Afghanistan Dispatch

Kabul's Neon Wedding Halls

Photographs by David Gilkey, NPR staff photographer

When we show these photographs to NPR colleagues, nearly every one of them gasps. Perhaps that's because they're not images of detonated car bombs or ink-stained fingers or any of the other images we've come to expect out of Afghanistan.

  • The wedding hall industry is booming in Afghanistan. Seven years ago, there were only a handful of wedding halls in the city. Today, there are more than seventy. This poster of a woman is on a street filled with wedding halls in Kabul.
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    The wedding hall industry is booming in Afghanistan. Seven years ago, there were only a handful of wedding halls in the city. Today, there are more than seventy. This poster of a woman is on a street filled with wedding halls in Kabul.
    All photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Wedding hall owner Abdul Samad, who got into the business right after the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in 2001, stands in front of his wedding hall.
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    Wedding hall owner Abdul Samad, who got into the business right after the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in 2001, stands in front of his wedding hall.
  • A group of men gathers outside of the wedding hall before the official dinner and dancing begins.
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    A group of men gathers outside of the wedding hall before the official dinner and dancing begins.
  • Men wait outside, ahead of the ceremony. Men and women are separated inside Kabul's neon-decorated wedding halls. Only small children, the bride, groom, and wedding hall employees can cross the divide.
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    Men wait outside, ahead of the ceremony. Men and women are separated inside Kabul's neon-decorated wedding halls. Only small children, the bride, groom, and wedding hall employees can cross the divide.
  • A little boy waits for the festivities to begin.
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    A little boy waits for the festivities to begin.
  • The weddings all have elaborate names such as Wedding Hall of  the Evening Star, Kabul Paris Wedding Hall and Aria Five Star Wedding Hall.
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    The weddings all have elaborate names such as Wedding Hall of the Evening Star, Kabul Paris Wedding Hall and Aria Five Star Wedding Hall.
  • Kabul's giant wedding halls are elaborately decorated with neon lights.
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    Kabul's giant wedding halls are elaborately decorated with neon lights.
  • Young and old alike arrive for the celebration in their finest clothes.
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    Young and old alike arrive for the celebration in their finest clothes.
  • A little girl who accidentally entered the mens' side of the hall waits for her father to come and get her.
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    A little girl who accidentally entered the mens' side of the hall waits for her father to come and get her.
  • A group of men wait near the snack bar for the traditional wedding hall festivities to begin.
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    A group of men wait near the snack bar for the traditional wedding hall festivities to begin.
  • A cottage industry of late night kebab bars has sprung up on the streets near the wedding halls.
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    A cottage industry of late night kebab bars has sprung up on the streets near the wedding halls.

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Perhaps our colleagues are gasping because these images present an arresting display of neon lights, bright enough to rival Las Vegas. Or maybe this gasping comes with the realization that Afghans party too. Hard.

Whatever the reason, the most surprising thing about David Gilkey's photographs taken on a warm July evening in Kabul — is that they introduce us to something that has become wonderfully ordinary in Afghanistan.

Each week, thousands of people attend weddings in Afghan wedding halls. Young people. Old people. Children. They dress up. They dance. (Men and women party separately.) They feast. They laugh. These celebrations last well in to the night.

And all this is happening — in the midst of war.

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