept reminding each other to stop and remember every moment.

Nabil: Usually these celebrations aren’t about the bride and groom, but everyone else. There were moments where I would have loved to have some close friends by my side. But I loved that it was just about Samiha and me. We were able to focus on each other. Everyone says your wedding day passes so quickly, but I remember everything.

Cheat Sheet:

Date: September 17, 2020
Planner: Lexy Marie Weddings
Photography: Northern Wildflower
Hair and Makeup: Corie Elle Artistry, provided by Gaenor Laverty
Flowers: Coriander Girl
Officiant: Chris Yu from Enduring Promises
Venue: The Toronto Island Cottage Airbnb

Here are some more photos from the day: