I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now, almost two months. It was one of the first experiences I had when I got to the –stan, and it summed up so many elements of the culture shock that were inherent in the first couple of days.
The wedding was actually my second night here in-country. The groom’s brother is not connected with The Company directly, but his brother is The Colonel, a good friend of The Boss. The Colonel has no official position with us. In fact, his rank and title derive from the fact that he is a colonel in the Afghan Border Police. However, since The Boss is a close friend of the general who runs the ABP, The Colonel has been loaned to us indefinitely as a fixer. An invaluable companion, especially when one is trying to negotiate the Byzantine security labyrinth that is Kabul International Airport.
So, The Colonel’s brother has returned from Europe to get married in a traditional Afghan wedding. I can only presume that the bride was an upstanding Afghan girl since, per Afghan tradition, the men and women’s wedding celebrations were completely separated. Same building, same time, same room even, but the female half of the equation was divided off from the male by a massive screen. Not once in seven hours did I glimpse a female form. Only the groom (and some of the wedding hall staff) is allowed to breach that barrier.
Our half of the equation was sizable enough, with over 1000 men invited to our half of the ceremony. By local standards, this was a big deal, but everyone there had been to larger weddings in recent memory. The Afghan tradition it seems, is to invite everyone one has ever met, and their entire family. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the guest list included the butcher and the baker from the groom’s ancestral village, which he hadn’t even seen in twenty years. I know they were there; I met them both.
*No word on whether the candle-stick maker was present.
Now, it should be pointed out that at this point in my journey I had learned precisely one word of Dari: salaam, which means hello, generally said with the right hand over the heart.
*Never the left, for reasons which are obscure, but I think have something to do with social prohibitions about hygiene. An unintentionally ironic twist in a country like Afghanistan.
So, here I am in a vast hall, filled to the brim with a thousand Afghan men, all of whom are splitting their time between wolfing down massive amounts of the traditional wedding feast and staring at me with a mixture of unabashed curiosity and some degree of hostility. I’ve been to wedding before where I didn’t know anybody. Painful and tedious, but not unbearable. However, when one does it at a wedding where one, a) doesn’t know anyone, b) doesn’t speak the language, and c) doesn’t yet have the vaguest clue what one is supposed to be doing in the country in the first place, it all becomes considerably more difficult.
After a couple of hours, the latent hostility began to fade, and their curiosity took over. Unfortunately, this manifested itself in an endless stream of people coming to our table to greet The Boss and interrogate me on my opinions on the food, the party, Afghan society, and why I wasn’t married. The questions were not made any easier by the fact that most of them were posed in Dari and subject to some truly questionable translation. At one point, I was asked, via a particularly unreliable interpreter, if American weddings actually involved strippers jumping out of large cakes. I think someone had seen Bachelor Party one too many times.
The main form of entertainment at an Afghan wedding, other than eating massive amounts of food very rapidly, is dancing. Obviously, the total lack of women (and the considerable difference in musical taste) made this portion of the evening unlike anything you might find at an American country club wedding. First off, about twenty of the younger men in the crowd took the floor to perform a traditional Afghan wedding dance. By my watch, this lasted upwards of thirty minutes. The closest approximation I can think of is a combination of the hokey-pokey and line dancing, with a heavy dose of “whirling dervish” style thrown in.
This first crew of dancers (some of them professionals, or at least highly-skilled regulars) was uniformly young, handsome and generally had longish hair, which they whirled about in great arcs with elaborate head gyrations. If one were to take a quick glance at the dance floor in the middle of the song, it would be hard to differentiate the dancers from women. I hesitate to point it out, but the reaction of the (entirely male) crowd was more than slightly disturbing. As most of you know, I’m a fairly conservative, traditional guy, but I consider myself at least slightly enlightened on the question of sexual orientation. Don’t really care what other people do, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t make a political issue out of it. However, the sight of 1000 Afghan men roaring approval at a coterie of young male dancers making a sincere effort to appear feminine kind of took me aback. The level of sexual frustration in the room was palpable and, to me, more than a little off-putting. There’s something unhealthy about a culture that suppresses and marginalizes their women so completely, and yet seeks substitutions in alternative forms.* I think that if a woman had stumbled into that room accidentally, she would have been ravished or murdered in a matter of minutes. I don’t mind saying I was a more than a little uncomfortable with the whole thing.
*Don’t even get me started on the Pashtun fondness for pre-pubescent boys, an accepted social construct that would strike most Westerners as immoral at best, and illegal at worst.
Afterwards, it was explained to me by The Doctor that not all Afghan weddings observe this traditional separation. The rule was rationalized by saying that the women actually prefer it that way, since they are not normally allowed to dance or do any of the other things that Western women would consider feminine. The enforced separation at a wedding allows them to engage in behavior that would otherwise result in severe social stigma, or even violence. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not, since I couldn’t get past the divider between the two parties (not that I tried). But I admit that I was intrigued by the possibilities of what was happening on the other side of that wall.
All in all, an evidently good time was had by all (at least on the male side of the divider, and with the obvious exception of myself). Afghans, without the social outlets available in the West (i.e. bars, parties, clubs, etc.) really do live for these weddings. They’re the highlight of the social calendar, anticipated and enjoyed to a degree all out of proportion to their entertainment, at least from my perspective.
I, for one, will not be waiting impatiently for the next invitation.