By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kabul
Driver Abdullah says people still gape at the car
When Said Maqsud's gleaming white Lincoln limousines rattle down Kabul's pot-holed streets, people gape at them and talk about the long, strange-looking cars.
"Some say it looks like an egg with two yolks. Others say it is like an airplane without wings," says Mr Maqsud, a maverick Afghan businessman who has opened Kabul's first and only
"Still others ask me, 'Why don't you cut this into two cars and make more money."
A limousine service looks like an audacious business venture in a country like Afghanistan, which is plagued by violence and double digit inflation.
More than half of its people live in poverty, and at least 40% are without jobs.
But Shams Limousine, Mr Maqsud's company with a fleet of three second-hand Lincolns shipped in from Los Angeles, appears to be doing brisk business in the Afghan capital.
Locals usually hire the luxury cars for their wedding and office parties at $140 for 10 hours, which, according to its cheerful 40-year-old owner, is the lowest rate in the world - "the cheapest limo you can get in the US will set you back by $150 an hour," he says.
Afghans love big weddings. In the cities, families borrow money and spend up to $30,000 or more to have a "proper" wedding, and often spent the next 10 years repaying marriage debt.
"So there is nothing morally wrong in having a limo service here," says Mr Maqsud.
"A wedding is the biggest event in an Afghan's life, and the families want to have the best time. I am just providing a value-added attraction to a marriage."
No wonder his limo company posters say: "If you want to have a memorable wedding party, just call Shams Limousine."
The limos come with DVD players, alcohol-free bars stacked with fancy decanters and stereos playing Iranian pop.
In the present peak wedding season, the company's order books are full - all the three cars are busy.
The cars are decorated with flowers at the florists at Shar-e-Naw, the city's high street, and then driven through Kabul's pot-holed streets to weddings by the two liveried chauffeurs, Abdullah and Bismillah.
Sticking to tradition
The company also hires out its limos for office parties, a short spin around the city and a $100 airport pick-up. Foreigners don't use the cars much, because according to Mr Maqsud, the "suicide bombings are a dampener".
The businessman launched his unusual business two years ago after realising that people were ready to make their weddings livelier.
He trawled the internet and flew to Los Angeles to pick up two second-hand limos. It cost him all of $70,000 and seven months to buy the cars and ship them into landlocked Afghanistan via Karachi.
Mr Maqsud soon realised that he had to tailor the cars to Afghan traditions - two of the limo were black, but he had to repaint them white, because the colour is seen as auspicious by most Afghans. The bar, of course, could have only soft drinks.
And though the cars can carry up to eight passengers, sometimes 14 people cram in to join the revelry.
"As long as people marry, business will be good. I have no worries about security or any such thing," he says.
The peripatetic businessman fled Afghanistan for Peshawar in 1985 during the Soviet invasion.
He says he lived there for two years before paying $40,000 to a "human trafficker" to smuggle his 10-member family into Germany.
He lived in Germany until 1992, picking up local citizenship, and trading in cars, clothes and spices from Iran. For the next 10 years he lived in Moscow, Benin, Senegal and Togo, this time trading raisins, spaghetti and old German cars.
Mr Maqsud says he got bored by all of it again, and returned to Hamburg in 2001 to launch an Afghan eatery in the city. He ran the restaurant for three years, before "my mother pestered me to get married and drove me back to Afghanistan".
Returning to Kabul, he married his niece, and thought up the limo business while attending weddings in the city.
"I thought people would be happy with a limo wedding. And I was right. I gave a few free rides to friends and family, and people began pouring in with orders," says Mr Maqsud.
Now he has no plans to return to Germany, because business is good. He now plans to add a jeep limo to his fleet, and reckons it will be a big hit.
"I am happy here because I am giving happiness to people. I don't want to return to the West. People here love my cheap limos," he says.