Big Afghan weddings, banned under Taliban, are back
By Kirk Semple
The International Herald Tribune
Monday, January 14, 2008
KABUL: On the afternoon before his wedding day this autumn, Hamid was sitting in an empty teahouse worrying a glass of green tea between his fingers, his brow furrowed in concern.
He confessed to feeling a certain anxiety at seeing his bachelor’s independence slipping away. But something else was troubling him, as well: the cost of his wedding.
In Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, grooms are expected to pay not only for their weddings, but also all the related expenses, including several huge pre-wedding parties and money for the bride’s family, a kind of reverse dowry. Hamid, a midlevel bureaucrat in the Afghan government who supports his six-member family on a salary of $7,200 per year, said his bill was going to top $12,000. And by Afghan standards, that would be considered normal, or even a bargain.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to think about it,” said Hamid, 30, who requested that his full name not be revealed because his employer forbids him to speak to the news media. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”
Extravagant weddings, a mainstay of modern Afghan life and an important measure of social status, were banned by the Taliban, which outlawed the instrumental music that is traditional at wedding parties and closed the ostentatious wedding halls.
But since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the Afghan wedding industry has rebounded and is now bigger than ever. The growth is reflected in the proliferation of wedding halls, palaces of mirrored blue glass and blinking neon lights that glow incongruously among the country’s dusty streets and mud-and-cinder-block homes. The number in Kabul alone has risen to more than 80 today from 4 in 2001.
This freedom has been a mixed blessing. While grooms and their families are free to have the huge weddings that tradition demands, they are once again left with bills that plunge them into crushing debt.
Moderate guest lists can top 600 people; the biggest exceed 2,000.
The groom is also responsible for jewelry, flowers, two gowns for the bride, two suits for himself, a visit to the beauty salon for the bride and her closest female relatives, as well as a sound system for the wedding, a photographer and a videography team with a pair of camera operators.
All that, plus the dowry, known as the bride price, can run a middle-class Afghan man on average $20,000, dozens of Afghans said in interviews.
Even the poor do not scrimp. A laborer, for instance, making about the average per capita income of $350 per year, may well spend more than $2,000 for his wedding, Afghans say.
Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of Balkh Province in the north, became so concerned about the spiraling cost of weddings that early last year he issued a nonbinding decree recommending that the province’s wedding halls be used only for the wedding ceremony. All the other wedding-related parties should be held in private homes, he ordered.
Afghan grooms say tradition and societal pressure leave them with no alternative but to have expensive weddings in spite of their poverty. Marriage is arguably the most important rite of passage for a young Afghan man, and the luxuriousness of the ceremony reaffirms his family’s status.
“It’s a way to solidify your position in the tribal network,” explained Nasrullah Stanikzai, a lecturer of law and political science at Kabul University.
The growth of the wedding industry has been enabled in part by the fact that more money than ever is in circulation in Afghanistan.
Lavish weddings have even made a comeback in the south, where security concerns are greatest, though in areas where the Taliban have returned, the weddings have been taken back into private homes and have been toned down.
For Hamid, like most Afghans, a small wedding at home was not an option. Afghan custom dictates that all relatives, even distant cousins, be invited, and his house would not have been big enough.
Furthermore, Hamid said, his fiancée and her family had expectations.
As with all Afghan weddings, the style and size of Hamid’s wedding was established in consultation between the families. But also following custom, the consultation was mostly a one-way declaration, with the bride’s family setting the terms.
Fortunately, Hamid said, his fiancée’s family has known his family for many years and had a sense of its finances, so her family did not push for everything to be top-of-the-line.
Still, like most Afghan grooms, Hamid had to empty his savings, borrow money and rely on the largess of an uncle. They had all saved in anticipation of this event, much like an American family might prepare years in advance for college tuition.
“It’s a joint effort,” Hamid said.
After the wedding, he was going to be left with $2,000 in debt, which he expected to pay off within five months.
But it is not so easy for many other young Afghan men.
Said Sharif, a 27-year-old taxi driver who makes about $200 per month, had to borrow $4,000 from relatives to help cover the $15,000 bill for his wedding last fall, as well as for four related parties.
He does not expect to pay off his debt for at least two years.
Ask any Afghan man, and he will say that competition among brides is driving wedding expenditures up. Women who were interviewed did not disagree.
“The unfair thing that is going on in Afghanistan is the competition,” said Haidia Paiman, 20, an engineering student at Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. “In 70 percent of the cases, the woman’s family puts pressure on the boy to pay a lot of money.” A result, she said, can often be paralyzing debt – and an early, unwelcome visit by the debt collectors to the newlyweds’ new home. Even some people who are directly profiting from the soaring costs of weddings say enough is enough. “All these expenses are unnecessary,” bristled Muhammad Haroon Mustafa, owner of the Mustafa Store, which opened 40 years ago and is one of Kabul’s oldest bridal shops. “If I was in the government, I would close all the wedding halls.” When a visitor to his store pointed out that such a prohibition would probably cut deeply into his business, he quickly retorted, “Yes, but I’m also part of this society.” In Balkh Province, Atta’s nonbinding decree on the use of wedding halls was greeted with unbridled joy by the young men there. “It’s a good thing that the governor is trying to bring down the costs, because the economic situation is really bad and the people are very poor,” said Ali Sina Hashemi Muhammad, 21, an agriculture student at Balkh University. “A wife is very expensive!” But according to Muhammad Zaher Khoram, 62, manager of the Kefayat Wedding Club, one of the most grandiose halls in Mazar-i-Sharif, Atta’s order has not been strictly obeyed. “It’s not compulsory,” he said, shrugging. Hamid’s wedding unfolded at the East Diamond Wedding Hall in Kabul, in two vast banquet rooms, one for the men and the other for the women. Islamic custom dictates that the sexes be separated.
About 600 people attended, in suits and evening dresses, and a five-piece band played loud, rollicking Eastern music. Dinner included sumptuous amounts of beef, rice, vegetables and bread – much more than even the enormous crowd could possibly eat – served on big platters atop the hall’s banquet tables.
Hamid was mostly absent from the men’s side, choosing to spend his time with the women as is the Afghan groom’s right. “I feel very light,” he said, slipping out of the room briefly about halfway through the long night. Dressed in a white suit, he was smiling and seemed happy. “In our country, the wedding is a big problem – until you’re done with it.”
Hamid’s father, a lifetime civil servant who makes $100 a month, also seemed relieved. Minutes earlier he had reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and handed over a stack of well-worn Afghan bills – worth about $3,000 – to the general manager, Hashmat Ullah.
Neither man smiled. Few words were exchanged. It was pure business.
After the transaction, Hamid’s father was joyful and a little dazed. He was grinning, and his tie was slightly askew.
Asked how it felt to hand over the equivalent of 30 times his monthly salary, he replied: “It was good! I’m extremely happy!” The payment, he explained, allowed the marriage to happen.
“Only a memory is left,” he said. “A memory of happiness.”