The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet

Rafia Zakaria in The New York Times:

ZakThe 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.

…The episode poses vexing questions about the disparities in power between storyteller and subject, American and Afghan; but ­Nordland never unpacks the complications of making the couple so notorious. It is a pity, for his skills as a journalist are evident in his rendering of this love blossoming against all odds. It is in his efforts to mold the story into an example of the righteousness of Western intervention — and of their ultimately feminist intentions — that he falters, as indeed have those efforts. Violence against women in Afghanistan increased 25 percent from 2012 to 2013. In the crude illogic of Afghan anti-­imperial resistance, the subjugation of women is being reified as some reclamation of cultural authenticity, where women who run off to shelters funded by the occupying American enemy are seen as less loyally Afghan.

More here.