Kabul's glitzy wedding industry fears for future after attack

By Usman Sharifi and Mushtaq Mojaddidi
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Wedding hall owners and betrothed couples alike are wondering what's next after Saturday's attack

Wedding hall owners and betrothed couples alike are wondering what's next after Saturday's attack (AFP Photo/Wakil KOHSAR)

For years, as violence raged through Afghanistan, lavish weddings offered a rare opportunity for celebration, but now even that is under threat after last weekend's deadly attack on a party venue sent shock waves through one of Kabul's key industries.

Over-the-top, glitzy weddings are a big deal for Afghans and for the economy in Kabul, where showy venues the size of aircraft hangars dot the city and employ thousands of workers.

Wedding hall owners and betrothed couples alike are wondering what's next after Saturday's attack, when an Islamic State bomber killed at least 63 guests and staff, and wounded scores more during celebrations at the Shahr-e-Dubai wedding hall in western Kabul.

"Wedding halls were one of the few businesses that were still functioning relatively well despite all the problems," said Ghulam Sakhi Sultani, one of the Shahr-e-Dubai's three owners.

"It will be hard to regain the trust of the people to hold mass weddings inside a wedding hall following this attack."

While Afghan weddings have been hit in the past, attacks have typically targeted smaller functions away from the capital.

"We fear the terrorists may have chosen mass wedding gatherings as their new targets," said Sultani, who was out of the country when the bombing happened and spoke to AFP by phone late Sunday. Ten of his staff were killed or injured.

"Today, most of them did not show up. When we contacted them, they said they fear for their lives."

- No security -

Saturday's attack exposes the vulnerability of the wedding halls.

In a city where bombs go off almost daily and crime is rampant, Kabul weddings typically don't have any security measures at all, and the halls themselves often have few emergency exits.

Couples frequently invite more than 1,000 guests, and gate crashers often wander in off the street.

Unless VIPs are present, it is considered insulting to frisk guests, and strangers blend in easily with the crowds of friends and relatives.

"We will take extra security measures, but it will be hard to stop a bomber among hundreds of guests coming to a wedding party," Sultani said.

Sharif, the manager of another Kabul wedding hall who only gave one name, said his business was already suffering, with no new couples calling to book the venue since the attack.

"We are supposed to provide a joyful and safe environment for people to celebrate the start of their new life together, but following the horrific attack last night, everything will change," he told AFP.

"I don't think people will trust us or the government for their security any more."

The attack underscores both the inadequacy of Afghanistan's security forces and the scale of the challenge they face in a city that sees frequent attacks by IS, the Taliban, criminals and other groups.

Dawood Hotak, a 26-year-old engaged student, blamed local police and said he now plans to get married at home instead of at a wedding hall.

"People should be searched before entering the wedding halls," he told AFP.

"If there would have been body searches, I am sure the attack would have been prevented."

Fellow student Ahmad Jawed, 24, was also angry at the authorities and lamented the lack of security.

"How come a wedding hall does not get attacked when there is VIP party or ceremony?" he said.

"The security institutions fail to provide security to ordinary Afghans."

- 'No more safe places' -

Kabul weddings pump millions of dollars into the local economy, with the events typically a costly affair.

A fancy wedding with all the trimmings -- including singers, live music and vast plates of food -- can cost $15,000 or more, an absolute fortune in one of the world's poorest countries.

Young grooms often splash out their life savings or take on debt for a night of celebration.

A few years ago, Afghan politicians passed legislation to cap wedding costs and limit the number of guests to 500, but this has been roundly ignored.

Last November, a suicide bomber hit the Uranus Wedding Palace in the capital as religious scholars gathered, killing at least 55, but Saturday's attack is thought to be the first of its kind against a Kabul wedding in full swing.

"There are no more safe places in Kabul," the Uranus's manager Haji Ghulam Sediq told AFP.

"It is not just the employees and the guests, I myself am fearful."

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