His side, her side and 600 strangers: a Kabul wedding

TH20-AFGHANISTAN-W_2379321fAfghan guests dine at City Star, one of KabulÕs many gargantuan wedding halls, in this file photo.

Most young men in Kabul seem to know the expression, ‘With a wedding every night, there is no need to go hungry.’

When Shafiqullah walked into his wedding celebration, he was surprised to find 600 extra people in the room, none of whom he recognised.

Still, he knew his obligations.

“If I didn’t serve them, it would have caused me dishonour and taken away all happiness from my wedding day,” explained Mr. Shafiqullah, a genial 31-year-old car salesman.

So he told the caterers at the Kabul wedding hall he had rented to double the food order, bringing the cost of his wedding to nearly $30,000 — a small fortune in this impoverished country.

It is a familiar tale in Afghanistan, where weddings are vital demonstrations of two tightly held values: commitment to hospitality and devotion to family and community.

But the strain of having to host a party the size of a small village — or two small villages if strangers turn up, as they often do — is proving ruinous for many young Afghan men, who find themselves taking out loans to get married that will take years to pay back.

Enter the Afghan Parliament, which recently took aim at Kabul’s wedding-industrial complex, as typified by the gargantuan and garish wedding halls that have increasingly flooded this capital’s night skies with neon over the past decade. With the fervent support of young Kabul residents, lawmakers passed a bill to cap the number of wedding guests at such establishments to 500 people. It is awaiting final approval.

In many countries, young couples might struggle to find 500 guests to celebrate with them. Afghans have no such problem.

Consider Mr. Shafiqullah’s original guest list of 700 for his wedding six months ago. Besides the guests on his bride’s side, Mr. Shafiqullah invited “my cousins; my cousin’s cousins; my neighbours; also people who live in the surrounding areas; and, of course, people from my village, the one I came from before Kabul; and 100 to 150 colleagues, other car salesmen.”

But among the 1,300 gathered, he strained to pick them out from the strangers. “I didn’t recognise more than half of the guests in the male section,” he said. “It was amazing, but also disturbing as these were people I had never seen before in my entire life.”

Even so, he ruefully noted this month, “I still have some friends who are complaining that I did not invite them to the wedding.”

The crowds that stream into Kabul’s wedding halls each night have given rise to a subculture of toi paal— wedding crashers. They are uninvited men who show up in droves to places with names like Crystal or Evening of Paris, complete with a miniature Eiffel Tower, and City Star, with a glowing crescent several stories high.

Most young men in Kabul seem to know the expression, “With a wedding every night, there is no need to go hungry.”

“I demand that the President sign this law,” said Jawed (24), who sells fabric in a small stall in an underground shopping mall. “I beg him to sign this law as soon as possible so people like me can get married soon.”

In some cases, the high cost of weddings has delayed marriages here for years.

The bill has passed both houses of the Afghan Parliament, although with discrepancies — the lower house limited guests to 400, while the Senate put the cap at 500 — that need to be reconciled before it reaches the President’s desk.

The legislation faces opposition by women’s rights leaders, wedding hall owners and the union of hotel workers, who plan to lobby President Ashraf Ghani to veto it.

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