Head out on just about any night of the summer in Kabul, and you will run across giant, glass structures bursting with joyful music and bright lights. These are the city’s wedding palaces, and they’re a booming business.
In a conservative country like Afghanistan, people don’t throw parties on a regular basis, the way they do in the West. Weddings then are major social events. Extensive guest lists are used to reinforce bonds with extended kin and business partners. And the festivities become a platform for families to demonstrate affluence and solidify their social standings. Plus, with their lively bands and beckoning dance floors, they’re an opportunity just to let loose.
Under the Taliban, music was banned, and women were locked up at home. Some owners moved their wedding halls across the border, to Pakistan. Wealthier families took their fetes abroad, while poorer ones had to make do at home.
Now the wedding industry is back. Shoaib, who, like some Afghans, goes by a single name, directs the Marina Dubai Wedding Hall. His family has been in the business for a quarter of a century, including a relocation to Peshawar during the Taliban years. Shoaib estimates that there were about 25 halls in Kabul 10 years ago. Now he says there are about 70. Another wedding hall owner, who’s also been in business for over a decade, puts the number closer to 120.
The halls vary in size and decor. The more modest ones are simply multistory buildings with large salons on each floor, a scrim running through the center so that music from the band on the men’s side of the hall can still be heard over on the women’s side. The larger and more elaborate ones have giant, gaudy sculptures out front, along with fountains and light shows.
As with real estate, the influx of cash into Afghanistan over the last decade has fueled the wedding industry. Businessmen who’ve made fortunes off reconstruction contracts or officials who’ve skimmed money off funds flowing through the government have looked for places to invest, and the wedding business has seemed like an attractive—and glamorous—option.
Wedding halls have such an air of affluence about them that Shoaib said he was kidnapped last year by four men demanding $3 million in cash. He eventually escaped, and the assailants were caught. But now, as at many such establishments, his front gate is guarded by men with Kalashnikovs.
In some cases, the industry’s rapid growth has started breaking the banks of ordinary Afghans. Local custom means the bride’s family gets to decide where the wedding takes place—even though it’s the groom’s family who pays. And since the location is a reflection on the family’s social status, families in Kabul often want their celebrations to take place at the newest and most fashionable hall. "If the groom’s family says they can’t afford it, the bride’s family will say, ‘You’ll have to wait until you can,’" says Shoaib.
The situation became so acute that a few years ago that the government considered setting a limit on how much families could spend on weddings. (The motion didn’t pass.) The government has also considered legislating attire. Liberated from two decades of war, some Afghans let loose and wedding fashions became increasingly racy. More conservative elements in the government tried to limit women’s clothing options to what would be acceptable under sharia law, but that motion also bit the dust.
Recently, however, the wedding industry has, like the real estate market here, shown signs of cooling down. President Obama has announced that most U.S. troops will be pulling out of the country by the end of 2014. There’s now huge uncertainty about what will happen after coalition troops leave, and many families are starting to hold on to their cash, in case they need to get out of the country.
Families who used to throw parties for 1,000 people now limit their guest lists to just 300 to 400, says Shoaib. In other cases, brides and grooms postpone their weddings altogether. There’s a potlatch element to hosting a wedding, and, depending on what clan a family belongs to, reducing the guest list isn’t an option.
Shoaib is sufficiently optimistic that he’s building a whole new hall. The current one can accommodate 1,200 people. The new one, next door, will fit 5,000. He’s counting on the fact that many of the newcomers to the industry don’t understand how to make money as he does. "In a few years, they’ll collapse," he says.