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can be hired for as little as 50 a night.

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Afghan weddings bring limos and bling

The wedding business has exploded in recent years. Under the Taliban Kabul had just one wedding hall, a dingy place with no music where guests sat on the floor. Now there are dozens of multi Nike Jacket Red And Blue

storeyed halls, crowded into the same dusty neighbourhood and jostling for business with names such as Castle of the Bride or King of Hearts.

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The cost can place crushing pressure on poorer families. Ghulam Nabi, who works as a policeman at the interior ministry, said he had to sell a 600 sq metre plot to pay for his 22 year old son's wedding. The 3,500 cost for the party was far beyond his 60 monthly salary. "It's a huge burden," said relative Abdul Qadeer. "If we don't do it like this, our tribe will look down on us."

Blink and it could be Las Vegas. Crowds swarm into giant, mirrored buildings with ritzy names and flashing neon signs. A giant replica of the Eiffel Tower looms at the end of the strip. A white limousine cruises by. But this is Kabul, where the wedding season is in full swing, bringing extravagant displays of bling, Afghan style. One evening last week Waheed Ullah, a 24 year old Afghan American, and his young bride stepped from their limo outside the Crystal Hotel, a wedding hall with marble floors, glass chandeliers and satin covered chairs. "In our culture weddings are very important. They have to go well," he said.

Still, the gaiety is a welcome contrast to the Taliban insurgency ravaging southern Afghanistan. Waheed Ullah signalled a determination to forget the outside world, at least for a night. "I feel really good," he smiled, standing with his new wife beside their limo.

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The glamour and expense are striking in a city of crippling poverty where few residents enjoy power or running water. Most weddings have at least 400 guests and in some cases more than 1,000. Meals cost between 3.50 and 7 per head for a selection of grilled meat, flat bread and cardamon scented rice. Other expenses from bands to hiring a ceremonial cake cutting sword can cost thousands more. Gatecrashing is a chronic, if culturally acceptable, problem. Although invitations specify two guests, many arrive with their entire family, or a phalanx of bodyguards, in tow, said Mr Dostiyar. "If someone books for 400, there will always be 500 or 550."

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The limos cut a strange sight on Kabul's pothole rutted roads, and have been adopted to local tastes. Wool carpets cover the floors, Bollywood films play on the DVD player, and the happy couple can sip Pepsi from champagne glasses. Up to a dozen relatives squeeze in beside them, said Muhammad Rafi, manager of Shams Limousines, which imported the first three limos from Los Angeles last year. One even started a small concert in the back. "They were singing and dancing and I could feel the car rocking because they were so happy," he recalled with a smile.

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The most extravagant may be Sham e Paris (An evening in Paris) in Dari, a four storey building fronted by a pair of 50ft tall Eiffel Tower replicas, a tiled blue fountain and a garden filled with plastic palm trees that glow electric orange at night. Stuffed lions, leopards and peacocks stand guard outside five banquet halls that regularly hold 4,000 people. A colourful harvest of plastic flowers decorate every room.

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few times. He liked the place and decided to bring back the name," explained manager Pervez Dostiyar. "We like it too."

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Couples are rushing to get hitched before Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, which starts in September. Afghan weddings remain a deeply traditional affair: men and women usually eat and dance separately, divided by a tall screen in the middle of the room, and 99% of unions were arranged by parents, said Mr Dostiyar. But increasingly the weddings are suffused with foreign flavours. Brides wear flowing western style dresses and sport fake diamond tiaras. Men drop the baggy shalwar kameez for suits and style their hair after Indian film stars. In the old days brides used to arrive inside a dulie a decorated wooden box carried by four male relatives. Today they come in one of the six Nike Jackets For Men Price white stretch limousines that Nike Blue Hoodies

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