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His side, her side and 600 strangers

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

Still, he knew his obligations.

"If I didn’t serve them, it would have caused me dishonor and taken away all happiness from my wedding day," explained 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 Shafiqullah’s original guest list of 700 for his wedding six months ago. Besides the guests on his bride’s side, Shafiqullah invited "my cousins; my cousin’s cousins; my neighbors; 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 recognize 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 hang around the stretch of the airport road that has been nicknamed "Las Vegas," for the bright neon lights and mirrored glass of the wedding halls. They 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.

Because weddings are generally segregated by gender, usually by huge partitions, the draw is not the opportunity to meet women so much as it is the banquet fare of lamb, chicken, kabuli pulao (a traditional lamb pilaf), yogurt, fruit and pudding.

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

People across Kabul still speak of the wedding several years ago of a vice president’s second youngest son. Two of the capital’s giant wedding halls, as well as two of its nicest hotels, were booked to accommodate the 4,000 to 7,000 guests, according to the lore among wedding hall owners.

Young men whose fathers are not vice presidents are among the bill’s most ardent supporters.

"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.

Ahmad Walid Sultani, who owns a stationery store, said he hopes someday to print invitations for his own wedding, not just for his customers’ weddings. He has been engaged for seven long years while saving money "for all the extravagant expenses needed for a wedding."

Like many young men in Kabul, he worries that his fiancie’s family, which by tradition does not pay for the wedding, expects a bigger, more lavish party than he could afford. He has good cause: When his fiancie’s cousin was married recently, his future in-laws invited 1,500 people.

"I know that my in-laws are going to place a big burden on me at my wedding," he said.

Although Sultani is engaged, many young men first worry about finding a way to pay long before they start searching for a bride.

"I need to work hard and for a long time before I make enough money to marry someone," said Fayaz, 19, who sells bootleg DVDs in a traffic circle. He figured a wedding would cost him more than $8,500.

To pay for such weddings, young men in Kabul seek loans from banks, siblings and an extended network of relatives. They swap stories about doomed marriages in which young grooms, shortly after their nuptials, go abroad to Iran or Dubai as migrant laborers to pay off the debt. The most popular versions of these urban legends have the husbands returning years later as drug addicts or not at all.

Booking a wedding hall and feeding the guests account for only a fraction of the cost. Grooms must also buy gold jewelry for the bride. And they must pay what is known as a "bride price," a certain sum the groom gives to the bride or her family so she has some property of her own to control.

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.

Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament, said she objected to requirements in the bill that wedding halls segregate parties by gender and inspect the bride’s clothing for modesty. "This involves the privacy of life and fundamental rights of citizens," she said.

The wedding hall owners have their own arguments. They say that forcing families to trim names from guest lists is not only an affront to Afghan values, but will only invite discord between families and weaken the social and tribal ties that undergird much of Afghan life.

"If you don’t invite us to your wedding, please don’t expect us to shoulder your coffin, either," is how many Afghans will react to being excluded from weddings, said Hajji Ghulam Sadiq, the owner of Oranos wedding hall.

Down the road, at the Sultan City wedding hall, one of the managers, wearing a black shirt and a pressed brown suit, said the new law would cripple the wedding hall business – one of the few thriving industries in an ailing Afghan economy.

"What will they do if they lose their jobs?" said the manager, Sayed Yaqoot, referring to the thousands of waiters and wedding hall workers. "Go join the Taliban?"

Joseph Goldstein, New York Times

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