They are human beings, and as poor and unlucky and ill-educated as they might be, they have just as much claim on romance as any of us.
Rod Nordland, The New York Times
Author, The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet
Zakia and Ali became an international sensation two years ago when New York Times Kabul Bureau Chief Rod Nordland’s story about them landed on the front page. Theirs is a romance that never should have been, and Nordland dubbed them Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet because of their rival sects, Sunni and Shia, and opposing ethnicities, Tajik and Hazara. With its love conquers all message and its life and death drama, this story was—and remains—irresistible, heartbreaking, and beautiful.
Now it is a remarkable book, and for the first time Nordland is talking about the story behind the story. He admits he lied to his editors to protect Zakia from being murdered by her family. When I sat down with Nordland this week, I discovered that with the stakes so high, he finds no room for moral ambiguity.
No question, Nordland is a GroundTruther.
Beth: How did you meet Zakia and Ali?
Rod: I met them because I check my spam folder, which is something I recommend everybody do, and it was a long letter from this woman in Bamyan. Basically what it said was, I have a girl here in the women’s shelter and her family is going to drag her out and kill her. And I’ve been fired from my job, so I can’t protect her any longer. Come up here and I’ll help you talk to her. …
I asked, Could we really talk to this girl, and to the boy that she wants to marry? And she said yes, she would set it up and she would even persuade them to sit for photographs. She felt very strongly that their only hope was if they got enough publicity on their case, it would deter her family from killing her and maybe bring enough pressure on the government to allow her to marry the guy. So I went there with a photographer and translators, and that was the beginning of it. I didn’t really think much was going to come of this. But reader response was so enormous to the story that it really interested the paper in trying to do follow-ups and see what more we could do on it.
Beth: What did you witness about their romance that you think makes it both unique and universal?
Rod: They grew up in neighboring villages in Bamyan, and although the villages weren’t right next to each other, the family fields were. The fields they worked in as children were adjoining, and when they were sent out to shepherd the sheep in the mountains, they did that together. So they knew each other their whole lives.
[Zakia and Ali] are both illiterate and innumerate. Zakia could not count to ten, and that was a problem when she first started using a phone to secretly get in touch with Ali, because she actually didn’t know how to dial it.
Once Zakia reached puberty, she was forced to be separated from all males she wasn’t related to … and forbidden to see Ali. Her father refused to allow them to marry and insisted on her marrying her first cousin, whom she had never met.
What made their case extraordinary was that they defied that and went ahead and tried to get married. For quite a long time, Zakia was locked up in a shelter to protect her from her family, who vowed to carry out an honor killing because she had the temerity to do this—and that also is quite common. It’s very unusual for a girl to escape that fate, because Afghanistan is a difficult country to hide in.
What was striking to me was the way their love affair had been shaped and was informed by something quite extraordinary really, and that’s literature and poetry … even though they were illiterate people. There is this young people’s culture, a real adoration of romantic love in Afghanistan, even while elders are preaching against it—and maybe because they are preaching against it. And [Zakia] talks about having learned all these old love stories from other girls passing them around secretly among themselves and in contravention of everything they were taught in the mosque and at home.
And so there was this wonderful, kind of romantic, even literary dimension to their story that really surprised me. … I think it was a little bit humbling, too, to see that they are human beings, and as poor and unlucky and ill-educated as they might be, they have just as much claim on romance as any of us.
Beth: How did they hide their relationship from their families?
Rod: There came a stage in their relationship where they started meeting secretly really late at night. It was winter and, as cold as it was, Ali would finish his labor job at midnight and then sneak over to Zakia’s house and she would sneak out—usually onto the roof. … He would be in the walled garden, and she would climb up to the roof and listen to him from the top of the roof and they would whisper to each other.
He often recited verses to her there, and when she finally came down from the roof to join him, it was after one of those recitals.
Zakia’s favorite singer was Mir Maftoon, an Afghan from the mountains. … Long before dawn one morning, early in the still wintry spring, Ali recited one of Maftoon’s verses to her as she lay prone on the flat roof of her house, her chin on her hands, looking down over the edge.
Your two dark eyes are those of an Afghan
But the mercy of Islam is not in your heart.
Outside your walls I spent nights that became daylights,
What kind of sleep is this that you never wake up?
Touched by his verses and by his suffering in the cold and freezing herself, Zakia finally came down to join him in the garden. And so their love story became a love affair, as Ali delicately put it.
Beth: The woman from the shelter who first contacted you wanted attention on their story in order to put pressure on the government to protect Zakia. Did it work?
Rod: You know, the government wasn’t going to respond to it, and eventually this girl would probably just get tired of staying in the shelter and agree to go home to her family, if they didn’t drag her out, and that would be the end of it. That’s what usually happens in honor killing cases, and they are quite common in Afghanistan.
