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A chronicle of Afghanistan’s modern-day Romeo and Juliet

Zakia and Ali are Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet -- with all the heartache that description implies. Separated by religion, ethnicity and their own families, the young couple defied them all by eloping. Rod Nordland of the New York Times chronicles their remarkable odyssey in his book, “The Lovers,” and joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the intersection of romance and religion in the Muslim world.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally tonight, love and tragedy in Afghanistan.

    Jeffrey Brown has the latest edition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Zakia and Ali first came to the world's attention in the pages of The New York Times in 2014. Later, the paper would capture their story on video.

    They had grown up on adjacent potato farms in Afghanistan's remote mountain province of Bamiyan, playing together as children, and, as teenagers, falling in love.

  • ZAKIA (through interpreter):

    At first, I wasn't aware of my feelings, because I didn't know him. I was very young and didn't understand these things. When I was out in the farm fields, he wrote his cell phone number and gave it to me. Then we talked on the phone and he said, "I love you," and we got to know each other and started to love each other.

  • ALI (through interpreter):

    It looked to me that it wasn't possible for us to get together.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Indeed, it was prohibited because of the Afghan custom of arranged marriages and by Islamic law. The two were separated by religion and ethnicity, she a Sunni and Tajik, he a Shiite and Hazara.

    When their love became known, the couple, especially Zakia, faced condemnation, beatings and later the threat of death from her family.

    ROD NORDLAND, Author, "The Lovers": Her family were not wealthy, but they were big and they were numerous. And they — on their side, in their quest to kill her, they had a very powerful weapon, and that was the knowledge that nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for an honor killing in Afghanistan.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A new book tells the story.

    It's called "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet," by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Rod Nordland. Nordland wrote the original article and a number of follow-ups.

    We met recently at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., as a new exhibition on Afghanistan art, Turquoise Mountain, was being installed.

    Nordland told me he'd been looking for a way to report on so-called honor killings, the murder of young women by their own families for causing them shame.

  • ROD NORDLAND:

    We would hear about honor killings from time to time, but there'd be a real paucity of information about them, because nobody would talk about them. And we knew probably there were many more honor killings than anybody ever hears of.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In Zakia and Ali, you found two young people who in some ways seem very normal to their time and place, but clearly in other ways were not, right? They were willing to do something that went well beyond the bounds of their culture. Did you ever figure out what it was in them that made them that way?

  • ROD NORDLAND:

    It's hard to say, but I think, if I had to identify one thing, it would be that Zakia has a real spark of independence and a real strength of character. And she decided that she wanted to do this and she was going to do it.

    Falling in love is not an unusual thing in Afghanistan, like it isn't in any country, any place. It's just forbidden, and it's frowned upon by mullahs. It's actually preached against.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Zakia first went to a women's shelter. Then, upping the stakes dramatically, the two eloped. Sought by police and her family, they went into hiding in rural caves and in Kabul.

  • ROD NORDLAND:

    It didn't occur to me even that she would have the courage to run on her own, 18-year-old girl, never been outside her own village. I was the first man she had ever sat in the same room with that wasn't a brother or father or Ali.

    And many times, even the first interview I had with them, they said that they would — they would be happy if they were just together for a day. And if the other person were killed, they would gladly kill themselves.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nordland, working with a video crew, was able to follow Zakia and Ali periodically over the next year, as they had a daughter named Ruqia.

    But his stories, picked up by Afghan media, also made it harder for them to hide. And Nordland himself became part of the story, at one point providing the couple a getaway car and some money.

  • ROD NORDLAND:

    I stepped over the line between being a journalist and being a participant.

    And I admit I did that, and probably by the precepts of my profession, that was the wrong thing to do. But rules sometimes need to be broken in the interest of doing what's right. There are times, as a journalist, I mean, you know, if you come across a car crash, do you take the picture first or help the victim inside the car?

    And you obviously help the victim inside the car. I mean, most of us would. And it was a little bit like that in a way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The largest context here, of course, is the status of women in Afghanistan. And after 2001 — you write about this — so much hope there was. But, according to this story, the story you tell, not much has changed.

  • ROD NORDLAND:

    Yes. When it comes to a lot of these abusive customary practices, that's right. They're still as prevalent as they once were.

    Honor killing, child brides, the practice of baad, when a little girl is sold to pay a family debt, often a debt for some moral crime that a male relative has carried out. It would be unfair to say there hasn't been improvement, because there are millions of girls in schools that didn't exist during the Taliban time.

    Still, when you look at the metrics, Afghanistan still remains the worst place in the world to be born a woman, in life expectancy, maternal mortality, anything. And you look at it, and that's pretty shocking, considering the investment that we have tried to make in bettering women's lives.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nordland remains in touch with Zakia and Ali, who are still in hiding. In a video he and his team made of the couple's life today with their daughter, they said this:

  • ZAKIA (through interpreter):

    If I were killed and not here with her, I hope that our daughter will grow up to learn where to go and where not to go, and will be educated.

  • ALI (through interpreter):

    My advice to someone who falls in love is that he should do something to win her heart and have a happy life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The couple decided against fleeing for Europe, at least for now, but hope to find asylum somewhere.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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