Back in the main room of the salon, I make sure the curtains are pulled tight so that no passing male can peek in to see the women bareheaded. Thats the kind of thing that could get my salon and the Kabul Beauty School itself closed down. I light candles so that we can turn the overhead lights off. With all the power needed for the machine that melts the wax, the facial lamps, the blow dryers, and the other salon appliances, I dont want to blow a fuse. I put on a CD of Christmas carols. Its the only one I can find, and they wont know the difference anyway. Then I settle the mother-in-law and the members of the bridal party into their respective places, one for a manicure, one for a pedicure, one to get her hair washed. I make sure they all have tea and the latest outdated fashion magazines from the States, then excuse myself with a cigarette. I usually just go ahead and smoke in the salon, but the look on Roshannas face just before I shut the door to the waxing room has my heart racing. Because she has a terrible secret, and Im the only one who knows itfor now.
Both engagement parties and weddings are lavish events in Afghanistan. Families save money for years and even take on huge debt to make these events as festive as possible, sparing no expense. After all, this is a country with virtually no public party life. There are no nightclubs, no concerts, only a few restaurantsand the ones that have opened since the Taliban left are frequented mostly by Westerners. There are a few movie theaters, but its primarily men who go to them. If a woman happens to show up, as I once did when I insisted that a male friend take me, then she becomes the show, with every turban in the room turned her way so that the men can gawk at her. There are just about no venues where Afghan men and women dress up and mingle. They dont exactly mingle at engagement parties and weddings, either. At big gatherings, the hundreds of men and women are segregated on two different floors of the hall with two different bands; at smaller gatherings, they are on one floor but separated by a curtain. In both cases, they dress to the nines. When I first came to Kabul, I was amazed by all the stores that sell wedding gowns. There are probably two on every block. Full-size mannequins are lined up in the windows of these stores, heads tilted at a haughty angle, overlooking the street in their colorful dresses spangled with rhinestones and swathed in tulle. They look like giant Barbie dolls all very tall and Caucasian-lookingand when I was first here, I memorized the dolls in the windows so I could find my way back to my guesthouse. I pretended that they were guiding me home.
Roshannas parents shook their heads and declined when the grooms mother first came calling with cakes and imported candies and other gifts to ask for her hand, but they were pleased with the offer. Saying no was only part of the ritual, a way of signaling that their daughter was so precious and beloved that they hated to let her leave the family home. It was also the first step in a bargaining process. For the next few months, the fathers haggled over the size of her cash dowry, over the number of dresses the grooms family would have their tailor make for her and the amount of fabric theyd give her family so they could make their own new clothes, over the value of the gold jewelry the grooms family would give Roshanna. Her father had negotiated all this well. The cash dowry that would be paid to her family was ten thousand dollars, and she would receive five thousand dollars in gold as well as many other accoutrements of an upper-class wedding. Roshanna was not consulted about any of this. As with all first marriages in Afghanistan, it was strictly business, a transaction enacted between fathers. But she was eager to be married. In fact, shes one of the only brides Ive ever met in Kabul who actually wanted to get married.
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