Afghan couples downsize big fat weddings as coronavirus grips

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The wedding industry in Kabul has been hit hard, putting thousands of jobs at risk and bleeding millions from the Afghan economy. (AFP)
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A shopkeeper displays a dress on a mannequin as he waits for customers during the government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Kabul, on May 19, 2020 (AFP)
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Updated 20 May 2020

Afghan couples downsize big fat weddings as coronavirus grips

  • Despite staggering levels of poverty and decades of war, Afghan weddings continue to be grand, loud affairs
  • Wedding industry in Kabul has been hit hard, putting thousands of jobs at risk and bleeding millions from the economy

KABUL: Afghanistan’s coronavirus crisis has freed young couples in Kabul to consider something that once seemed unthinkable: downsizing their weddings.
Extravagant ceremonies with thousands of guests packed into huge halls serving multi-course feasts are a traditional rite of passage in the country.
Grooms can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, while the opulent wedding halls and their suppliers have long been one of the capital’s few economic bright spots.
But with Kabul on lockdown as coronavirus cases rise, some people have pared down ceremonies that have been in the works for months.
“I have been engaged for the last two years and I was planning to get married in late March,” Latif Faramarz said.
The 26-year-old law student had been preparing to spend around $15,000 and was expecting 1,200 guests but was forced to recalibrate after wedding halls were shuttered in March due to the pandemic.
Faramarz drastically cut the guest list to 40 or 50 people and the cost to around $2,000.
“I’m not excited about downsizing my wedding, they come only once in a lifetime, it’s a joyous occasion. But I don’t have a choice,” he said.
The saving has however opened up other ways for the couple to spend their money and Faramarz now plans to study abroad with his future wife.
“Education is the best tool to climb the ladder and become successful,” he said.
Upending long-planned celebrations also means depriving Afghans — particularly women — of one of their few opportunities to celebrate en masse.
Despite staggering levels of poverty and decades of war, weddings continue to be grand, loud affairs.
Families and friends are crammed into segregated dining halls with occasional low-key dancing, while teams of stressed-out waiters ferry in mountains of food that is quickly devoured at the end of the night.
Photographers swarm around the lucky couple as they enter the hall and pose with family. Women relish the chance to don layers of make-up and wear their finest dresses.
And outside, armed guards keep a careful watch during the festivities, scanning the perimeter of the garishly lit venues that can often be seen from blocks away.
Weddings have been the occasional target of militant attacks, including a Daesh-claimed bombing in August 2019 that killed at least 80 people.
But the threat of violence has done little to temper the appetite for elaborate weddings and the financial reckoning they bring.
The price tag often plunges the poor into debt that they never escape. Grooms are also expected to pay hefty dowries and finance houses or apartments for the bride’s family.
Shir Ahmad — who asked to use a pseudonym — said he was planning to donate some of the extra cash to the poor after he cut his guest list from 1,000 people to 80.
“I wanted to have an extravagant wedding like my brothers, but my dreams have been shattered due to this virus,” said Ahmad, who will now likely host his wedding at home.
“I will donate the money set aside for the wedding to poor people in Kabul. I think it is not worth having a big party like I wished.”
And while grooms might be saving money, the wedding industry in Kabul has been hit hard, putting thousands of jobs at risk and bleeding millions from the economy.
“Our business is suffering,” said Nadir Qarghayee, who runs the wedding halls union in Kabul.
The city alone is home to 124 halls that employ up to 15,000 people, according to Qarghayee.
“It is a big economic blow to all the wedding halls. They have not operated for nearly two months, but they are still paying the rent and the salaries of the personnel and they have no income,” he said.
Holding wedding gatherings at home comes with its own risk of being caught breaking Kabul’s lockdown rules.
“I can have my party now but I think nobody will come,” said Ghulam Sarwar, after he was forced to delay his marriage.
“The government may take action if we have the ceremony and people come together.”


Over 1 million marooned in Bangladesh as floods worsen

Updated 14 July 2020

Over 1 million marooned in Bangladesh as floods worsen

  • Water levels at major rivers were rising Tuesday at around two dozen points in 20 districts
  • Bangladesh is crisscrossed by 230 rivers, including 53 shared with India

DHAKA, Bangladesh: Heavy flooding is worsening in parts of Bangladesh, with over 1 million villagers marooned or leaving their homes for higher ground along with their cattle and other belongings, officials and volunteers said Tuesday.
Water levels at major rivers were rising Tuesday at around two dozen points in 20 districts. Many new areas in northern, northeastern and central Bangladesh have been affected over last 24 hours, Arifuzzman Bhuiyan, an executive engineer with the Water Development Board, said by phone. Bangladesh has 64 districts.
“The situation is worsening," he said. “The worst thing is that the floods are getting prolonged this year, which is a bad sign.”
Bhuiyan said heavy rainfall and rushing waters from upstream India were the main reasons for the floods in the delta nation of 160 million people, which receives monsoon rains between June and October every year, often leading to flooding.
The floods started late last month, and after briefly easing continued to worsen, affecting many new areas, destroying crops and driving people from their homes in several impoverished regions. Bangladesh is crisscrossed by 230 rivers, including 53 shared with India.
In the northern district of Kurigram, one of the worst-hit areas, thousands of villagers have moved from their homes to higher ground since the weekend, bringing along their cattle and other belongings, said Mizanur Rahman Soikat, project coordinator with the Bidyanondo Foundation, a local charity. The foundation has been distributing both cooked and dry food to the flood-affected villagers, many of whom have lost their crops and livelihood.
Soikat said that over the last few weeks, the charity has distributed food to some 135,000 people in Kurigram, while the government’s relief office was also providing food, cash and cattle food.
“Over last two days, the situation has deteriorated and many villages went underwater in the district," he said by phone. “I have seen thousands taking shelter.”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a statement Monday that more than a million Bangladeshis have been marooned by the floods, with the worst of it happening since the weekend.
“Thousands of people are expected to leave their homes throughout the beginning of this week to seek shelter in higher ground as the Water Development Board warned that the onrush of water from upstream would further intensify,” the statement said.
A.T.M. Akhteruzzman, a relief and rehabilitation officer in the northern district of Rangpur, said about 50,000 people who live along the Teesta River basin have been marooned.
“Waters are coming from India, while heavy rainfalls in the region are causing havoc,” he said. “We are trying to do our best to stand by the people, as we have already provided more than 300 tons of rice, cattle food, baby food and a good amount of cash. Our relief operations will continue."