KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Driving a limousine through the streets of Kabul is never easy. It's tough to avoid the potholes and the rutted washouts, the carts pulled by donkeys and men, the beggars in burkas. It's almost impossible to negotiate some dirt roads and traffic circles.
But now, in a sign of how residents can enjoy themselves since the Taliban's ouster in late 2001 and how the wedding business is booming, six white limousines ply Kabul's roads, a surreal scene in a country still without power or running water in most parts.
"It was tough driving it at the beginning, because it's very long," said Mohammed Rafi, manager of Shams Limousine, the first limousine company in the city, which has three. "People's reactions were funny. Some of them said, 'Oh, you are driving a plane with no wings.' "
In the last year, the wedding business has exploded in Afghanistan, with limousines, fancy beauty salons and bridal gown shops with names such as Arouse Kabul. Weddings are the best entertainment going, where even women can have fun and dance, although seated separately from the men.
New wedding halls are being built all the time. There are more than 40 in the city, with halls that can each seat as many as 1,200 people. They feature mirrored walls and neon lights that often must be powered by generators because electricity is out most of the time. The names are more hopeful than realistic: Wedding Hall of the Evening Star, Kabul Paris Wedding Hall, Thames Wedding Hall, Aria Five Star Wedding Hall.
The Sham-e-Paris, which means "evening in Paris" in Dari, is perhaps the most over-the-top hall: six floors of glass windows with a courtyard that looks like something out of Dr. Seuss, including imitation Eiffel Towers topped with a palm tree and a pine tree, swirly DNA-helix-like lights and fantasy trees bearing neon fruit. An even larger Eiffel Tower has been set up in the neighboring traffic roundabout.
"When the boss went to France and saw the Eiffel Tower, he said he would make one in Kabul," explained Pervaiz Dostiyar, manager of Sham-e-Paris.
The name of the boss, Allhaj Fazilhaq, is emblazoned outside on the mirrored glass of Sham-e-Paris, considered to be the best in Afghanistan. It advertises with free calendars and pens, which have paper calendars that can be pulled out the side.
In one hallway, stuffed lions cavort with leopards, tigers, miniature deer and peacocks amid plastic green bushes. Doorways with heart-shaped windows lead to private rooms for the newlyweds. The biggest wedding here, for the son of an emerald dealer, had 3,600 guests. The top menu costs $11 a person, for a meal featuring 32 dishes, including five kinds of rice, six lamb dishes and Arabic Pepsi.
A typical cake is 121 pounds, said Zabi Hashimi, 31, who works at the cake shop at Sham-e-Paris. "They eat a lot of cake in Afghanistan," said Hashimi, who spent 11 years saving up $10,000 to get married at age 26 in front of 800 guests.
"It's our tradition," said the manager Dostiyar, 23, who is engaged. "Every person is working just for one day. We are just making money for our wedding and then we spend it all in one day."
The wedding traditions in Afghanistan, where government workers make $60 a month, are complicated and expensive. The groom pays for everything. Most marriages are arranged, often between relatives, which keeps property in the family and cements relations.
The wedding package can run tens of thousands of U.S. dollars. Abdul Qader, 48, who tried to negotiate down the $120 price for a Shams limousine for his brother's wedding, said his family would pay $50,000 for three wedding celebrations in three cities.
"It's a kind of competition, to be honest," he said. "Even if people don't have money, they have to borrow it to buy a good wedding."
Shams Limousine's owner, Said Maqsud, 42, complained that everyone tries to reduce his prices, which he insisted were the lowest in town. He was the consummate businessman, even trying to sell to a man who complained that there was no limousine when he got married.
"You can have one [a limousine] for the second wife," Maqsud said. "One is good, but two are better." In Islam, men are allowed to have as many as four wives.
Maqsud imported three Lincoln Town Car limos from Los Angeles, models from 1994, 1995 and 1997. He said he paid $105,000 to buy and ship them Kabul a little more than a year ago.
They are a little scruffy, with less-than-pristine interiors. But there is still something fancy about sitting in a long limousine, even if the sunroof doesn't work, the glass decanter holds orange-flavored soda and the TV plays Indian Bollywood music videos.
For Dawoud Ahmadi, 33, who has worked in the Netherlands for 10 years, riding to his wedding in a limousine was a dream come true. "Fantastic, amazing," he said.
And his wedding, held at Kabul's Inter-Continental Hotel, pointed the direction that weddings could be headed. The wedding was mixed, with men and women sitting together, a revolutionary statement in this conservative country.
"My best friend said, 'Don't do it,' " said Ahmadi, standing with his new wife, Hally Jaan, 23, in front of about 300 people. "He said, 'The women won't dance.' "
But he was wrong -- a few did. No one seemed to mind.