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President Puts Dampener on Uzbek Weddings

Uzbeks are being forced to tone down their traditionally sumptuous wedding celebrations
By Alyona Aminova

It's wedding season in Uzbekistan - time for Uzbeks to launch into their traditionally lavish ceremonies.

It's an occasion for Uzbeks to show off their social standing, power and wealth. Excess is expected. But in recent years, the government, alarmed by such displays of profligacy in difficult economic times, has insisted on more restrained celebrations.

A sumptuous wedding hosted by the Deputy of the Republic Tax Inspectorate of Uzbekistan, Murodullo Kuralov, two years ago was the last straw for the authorities. Suspicious observers noticed that the amount of money spent on the wedding couldn't possibly tally with Kuralov's pay. When his "undeclared" income was discovered, he was forced to resign. Soon afterwards, the president decreed that wedding expenditures had to be cut.

And now Uzbeks are in a quandary. On the one hand, they're scared to organise long convoys of vehicles, for fear of being seen as too lavish. On the other, they're obliged to provide transport for relatives to get to the registry office. And Uzbek families can often number up to 300.

They are also afraid to invite singers and performers, who are an integral part of an Uzbek wedding. Similarly, musicians are concerned that dancing guests would no longer throw wads of cash in their direction, which make up most of musicians' income.

In short, many people see the presidential decree as an infringement of what they see as their right to mark an important family occasion.

Such is the magnitude of a wedding in Uzbekistan, parents begin preparing for it soon after the child is born. Money and gifts are saved for years, even if this means personal sacrifice. But Uzbeks are happy to dress poorly, or penny-pinch for years as long as the family wedding will be the talk of the town.

Mukaram Akhmedova, for example, is mother to five children - all already married. She borrowed money to pay for all the weddings. They couldn't afford to pay for them on the family income, but, at the time, they were under so much pressure to put on a huge ceremony they were forced to take out loans.

Following the wedding of her youngest son, Bokhodyr, Mukaram spent a year paying off the debt.

"It's not customary here to put on small weddings," she says. "And anyway, my son wouldn't agree to marry if the wedding was going to be a modest one."

For non-Uzbeks living in Uzbekistan, the local wedding customs had always seemed strange. "I can't understand how you can go short of money, and make your kids go short too, and then have a big celebration," says schoolteacher Ludmila Gurevich. "Surely you'd be better off spending the money on yourselves than on a few hundred guests, a lot of whom you don't even know."

After years of relative austerity, it was the nouveaux riches Uzbeks in the early 1990's, who really upped the ante on the wedding stakes. They set standards of lavishness which poorer people tried to compete with, and couldn't.

For this reason, the president's decree has many supporters. They believe the unhealthy competition and "keeping up with Joneses" spirit extravagant weddings generate had to be curbed.

" This decree seems totalitarian to Westerners," says Malika Sidikova from Karsha, "but from the Uzbek point of view it's fair. Now, no one is ashamed if there is little vodka at their wedding, or if there were too few performers or if the wedding finished early. The decree has eased the burden on people with mid-level incomes."

Alyona Aminova is a journalist from Nukus, Karakalpakstan

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