An Afghan Wedding: Tradition Melds with Bling
July 27, 2011
Last week I was a guest at a modern Afghan wedding – the wedding of the younger brother of one of my colleagues.
Summer is the season for weddings in Afghanistan. The ceremony was held in one of the very large “wedding palaces” that line a highway just outside Kabul’s central district. The building was glitzy, adorned with pulsing multi-colored lights, and reminiscent of Las Vegas. In recent years, extravagant weddings have come into vogue in the capital city, resulting in well-known stories about families of the groom bankrupted by wedding expenses or the new, young couples being indebted for life. Officials have even proposed regulation, but last night the palaces were ablaze in lights and in full swing.
Just after 6 p.m. when we arrived at the palace, the women in our group were immediately whisked away to a separate entrance just for women, and I, along with other men, were ushered into the males only area. My Afghan colleagues explained that since the days of the Taliban all weddings have been gender-segregated. Unusual for Kabul these days, there was no security cordon, no guards, no weapons in sight. Guests were not frisked, nor asked for identification.
We entered a large ballroom the size of two basketball courts. The room had been divided by a partition about 12 feet high into a women’s area and a men’s area. A band set up atop the partition enthusiastically and very loudly played modern Afghan music, providing entertainment to both halves of the hall.
On the men’s side, we were ushered to our seats – amid a veritable sea of seats and tables, the music too loud for any real conversation. Under dim fluorescent lighting, hundreds of men sat, most facing the obscured women’s side where over the partition, we could observe pulsing bright lights, a twirling dance hall orb, a sky video camera rising and falling, and many camera flashes. And we could even hear, above the blaring music, women’s happy voices and laughter.
Throughout the wedding, we kept in regular contact with the women in our party by SMS and email. We learned that once the women had entered the women’s area, burkhas were shed and veils fell, revealing their colorful Western or Afghan dress, uncovered hair and arms, make-up, and lots of bling!
Throughout the evening, key members of the wedding party bustled about the hall, organizing seating, activities, and food. A couple of hours into the evening they gathered up some 40 selected guests into a smaller side room for the nikah, the signing of the marriage contract, presided over by a Mullah.
The side room was rectangular, with a large table in the center, covered with food, soft drinks, and large trays of hard candy. At the head of the table sat the Mullah and the groom. The groom was seated on a throne as “king for the day.” The key members of the bridal party, all senior men, sat around the table. Most were in Western suits in bright, dazzling colors – neon green, aquamarine, hot pink – and wore jewelry.
Most unusually, all the men sat quietly for about half an hour – no conversations, no cell phones, and no eating, despite the wealth of food on the table.
Then, the Mullah started to speak in Dari and Pashto. Relatively young in his mid-30s, ascetic, very intense and commanding, the Mullah spoke softly, but in a penetrating, supremely confident tone. When he spoke, all hung on his every word. He quizzed the groom and the key members of the wedding party about their part and role in the union and made us all promise support for the couple.
Three different times the Mullah sent off emissaries to the women’s side to ask the bride if she accepted the terms of the contract. Three times the emissaries returned, bearing the bride’s positive response. Satisfied by the bride’s repeated agreement and the promises given by the wedding party, the Mullah then proceeded to fill in the contract, and directed the key members of the wedding party to sign. He then led prayers, calling on Allah to bless the union with wealth, health, and many children.
When the groom had signed the contract, the union was sealed. All broke into applause, and reached for handfuls of hard candy, pelting the groom.
Aside from the groom and a few members of the wedding party, the male guests never saw the bride. After the contract was signed, the groom crossed over to the female side of the hall, where the ceremonies were completed – with only the women guests as witnesses.
All the men then returned to the ballroom where food was served. A hundred waiters paraded into the room, overflowing trays held overhead. Tables were heaped with soft drinks and juice, and many dishes of mutton, eggplant, beef, yoghurt, three varieties of rice, bread, apples, and melon. The guests bent over the tables to the ever-pulsing, ever-louder music, and attacked the feast. Then, gorged, guests started to leave, emerging into the cool midnight air of Kabul.
V. Bruce J. Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Afghanistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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