NRC Handelsblad - M Magazine - September 2003
[My translation, hence any mistakes]
The terror of mother
In Kabul, Afghan men suffer under their enforced marriages
Karim was a colleague and a good friend. When the Taliban ruled he often helped me when I was secretly working in Kabul, and in my turn I'd gotten him free when he was apprehended by the secret service. Spending a leave in Pakistan, we had dinner and together counted how many Taliban rules we were breaking: unaccompanied by a male family-member and with uncovered hair I was drinking alcohol, listening to music and watching television with another man. That alone should be five or so. We laughed out loud, but still I found Karim to be in a sombre mood. "My mother wants me to marry", he explained. She had suggested a potential wife for the third time now. Karim had already come up with convincing arguments against the first two, but his mother knew of no stopping.
With hunched shoulders he was sitting opposite me: "I'm not here for a weekend off. I have to buy gold." So he was already engaged! "Yes", he admitted, "I already had given gold, but they didnt think it was good enough, because it was from Pakistan. Now I'm here to order gold from Dubai."
I asked a hundred questions about the girl. Was it a cousin? Had she ever had any education? Was she pretty? "I haven't seen her yet", Karim said, dejected.
"You're crazy", I observed. "You have to refuse. If they're already nagging about the gold now, it'll be a disaster."
That year Karim didn't marry, but he also didnt let it come to a confrontation with his mother, because thats not possible in Afghanistan. He found the only culturally acceptable escape route and went to Europe to apply for asylum.
Why Afghans love Titanic
Many Afghans are unhappy in love and therefore love lovestories that end badly. Young, pining girls who are in danger of being married off to the wrong cousin, tell each other the story of Rabia Balkhi. The tenth-century noblewoman fell for a Turkish slave. Her brother found out and threw her in the steam bath, her wrists cut. With her own blood Rabia then wrote love poems on the walls of the hammam, until she died.
But the dramatic story of the noblewoman lost out to the movie Titanic, the story of a doomed love. The film became an instant hit in Afghanistan. That is strange, when you realise that it appeared in the Taliban era, when film and video were prohibited and many Afghans had wrapped up their TV in plastic and buried it in their backyard. But the doomed romance of Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio fitted in perfectly with the everyday reality of young Afghans. And thus there now are Titanic-pens, Titanic-shampoo, Titanic-henna and Titanic-chewing gum, and after the flight of the Taliban last year a Titanic-bazar was set up in the Afghan capital. Space is scarce in Kabul and because it hadn't rained in four years and even the rivers had evaporated, the Titanic-bazar was constructed in the now dry Kabul riverbed.
Thats where this spring, I sought out a plastic cuckoo-clock as a wedding present for Karim, who had returned from England. The danger of the Taliban had disappeared, but the terror of his mother was inescapable. Poor Karim. I knew exactly what he was in for, because I had heard the stories so often from Afghan men who came to pour their heart out. From now on Karim would have no more freedom. The financial burden of the dowry - which could amount up to tens of thousands of dollars - would press on him for years, and after the wedding he would have to beget at least six children, as quickly as possible, to keep his social status secured.
The marriage of Karim and Suleiha was blood-curdlingly boring, like all marriages I have attended thus far in Afghanistan. Hundreds of family members, friends, acquaintances and neighbours awaited, sprawled around little tables, the bride and groom and above all, the food. Hardly anyone talks. The only social interaction took place between the teenagers: confused boys peeped at the girls, who were all dolled up. The girls at these occasions are allowed to appear without their veil, exposed on purpose to the eyes of men who are not part of their family. That way new marriage ties can be wrought.
On a stage Karim and Suheila were exposed in their turn, for hours on end. Suheila was not allowed to smile, because that would ruin her reputation. She had to look down gloomily all day. Children were shooting pistachios and sugared almonds through the hall. I managed to make my escape with a pretext before the food arrived.
Not long after the marriage, clouds gathered over the city and it finally started to rain. After four years of drought the rain came down in buckets. It rained for so long that the riverbed of the Kabul river filled up and the Titanic-bazar was engulfed in a swirling brown mass of water.
Antoinette de Jong is a freelance journalist. She visited Afghanistan many times.
That does surprise me CI.
nimh, FYI: The Japanese in Japan still have arranged marriages, and many of the first immigrants to the US ended up with arranged marriages, and picture brides.