And then Zakia escaped from the shelter on her own, I think partly emboldened by the attention. She and Ali eloped, they got married straight away, and went on the run. Then I went on the run after them to find them, because it was clear that they were not going to get very far. They would be spotted and eventually run to ground. So I wanted to get to them before that happened. By doing that, I kind of hastened the process of them being found. …
We [reporting crew and photographers] were just a huge entourage, and it was immediately apparent to people that we were up to something. And it drew the attention of the police. … Ali was at that point charged by Zakia’s father with kidnapping her, and they were also charged with bigamy because the father, after the fact, married her to another man in a procedure that’s quite common in Afghanistan where the father gets together and asserts that the girl has agreed to marry some guy and a couple of men witness it and that’s all it takes to marry a woman in Afghanistan—legally. He does have to have her consent, but all he has to do is assert that he has her consent, and that’s what he did.
I faced kind of a crisis then: If I maintain my journalistic objectivity, what I would have done is just hung out there with our crew and the police would have arrived and we would have filmed them being taken in. When a girl is arrested by the police in Afghanistan, it’s pretty certain that she is going to be taken in and raped in jail. … That’s what they faced, so I made a decision then to intervene. I put them in my car and helped them escape.
I basically provided them with a getaway vehicle and a bunch of cash so they could keep running on their own, after they got to a safe place where they could get back on their feet and start walking safely. And then having intervened to that degree, I found myself feeling that I just couldn’t let that go; I had to continue following them and trying to help them.
They were a couple of young and foolish kids—they were 18 and 21 at the time and they were just fueled by love. They didn’t really have much common sense or experience or anything else, and sooner or later they were going to get caught if somebody didn’t continue to help them. So I ended up being in that role for quite some time.
Beth: How do you come to terms with the idea that you may have put them in more danger because of your reporting?
Rod: Yeah, they are difficult questions. I think the most effective women’s activists in Afghanistan are the ones who have answered that question by saying, We have to stand up for what we believe and what is right, and not just try to work behind the scenes, because working behind the scenes just perpetuates the power of the patriarchy. A very good example is the group Women for Afghan Women, which runs 17 shelters and other facilities for women around the country. …
Women for Afghan Women has the attitude that they want to bring all this out into the open. When a girl is raped, they want to let her be interviewed if she wants to be interviewed and tell her story. And when somebody escapes an honor killing or has their nose cut off—as has happened pretty recently to one of their clients—they want people to see that, and they want people to have to confront the reality of what it’s like for women there.
I have a great deal of admiration for Women for Afghan Women and a few other activists who feel that unless they confront this and bring it out in the open, they are just going to be where they have been for the last thousand years.
In fact, the woman who initially sent me that email and helped protect them claims that she later got death threats because of that, and she went and claimed asylum in America. [Zakia and Ali] would certainly have a good case, and it’s just an absurdity of international law that such asylum requests are not granted in the country where they take place. It’s because the attitude of the Americans and the Europeans and the UN is that if we [granted asylum in countries where abuses are happening] it would be saying publicly, You can’t protect your women. Well, they can’t protect their women, in fact, and that’s just the case.
You know, I think Zakia and Ali would love to live in their own country as a long-term solution, but her family is looking for them in order to kill them, and they know that they will never be punished for that because nobody has ever gone to jail for an honor killing of a woman in Afghanistan. That makes her family very powerful. They’ve got nothing to fear. And as long as that’s the case, they are either going to stay in hiding or she’s going to be killed.
Beth: Sometimes journalists talk about separating personal values and professional ethics. Is this even possible? Or desirable?
Rod: I was really grappling with this because I had to basically lie—or at least lie by omission—to my editors. … I knew if I told my editors what I was up to, they would have to take me off the story. I would if I was in their position. I also thought when I wrote about it as a book, I had to be honest about everything because otherwise it would be inexplicable how they survived, and I would just have been writing a book that would be a pack of lies.
They survived because I intervened, with the help of some women’s activists and a lot of donors in America who sent money for them. We intervened to keep them alive and, you know, it’s not like, Well did you do the right thing?
But I was stepping over the line as a journalist, and worst of all just dissembling or not telling the full truth to my editors. Now, I expected that once the book came out I would be in big trouble. The book has been out for a couple of weeks now, and I’m not in big trouble and I’m not sure why that is. But I have a theory, and it’s that I think some of those editors are maybe kind of secretly relieved that I didn’t tell them, because then it would have put them in a position of intervening and this girl would be dead by now.
Today, Zakia and Ali are back in Bamiyan living with Ali’s family and raising their daughter. They never leave the family compound. No trips to the market. No picnics or wedding celebrations. No visits to extended family or friends. To an outsider it may appear that they have nothing. For them, however, their love is everything.
Have no grief about the past,
For the past has passed.
Grief can never remake the past.
Think of the future, of life, of joy.
And if thirst should find no river,
Just drink one drop, and be satisfied.
(“Past” by Iranian singer Moein used by Ali as his ring tone)