When news reached Kabul that a pair of teenagers was breaking every manner of taboo, determined to marry for love or else die in rural Bamian province, New York Times reporter Rod Nordland jumped. He had been looking for just such a story to illustrate Afghanistan’s horrifying tradition of rape and “honor killings,” as well as the courage of young people ready to challenge the old system.
Zakia and Ali had met as children — their families farmed neighboring plots — and decided when they came of age to defy their parents and marry. By the time Nordland meets them, Zakia is hiding in a women’s shelter. Her family is threatening to kill her because she has tarnished their “honor.’’
Their story makes sensational headlines about “Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet,” and Nordland doggedly sticks with the protagonists. The result is “The Lovers,” a rich account of Zakia and Ali’s romance that doubles as an indictment of the Afghan patriarchy’s abuse of women and the failures of all those in power, inside and outside the country, to curtail it.
Nordland follows the couple’s escape into the mountains, their marriage and honeymoon on the run, and the hair-raising manhunt that pits Zakia’s relatives against the bride, groom, and his family. Along the way a circus of Afghan and US government officials and international gadflies try to shape the fate of Zakia and Ali.
Couples like Zakia and Ali usually pay for their daring with their lives. This exceptional pair, however, doubles down on their decision to marry by going public with their tale. Miraculously, they manage to avoid being killed, although their victory seems pyrrhic. Some young Afghans find solace in the couple’s crusade, although we only learn of their social resonance in glancing references to their celebrity status.
What support the couple wins from local power brokers has more to do with ethnic and tribal loyalty than any major change of heart among patriarchal elders. Zakia and Ali enjoy what pass for moments of serenity on the lam from vengeful relatives, discovering that the married life for which they fought so gallantly includes long stretches of monotony and bickering.
For Americans contemplating their longest war, in Afghanistan, the campaign for women’s rights was a potential bright spot. The 2001 invasion might have failed on most counts, mired in torture, warlordism, and corruption, but at least the appalling position of women was supposed to improve.
Nordland’s “The Lovers” fatally complicates that optimistic narrative. In the 1980s, when Nordland first covered the conflict in Afghanistan, the United States supported mujahedeen whose main motivation to fight was to reverse the Soviets’ emancipation of Afghan women. So it was rich with irony that after the United States staged its invasion, it pushed for a flurry of women’s rights laws that improved things mainly on paper — and were undermined by the same warlords who owed their rise to American patronage.
To contextualize Ali and Zakia’s romantic yarn, Nordland presents a tirade of stories of rape, murder, bribery, and cover-up. While this barrage of anecdotes enrages, it does not advance our understanding of the thinking of the men who run this brutal system. Nor does it explain how they secure the cooperation of their countrymen.
Ali and Zakia are simple characters, illiterate, uneducated, and young. Although they star in this account, we never fully understand why they took such a bold leap. The closest glimpse we get to their souls is through the poetic verses that Ali selects for his cellphone ringtone.
There’s another story here, which Nordland shares with admirable candor and unflinching honesty, and that is of the unsatisfying, at times distressing, encounter between Afghans and the foreigners who have come to save, subjugate, or chronicle their country.
Almost from the first, Nordland dispenses with sanctimony. Journalists are supposed to maintain objectivity and avoid becoming part of the story. But in war zones, lines get blurred, and Nordland refuses to ignore his responsibility to be humane and help his subjects.
He gives Zakia and Ali money, lobbies for them with government officials, arranges a getaway car, and choreographs one abortive flight abroad.
The couple proves maddening and headstrong. They routinely ignore advice, dodge phone calls, and surface only when they need help or money. They might frustrate their allies, but Nordland respects their agency and independence of thought. They might not make the wisest choices, but the point is they act empowered in a society where few do.
The American government offers little aid, seeming reluctant to grant asylum to persecuted Afghans because it would undermine the line that Afghan women are better off since the Americans came.
All the more reason to chronicle this bittersweet, ambiguous love story. Zakia and Ali haven’t changed the status of Afghan women, and Nordland’s relentless reporting hasn’t shifted US policy. But the very acts of successful resistance and honest storytelling provide much-needed seeds of hope.
THE LOVERS: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing
By Rod Nordland
Ecco, 384 pp., $26.99Thanassis Cambanis writes The Internationalist column for Globe Ideas and is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York. His most recent book is “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.’’