The Wedding Halls of Kabul

10 April 2013
The Wedding Halls of Kabul

I got a call at around 6.30pm. Would I like to go to an Afghan wedding? Mild panic ensued. I have taken travel-stained to new and unprecedented heights. I have no smart clothes. My shoes are falling apart. One of the problems of living in a place with unpaved streets, especially after rain, is that everything gets covered in mud. In fact a rather elegant western lady just walked into the cafe I am sitting in with telltale beige patches of mud all over her skirt. It’s impossible to avoid. So my friends reassured me not to worry: everybody would be covered in mud. Nevertheless I decided to put on my relatively smarter trousers, and a cleanish shirt. Who was getting married? Nobody seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Should I bring a gift? Certainly not. Was it appropriate to kiss the bride? Hilarity ensues.

On the road from the airport we had passed what I took to be two enormous shopping malls. In fact they were wedding halls. One of the few growth industries here is marriage. It’s such an important event that it has undergone the full attention of the commercial sector, and wedding halls compete with each other by advertising on television and billboards around the city with regard to their seating capacity. The one last night boasted that it had room for 3000 guests. This was a little misleading, as in fact there were several weddings taking place at the same time, each on a different floor of the building. As it was explained to me – and admittedly this may have lost something in translation – the bride’s family and the groom’s family congregate in a room, and ask each other, “what are we doing here?” After a bit of arguing they usually decide that since they have an eligible couple with them, that they might as well get married, seeing as they are in a wedding hall, after all. Then a spokesman is appointed – usually an elderly uncle. He adopts a crafty approach, enumerating various flaws and problems with the upcoming nuptuals. This is all a ploy to agree on a dowry. The bride can reclaim her dowry at any time – say for a financial crisis or perhaps a shopping trip to Dubai – although there would be serious repercussions. That, at any rate, was my understanding of the formalities.

In reality we never caught sight of the bride, nor indeed any other female. There was a large partition down the centre of the room, and the women and children were on the other side of it. They were considerably more subdued than a hen night in the UK, although given the absence of alcohol that is perhaps not entirely surprising. Several hundred men sat uncomfortably at round tables in a large room beneath chandeliers and christmas llights. They were of all ages and backgrounds: there were young men in jeans and trainers with rather too much hair gel, and old chaps in pakol hats and impressive beards. A popular look was a sort of salwar kameez with knee length shirt, with a smart jacket worn over the top. In my disintegrating trainers, Nehru vest, muddy Barbour jacket and a week of silvery stubble, I couldn’t help feeling that I was a poor ambassador for British style; although perhaps it accurately reflected our rather down-at-heel status in geopolitical terms these days, relegated to the level of second- or perhaps third-rate power. Certainly next to all these elegantly attired Afghans I felt like the poor relation from somewhere out in the provinces where there was a great deal of mud. Suffolk, perhaps.

There was the usual confusion of greeting, with assorted handshakes and embraces. It is a rather odd experience to be kissed on the cheek by a man with several days of stubble and too much aftershave, but one does one’s best to reciprocate. We sat round the table, periodically rising en masse to greet someone passing by. Then the band started. It’s hard to describe, but if you stood next to a pneumatic drill on the main runway at Heathrow as planes came in to land over your head, you might get some idea of the sheer volume they produced. It was explained to me that the singer might command a fee of up to $1500 for the night’s performance. I can only assume that he was paid by the decibel. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the band were actually playing or not, since one of the musicians, perhaps the drummer, decided to stop playing and wandered off to make a phone call without any obvious change in the music. The singer noticed his absence, however, and decided to cover for him by upping the volume from the merely ear-splitting to the actively torturous. I looked around the room and saw a room full of groups of men sitting miserably looking at the tablecloth, unable to speak to each other. I found the best way of speaking to Mansoor, who was sitting next to me, was to send him a text message.

This went on for some time, and then mercifully it stopped. The groom was coming. His group made their way around the room greeting various tables. There must have been some order of precedence, because our table was completely ignored; I became aware of a cloud of aftershave approaching behind me, and then it went past and hovered at a nearby table for a while. Then it moved off again. Unsure as to the consequences of this slight – would there be a gunfight? Did it merit a blood feud? – I sat unobtrusively and watched the proceedings. After a while we all decided to go downstairs, and sat round in comfy chairs watching the waiters bearing huge trays aloft with their right arms, actually sprint the length of the hall and up the stairs. It was an impressive physical feat, given the size of the tray. It was suggested that perhaps this could be made a new Olympic sport – sprinting with large tray – in which case Afghanistan would undoubtedly take gold. And China bronze, probably, having constructed a city full of tray-sprinting academies for small children to be coached in it.

