Cork-bound Rod Nordland admits he overstepped the mark in helping a young Afghani couple. But it also helped him shine a light on the awful treatment of women in that country, writes Marjorie Brennan
ROD Nordland’s book The Lovers is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, the true story of an Afghan couple and how they defied death threats to be together.
For Norland, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times, it all began with one email in his spam folder; little did he know then how it would lead him to the story of a lifetime, one in which he would became a key protagonist.
“It was a very long, rambling email from a local activist but I’m glad I read on because she buried the lede in her letter, saying there was a girl in the shelter in Bamiyan [where the Taliban destroyed two sandstone Buddhas in 2001] who was being kept there to protect her because her family wanted to kill her for trying to marry a man she had chosen.
“She said she could get me to her and felt if we covered the story it would prevent her being killed. It was a terrific opportunity for a journalist because it’s very seldom you can talk to someone involved in an honour killing, it’s done in secrecy, among the family and there’s usually a conspiracy of silence in the community about it.”
The couple, Zakia and Ali, were from rival sects, Sunni and Shia, and opposing ethnicities, Tajik and Hazara. Zakia’s family was against their marriage on cultural, ethnic, and religious grounds.
Ali was then 21, three years older than Zakia. Once Nordland had spoken to Zakia and filed the story, he says he became disenchanted as he believed it would have little impact. But he hadn’t reckoned on Zakia’s determination.
“I didn’t think it was going to change anything — that eventually this girl would be handed back to her family. I never thought she’d have the gumption and courage to escape and run. She was the instigator — Ali went along with it.
They eloped and got married, and ran deeper into the mountains. At that point I realised they wouldn’t last very long — they had very few resources, no money, it was cold. Her parents had pressed charges of kidnapping, as well as bigamy — in Afghanistan you can be married without being present at the ceremony if you’re a girl.”
Nordland eventually tracked down the couple with the help of Ali’s family. “Initially they were against it but they came around to his side. They took us up into the mountains, we weren’t sure where they were, they were on foot, slept often in caves, and they had cellphones but they often didn’t work in the mountains. The father wasn’t sure where they were but we got lucky and found them pretty quickly.”
Nordland’s journalistic instincts duelled with his wish to help Zakia and Ali as he became more deeply involved in their story.
“We realised when we left they’d probably be caught within hours, because the police were rumoured to be just three hours behind — they had no car, and the mountains were too rugged for them to travel far. I hid them in my car, brought them to another part of the country and gave them $1,000, which would go a long way in Afghanistan.
“I did very much cross the line but I didn’t feel I had much of a choice. I thought I’d be in trouble with my paper, because I wrote about this very forthrightly [in the book]. I hadn’t told them at the time because I thought they’d pull me off the story, which I was very invested in, but they accepted that there wasn’t another choice and it was the decent and humane thing to do.”
While The Lovers is a love story in the most traditional sense, Nordland’s aim in writing it was to raise awareness of life in Afghanistan and how hard it has been for women.
“It not only touches on the horrible aspects of honour killings, but all the ways women are denied their rights in Afghanistan. I’d been there for more than five years and wanted to write a book about that issue, how this general assumption in the West was that we had ‘won’ there, and we had encouraged decent treatment of women in Afghanistan. But most of that is a sham and basic attitudes haven’t changed a lot.
“I had shied away from writing a foreign policy book because I didn’t want to spend a year writing something read by 300 people. The New York Times has an audience of millions and I realised writing this book was a great way to get people to read the story and would also educate them on the issue of women’s rights.”
While Nordland’s book has attracted ire from political officials in Afghanistan, it has resonated with younger people in the country.
“There were a lot of officials who were very angry, denouncing me and barring me from meetings of the women’s council there. But there has also been a wonderful reaction from Afghan young people on social media. A lot of them are of the same generation as Zakia and Ali, and they look on them as heroes. I hear from women’s groups that young couples are coming to them and asking about their legal rights when it comes to marrying who they want, and that’s a wonderful reaction.”
The couple are now living in the village where Ali is from, but their situation is still a precarious one. “They almost never go out, if they do they take very elaborate precautions — it’s self-imposed house arrest. In the village they’re safe because the other family wouldn’t dare come there, all the people there are relatives of Ali. But you can’t live like that for a long period of time. Ultimately their own real solution is asylum in another country but no-one so far has been willing to grant that.”
The couple, now 19 and 22, had a baby in December 2014, which has meant they are more reluctant to take risks.
“I think they should make more of an effort to flee the country but they’ve tried that and failed, and they don’t want to try to cross the Aegean — they saw the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler who was washed up on the beach, and they thought that that could be them. In that regard, they’ve been very sensible.”
Nordland is still in regular contact with Zakia and Ali. “I spoke to them today and my translator was meeting them today, exploring whether they could get some reconciliation with her family. A neutral go-between was arranged, to contact the family, they cursed her on the phone and threatened to kill her — they were that angry at an impartial go- between so you can imagine what they’d want to do to her [Zakia].
“That was sobering for her — some time has gone by and they hoped it’d be put behind them, but that’s typical of honour killing cases, people will spend years trying to exact vengeance.”
Nordland still feels a sense of responsibility towards the couple. “I have a watchful role but I can’t dictate how they live their lives. There’s a saying that when you save somebody’s life you end up in their service. And it’s true in a way. Having done what I did I can’t just turn my back on them.”
Rod Nordland and Syrian poet Maram al-Masri, with Theo Dorgan, will discuss Women in the Muslim World at Triskel Christchurch as part of the Cork World Book Fest on Thursday, April 21, at 8.30pm.
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