KABUL, Afghanistan – Take pity on the Afghan bride. Or maybe just as appropriate — take pity on the groom.
Centuries of pageantry and tradition combined with a recent 26-year high in gold prices are taking a toll on the amount of jewelry a bride here can expect to wear on her wedding day, a marker of family pride and a social expectation that can make or break a ceremony, a huge occasion in Afghanistan.
"It is definitely the gold that is the tradition here," said Sarha Rezaie, who was recently shopping in Kabul's main gold market for a ring for a relative's wedding. "If there is no gold, it affects the atmosphere of the wedding."
Gold last week hit a 26-year high above $730 an ounce, in part because of a weak U.S. dollar, high oil prices and anxieties stemming from tensions between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Unlike high oil prices, high gold prices usually have little effect on the average consumer. But don't tell that to the gold sellers in Kabul's gritty main market — or Mohammed Bashir Satari, a 28-year-old Afghan who got married last week.
"Both my family and my wife's family went shopping together. I bought $4,000 worth of gold — necklaces, rings, earrings — and when we got back home, my wife said, 'It's not enough,"' said Satari, who blamed the high price of gold for his troubles.
The pinnacle of Afghan weddings comes at the post-ceremony party, where the groom's mother presents the bride with all her golden presents. The lucky ones come away with multiple rings on every finger, bracelets, more earrings than she has ears and an extravagant necklace.
Many Afghan males work for years specifically to pay for this one night.
"I was under the pressure of this tradition — and the bride's family," said Satari, who earned Western wages in a restaurant in the Netherlands before he got married but will now live in Afghanistan with his wife, Madina.
"It took a heavy toll on my wallet, but I'm happy because of course when someone gets married, that's a happy day."
Mohammed Yasin, the 54-year-old owner of one of Kabul's many gold shops, said the recent spike in prices may put him out of business. Two months ago, when gold was around $550 an ounce, he sold about $1,700 worth of jewelry a day. Now he said he's lucky to sell $250 worth a day.
"Afghan people don't have much money. They have to buy food, pay rent," he said. "What are you going to do — buy gold or feed your family?"
Rezaie, who was hunting for a ring in Yasin's shop, said a year ago — "when prices were cheap" — she would have bought 0.2 ounces of gold for a relative's wedding. Today she buys only 0.07 ounces.
"How are you selling this for such a price?" she asked Yasin, holding up a ring. "I want this, but give me a good price."
Family members in Afghanistan also buy gifts of jewelry for the bride so that she can wear as much as possible on her wedding day — a tradition that persisted even during the hardline rule of the Taliban. But as Rezaie notes, "everything is on the shoulders of the groom" to make sure that his bride is properly adorned.
Gold sellers here say that 50 percent of their business comes from weddings. Their shops are filled with elaborate rings from Iran and long, dangly earrings. More than 90 percent of the stores' glass cases are filled with gold, much of it imported from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Rubies, diamonds and pearls are a scarce find.
The crown jewels of the shops' twinkling displays are the multilayered necklaces adorned with elaborate golden flowers and sometimes a single pearl or diamond. They run close to $2,000, a price that only the most affluent Afghans, like Satari, can afford.
Poorer families — the overwhelming majority in this impoverished nation — save up and borrow from friends and family members to buy gold on wedding days. Often they buy Iranian gold, which is cheaper than Arabic gold.
"If the person doesn't have money, they will borrow it," Satari said. "They have to provide gold. It is the Afghan culture. I don't know how poorer families can do it."
Though he and his wife hosted close to 1,000 guests at an upper-class Kabul hotel over the weekend, the price of gold — and its effect on the presents she received — did not escape her.
"She told me, 'How unfortunate it is that I get married when gold's so expensive,"' Satari said. "She was not happy," he added with a laugh.