A man approached our table, and we all rose to greet him. This was the uncle of the groom, and he informed me that he was a British citizen and had lived in London for many years. The groom was also British, apparently. As was our host who had invited us – a tall and elegantly attired local with a force of character that was impressive. In fact many people seemed to have lived in London at one point or another, and asked me questions such as “do you know the King George Tavern in Trafalgar Street?” Sadly I did not, London being a rather loose collection of villages masqurading as suburbs, as separate from each other as some of the mountain villages of Nuristan. Nevertheless it was nice to have some sense of shared experience. And Londoners who moan about the overcrowded Tube, the unreliable buses and the ludicrous opening hours of shops, or even the weather, would do well to bear in mind the many times that Afghans, when I asked them how they had enjoyed London, would enthuse: “A wonderful city! Everything works! It is so beautiful, so clean.” Yes, well. Everything’s relative, I suppose. A few people commiserated with me on the death of Mrs Thatcher a few days earlier. “A strong leader! Very great character.” I can’t help but feel she might be eulogised rather less in the UK, but I don’t think this was out of mere politeness – it seemed genuinely meant. In a place with a distinct absence of strong leaders (live ones, anyway), I suppose one notices the lack more.

The food arrived – mountains of it. At the next table a group of old boys in pakols and beards abandoned conversation and got down to the serious business of eating. There was mantou – a kind of local ravioli, chicken, mysterious meat that may have been goat or mutton, and three types of rice: Kabuli pulao, with sultanas and nuts; rice with orange peel, and a third kind redolent with cardomom. Having been vegetarian for my stay in India I had decided that pragmatically, unless I wanted to live on a diet of nothing but rice and naan bread for the duration of my stay in Afghanistan, I had better start eating meat again. I then discovered that next to me was a local who was himself strictly vegetarian – the only vegetarian in Kabul, the others joked. I was intrigued as to his motives; I didn’t go veggie for any great moral or religious reasons myself – mostly as a result of disgust with the industrialised factory farming that we practise in the west, and the hypocrisy of labelling meat products “UK farm standard approved” when actually it is just a legitimised form of cruelty. Anyway, my western sensibilities looked a little shallow in the context of a country where people starve to death. So I asked him what made him choose to be vegetarian here. His answer shook me. “It was because of the atrocities I saw the Taliban commit. The violence. I cannot eat meat after seeing such things. It disgusts and appalls me.” It brought home to me the massive personal traumas that lie just beneath the surface of everyday life here, in a country that has known nothing but war for 30 years. Nobody has any counselling, there are no diagnoses of PTSD for Afghan civilians, no therapy or medication. They just get on with it. Indeed the maid in one place I stayed was so visibly nervous of strange men that she almost cowered in their presence. I don’t even want to ask what has happened to her. Everyone here has a story.

One of the things I have noticed amongst the small group of friends that I have made here is just how impressively informed so many of them are. In casual conversation people reference Karl Popper, Fukuyama, Zizek, Chomsky. Their bookshelves would shame many a postgraduate student in the UK. I am considered fairly well-read, but in this company I feel embarrased to admit I have not read half of these authors. It’s the thirst for knowledge here, the appetite for answers, which makes us in the west appear so complacent. In a society like our own, with free education, access to the internet, libraries, 24 hour TV, one can only conclude that the absence of interest amongst the great British public for anything that does not immediately concern them, is a deliberate stance. With so much information on offer, ignorance becomes a choice. It’s crucial in a place like this, with a literacy rate of 40% or so (and a life expectancy of 45 years), that education is regarded as a solution. Because there is a lack of a tradition of literature here; like Africa, it tends to be more word of mouth, in a more oral society. And the problem with that comes down to one of interpretation. A mullah can command an audience of 10,000, and what he says will be taken seriously as he is seen as being a representative of the official Islamic view. Never mind that he may be prejudiced, bigoted, ignorant. His views will be taken seriously far more than any book – especially one by a western, or indeed western-educated author.

And the problem with all this, the elephant in the room, is the role of Islam. It’s a word where people instinctively lower their voices (much like “Pakistan”, which is always mentioned sotto voce.) In a place where people are killed for an innocuous statement about religion which somebody else happens to disagree with, any kind of discussion is fraught with risk. And so there is a taboo about the very subject that needs to be discussed the most. The great thinkers of the Protestant reformation in Christianity realised this in Europe 500 years ago, and because of the threat that they posed to the power of the church they were labelled heretics and tortured. The same goes for the thinkers within an Islamic context – sufis and similar. They are labelled as dangerous deviants who must be eliminated. In this regard, what has happened is that the extremist view has moved to occupy the mainstream; the moderates have been marginalised and the most radical interpretation has come to occupy the centre ground. And so, amongst a small group of free-thinking intellectuals, people boldly make a controversial comment or a joke, and everybody laughs, but the laughter is forced and slightly nervous, aghast at their own daring, and the eyes flit quickly around the room to see who is in earshot. What is needed is a moderate spokesperson who has the authority to represent Islam, to take back the centre ground from the extremists, and to say, “these extremists do not represent Islam. They claim to, but that is to give them a false legitimacy.” The problem is not Islam per se, as it is sometimes portrayed in the west, but the lack of coverage of the viewpoint of the vast majority of Muslims, and their lack of plausible spokesmen. A leader, in effect.

