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Afghanistan's Real-Life Romeo And Juliet


We now bring you a love story.

A boy and a girl from different backgrounds meet. They fall in love. Their parents don't approve. And that's the part that fells familiar, even universal. But this true story takes place in Afghanistan, where falling in love with someone from a different religion or ethnicity can get you killed, especially if you're a woman.

That's the story reporter Rod Nordland found himself right in the middle of. He's the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times. And he's written a new book called "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet." He joins me in our studios for, we should say, our first live book interview. And if you have a question you'd like to ask Rod during our conversation, you can tweet me right now @rachelnpr.

Rod Nordland, thanks so much for joining us.

ROD NORDLAND: My pleasure.

MARTIN: The subtitle of your book says this is the true story of how this couple, quote, "defied their families and escaped an honor killing," which says a lot right off the bat. If you don't mind, could you just start by introducing us to these two young people? Who are they? How'd they meet?

NORDLAND: Well, they grew up together, actually, in villages side-by-side. And they worked in fields that adjoined one another. Their families had fields right next to each other. They're both from potato farming families. And so they knew each other all their lives until she reached puberty and then was separated from all men that she was related to. And then they began a secret courtship that went on for a couple years before they finally got together.

MARTIN: And it had to be secret because she is Tajik. He is Hazara. These are different ethnic groups, and they're from different sects of Islam.

NORDLAND: That's right. And even - they did actually arrange for his father to ask her father in a formal way, but he rejected the idea on those grounds. And then they carried on secretly and eventually tried to get together for real. And she had to flee and was put in a women's shelter for her protection, which is where I found her.

MARTIN: So, as you say, they - she gets put in this women's shelter. They have to essentially escape - take some major risks and flee - run away from their families because their families don't approve. Her family, in particular, has threatened her life.

How did you catch wind of this, and what was your first interaction with them?

NORDLAND: Well, the first story I did for the Times was when she was in the shelter, and I interviewed her there and then interviewed Ali, her lover, separately. And I thought that was going to be end of it. They would just be - you know, eventually she'd be given back to her family. The judges were trying to get her out of the shelter anyway - and even though her family, in open court, had threatened to kill her for what she was doing. And - but she surprised everybody by escaping the shelter, eloping with Ali and running off into the mountains. And Afghanistan's not a great to hide if you're, like, two young people with very little resources. And it was pretty clear they - after a couple weeks, they'd be found. And so I kind of went looking for them as well. And...

MARTIN: And what were your motives for looking for them?

NORDLAND: There was a great story at that point, just a great story. And readers - the first story I did on them had kind of touched a chord, and I was deluged with reader mail. And then when I finally caught up to them and wrote about that and their continued flight - plus, we had video and pictures of them together and they were very kind of photogenic as well. I think that helped. And we were just deluged with interest. I've never been - had so much reaction to a story I've worked on ever.

MARTIN: You write about this a lot in the book, the conflict that you faced because you became personally involved with these two. They needed help. They didn't seemingly have anyone. At what point in your relationship with them did you start to think - I have gotten too personally involved?

NORDLAND: Yeah. They kind of - they were kind of a touching couple. They're really kind of sweet kids - 18 and 21 and completely clueless, you know. All they had going for them is that they knew that they loved each other, and that was it. And they were just running on love and empty, you know, no money or anything else. And that was just very touching. And then also, because I was pursuing them myself and because I'm a foreigner, I needed an entourage of people for my protection. And we also had a video crew with us as well as a photographer. We were this big kind of traveling roadshow...


NORDLAND: ...That was drawing the attention of everybody around. And it was pretty clear at some point that if I did find them, I was going to help other people find them because it wouldn't take long for people to figure out what some foreigner was doing in this area that hadn't seen a foreigner in a year. And this...

MARTIN: So the more attention you paid to them, there was a risk that you were...

NORDLAND: Very much so.

MARTIN: ...Exposing them.

NORDLAND: It was really a conundrum. And then I did catch up to them. And they were - I caught up to them just as they were being evicted from the house they were hiding in. The owner wanted them to go. They had no car, no means. And, you know, I was pretty much their only option at that point.

MARTIN: You ended up even donating money. You were donating money from listener - from your viewers who felt invested in their story. But you yourself ended up giving them cash.

NORDLAND: Yeah. Readers were begging me to give the money to help them and to do whatever we possibly could. And - but that money hadn't reached me at that point because I was trying to find a way for them to do that in a, you know, sort of regular way like a women's group that could receive the money or something. So at that point, I just gave them some money out of my own pocket and put them in my car and gave them a getaway car, basically, and stepped way over the line of, you know, journalist and participant.

MARTIN: At one point in the book, you say that there's a connection here between helping Ali and Zakia - there's a parallel between the Western aid that flooded into Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion. You write both just weren't sustainable. Did you worry that you were unfairly raising their expectations for what you could do?

NORDLAND: I did. But on the other hand, you know, they would have been dead long before if I hadn't intervened. And I think that's so - she would have definitely, and I think that's pretty clear. So yes, that's true. And I've been criticized for that, and I think, you know, it's a fair point. But it overlooks the fact that they had no other prospects. There weren't any Afghans who were going to step in and save them, you know, at that point...


NORDLAND: ...Or who had the capacity to. But I had the capacity to. And you know, I kind of felt like you might feel if you're a photographer and you happened on a car crash scene, you know. Are you going to render first aid first or take the picture first? And I think there's only one thing that you can do as a human being in cases like that. You just have to put aside those journalistic scruples.

MARTIN: Yeah. We're getting some questions in through Twitter. Obviously, people want to know - where are they now? And what is the relationship like with their families?

NORDLAND: Yeah. They're still in hiding in Bamiyan. They tried unsuccessfully to flee the country then she got pregnant. So they decided it wasn't worth trying to flee the country while she was pregnant. They went back to Bamiyan. They're pretty much in hiding in the family home. I mean, people know where they are. But they don't go out at all because they're safe in their village probably. But if they went out, they'd be in trouble.

MARTIN: Rod Nordland - he's the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times - talking about his new book "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet."

Rod, thanks so much for sharing this story with us. We appreciate it.

NORDLAND: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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