The sentimental title of “The Lovers” suggests a hopeful tale of youthful romance, of passion and perseverance against the backdrop of a war-ravaged Afghanistan. Zakia and Ali, the journalist Rod Nordland’s Afghan Romeo and Juliet, are Tajik and Hazara, Sunni and Shia, disparate ethnicities and rived sects. They live in Bamiyan, where the Taliban destroyed two famed sandstone Buddhas in 2001. They fall in love as teenagers, exchanging flirty glances in the fields of their village, skirting elders and convention. Soon their parents find out; marriage is deemed impossible, and Zakia runs away to a shelter. The two elope but remain sentenced to a life on the run, with Ali facing criminal charges after Zakia’s family lodges a kidnapping case against him.
Zakia and Ali’s tale is, however, only the epidermal layer of “The Lovers”; underneath is an insight into the architecture of Western saviordom and the choices it imposes on those on whom it bestows its benevolence. “I would become their best hope to survive, entangling myself in their lives in ways that threatened my own values and professional ethics,” Nordland writes, admitting that his articles on the couple in The New York Times exposed them to danger.
But words and deeds rarely match, and if Nordland, who is The Times’s Kabul bureau chief, perceived threats in pursuing the story, his account does not betray such sensitivity. In one instance, Nordland, along with a videographer and a photographer, descends upon a remote house where the couple have taken refuge. How they get there is notable: Ali’s poverty-stricken father, who supports the relationship, “could not afford the cost of a taxi,” and agrees to take Nordland if he can accompany him. Ali knows the plan, but whether Zakia agrees is never revealed. Earlier in the chapter Nordland tells us how the couple’s portraits, published with a Times story, have been splayed all over Afghan media, making it harder for the couple to hide; but this possibility does not give him pause. When they reach the house, Zakia is in the women’s quarters. The photographer, semi-fluent in English, breaks in anyway and takes her picture, claiming not to understand the custom. Zakia and Ali later get a ride to another hiding spot in the journalists’ cars, and Nordland slips Ali a thousand dollars.
THE TRUE STORY (By Rod Nordland)
FGHANISTAN is one of the few places in the world where honor killings are still common. Even today, women are killed for such small «transgressions» as glancing at the wrong man or being seen alone with a man who is not a relative.
When the protagonist of this true story falls in love and demands to marry someone from a different religion and ethnic group in defiance of her father’s wishes, it’s seen as a terrible offense, and her furious family members vow to kill her and the man she loves.
So far, Zakia and Ali have so far escaped that fate.
Their story begins here, under the gaze of the buddhas.
The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet (February 16, 2016)
Featuring Rod Nordland, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, former New York Times Kabul Bureau Chief, and author of The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet and Trudy Rubin, Worldview columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer
Location: The Philadelphia Inquirer, 801 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107
Schedule: 5:30 p.m. Registration and wine reception; 6:15 p.m. Program; 7:15 p.m. Book sale and signing
Presented in partnership with the Philadelphia Media Network.