Hall change · The sad decline of spectacular Afghan weddings

Kabul’s ritziest wedding venues have 5,000 parking places—and struggle to fill them

Hall change · The sad decline of spectacular Afghan weddings

THE ISTEQLAL wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan’s mountain-fringed capital, is quite a sight, at least at night. The red hangar-like structure is lit up by thousands of multi-coloured lights, which make the building glow like a casino. Inside, chandeliers and silk drapes hang from the ceiling, which is lit with blue and pink lights. The floors are all marble.

Such opulence is necessary if you want people to get married in your hall, explains Ahmad Fawal Sharifi, the manager, from behind a thick wooden desk on which sits a large green globe. “The most important thing is the looks and the lights,” he says. After that comes the size of the car park. Isteqlal’s can hold 5,000 cars. Inside, there is space for 8,000 guests, with enough separate chambers to conduct five simultaneous weddings, each with segregated sections for men and women.

Kabul has dozens of wedding halls, mainly clustered along the road from the airport. Most have a similar style to the Isteqlal. In addition to dramatic lighting, plastic-clad turrets and tree-shaped fountains are popular. Some American soldiers, only seeing the road from helicopters, have been known to compare it to the Las Vegas Strip, though Elvis is unlikely to officiate at an Afghan wedding. From April to September the halls host weddings every day.

Wedding halls in Afghanistan date back at least a century, but the modern neon-and-crystal sort is a recent invention: before 2001 the puritanical Taliban regime banned such excess. The business boomed under Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president from 2004 to 2014. But as the number of  troops in the country has fallen from 130,000 to 17,000 in recent years, the amount of money sloshing around has plunged, since fewer troops need fewer kebabs, laundry services and supply roads. Cash-strapped Afghans are now cutting back on ostentatious weddings.

“When we opened, we enjoyed great business,” says Mr Sharifi. But now it is not always as easy to fill up every hall. And costs, like the lights, remain undimmed. Running generators can burn over 1,000 litres of diesel a night. Hundreds of staff are involved: not just caterers and musicians, but dozens of armed security guards, since wedding halls are vulnerable to attacks by jihadis. In November a suicide-bomber killed 50 people at a gathering of clerics hosted at a wedding hall. That does rather put people off, admits Ahmad Azimie, the manager of the Arg wedding hall.

A typical ceremony, with perhaps 1,000 guests, plentiful food and at least two cans of Red Bull per person, might set a groom’s family back $9,000, in a country where annual GDP per person is around $520. Many Afghans complain about being asked to defray distant relatives’ wedding costs. Grooms’ families complain about being expected to host thousands of guests. Many families are taking on debt. “It is sad for me, but as a businessman, this is where my profits come from,” says Mr Sharifi.

Competition is fierce for the remaining customers. Many are from the diaspora. At the Arg, Azhar, a young Afghan-Canadian who drives forklift trucks for a living halfway around the world, is examining halls with his mother. At his wedding, he insists, “Everything must be perfect. I don’t care about money, I am looking to my future.” Such bravura—and deep pockets—are in dwindling supply.