There’s an expression in English: ‘Fake it till you make it.’ Lawrence Durrell once described it rather more elaborately by saying that we humans are creatures of habit just as animals are. In our everyday interactions we can make a deliberate choice to act in a particular way which may be contradictory to how we actually feel; our intellect mastering our innate emotional response. If we force ourselves to act in a particular way, after a while we can begin to believe it, to feel it. Act confidently when we feel nervous, and after a time we begin to feel more confident. You can walk into a dangerous situation and walk out the other side by carrying yourself with conviction. Conversely if you walk around expecting to be attacked, you are sending out all kinds of unconscious signals inviting it. Well in Kabul we are all faking it. We act normal in a place that is so far from normality that chaos looms just beneath the surface. We act with a studied calm, and simultaneously watch everything. At any moment the world could be turned upside down. I’ve lost track of the number of places that are pointed out to me on our night-time drives around the city, where someone says: “This is such-and-such restaurant, hit by a suicide bomber last year. This is so-and-so hotel, blown up two months ago. This is the hotel that had a 24 hour gun battle.” Places become known by how often they have been hit. And the upshot is that no matter how determined you are to lead a life with a semblance of normality, to get out of your compound and bypass the illusion of security, you are essentially going from one secure location to another – hotel, cafe, restaurant – where, behind bomb doors and scanners and armed guards, people congregate in relative safety and an illusion of normality.

The food is over. Abruptly the tables are emptied, and crowds of people head out into the night. It is 10.30pm and the party is over. Men are all talking on their mobile phones, trying to rendezvous with their women who have left from a separate entrance. What they did before mobile phones I can’t imagine, although it is explained to me that these enormous weddings are a fairly recent phenomenon; traditionally they were much smaller, in people’s houses, and even segregation between genders didn’t really happen until the 1990s. This is perhaps one of the many issues that is seldom appreciated in the west – that the increasing fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon: the pictures of Kabul in the 1960s showed women with heads uncovered, and, if not actually in miniskirts, then at least in knee-length ones. Similarly across North Africa, one sees many more women wearing hijab now than a decade ago. It reflects a recent political climate more than any great long-standing religious tradition. We stand around in a group, smoking cigarettes. There is a great impassioned discussion in Farsi going on, so impassioned that they have temporarily abandoned English. Mansoor translates: we are discussing who will go in what car. In the event, six of us pile into one car – three in the front and three in the back. We set off at high speed through the dark streets of Kabul, past the British embassy with its bomb walls and coils of razor wire, along Wazir Akbar Khan, round chaotic roundabouts where nobody gives way as it is a slight on their masculinity. Indeed, masculinity, or machismo, is everywhere. Jokes are made about the guy sitting between the front seats, in alarming proximity to the gear lever. “He does not mind. He is an hommsexual.” The butt of the joke giggles. We discuss Brazil, which someone visited last year: “Oh the girls! So many buxom wenches! So beautiful shapes.” It’s everywhere, this kind of sexual tension. How does one meet girls in Kabul? It’s impossible. Hence, I suppose, the marriage industry.

I meet a businessman, highly educated, intelligent, progressive and dynamic, who confides in me that he has just begun speaking to his fiance by text message. I am a bit confused initially. Had they had a row? No – he literally had not spoken to the girl he was engaged to. It was an arranged marriage. And he felt, that at the age of 27, it provided a good solution. She was from a good family, well educated, respectable, and that ticked many of the boxes for him. “And what of love?” I ask him tactlessly. “What if you don’t love each other?”
“In time, I believe love will come,” he tells me. “We must work at it, be dedicated, and since we are a good match in so many other ways, yes, love will be there.”
It’s an interesting approach for me, as a westerner, from a society that puts so much emphasis on the self, and on one’s own gratification. But perhaps he has a point. I know many people my age who still have not settled down with a partner, let alone married one. Perhaps it’s the famed lack of commitment that many of my female friends at home complain about in men. Perhaps it’s a case of the grass is always greener. Sooner or later we all have to make a choice – not go shopping about for different attributes in different relationships: a bit here, a bit there, and all without any danger of ‘being tied down’. My friend the businessman has made his choice, and is determined that it is going to work. So although the concept is alien to me, I congratulate him and wish him all the best.