Early in 2014, New York Times journalist Rod Nordland got wind of an honor killing in the making and headed off to the remote Bamiyan Valley in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan to investigate. He found the girl, Zakia, in a shelter for her own protection and the boy, Ali, moping around his village. They couldn’t see one another, and she couldn’t leave or her family would likely carry out their public threat to kill her because she wanted to marry against her father’s wishes. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world where honor killings count as socially acceptable behavior, so much so that few women targeted by their families ever escape successfully. Zakia did, though, eloping with Ali, and Nordland followed, chronicling the lovers’ flight through the rugged mountains of central Afghanistan, the slums of Kabul and even into neighboring Tajikistan. Nordland’s book, full of the lyrical Persian poetry and music that moved these young people, brings their story up to the present. In addition to a chronicle of a thwarted honor killing, it is also a richly reported look at the gender terrorism that makes Afghanistan today the worst place in the world to be a woman—let alone to be a woman in love.
The past can be your real destiny, and theirs was messy. Both Zakia and Ali were too young to remember when the Taliban came over the Shibar Pass through the Hindu Kush mountains and into the Bamiyan Valley in 1998. By that point, two years into its conquest of Afghanistan, the Taliban were used to winning ground. They held all of central, western, and southern Afghanistan and most of the north, with the exception of areas controlled by the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud and his alliance, in the far north, and by Hezb-i-Wahdat, the Hazara militia, in the north-central highlands of Bamiyan Province and Hazarajat. There was no love lost between Massoud’s Tajiks and Hezb-i-Wahdat’s Hazaras, partly because Massoud’s forces had carried out a notorious massacre of Hazaras in Kabul during the civil war a few years earlier and partly because the dominant Hazaras had abused the Tajik minority in Bamiyan city. The Hazaras initially beat back the Taliban in 1998. Abandoned by the more numerous and more powerful Tajiks, however, the Hazaras in Bamiyan succumbed when the Taliban returned in force the following year, carrying out massacres in Bamiyan city and in the Yakawlang Valley in which they killed every male they could find older than thirteen.
Both their families fled the valley during that time. First Zakia’s Tajik family headed north to Baghlan Province to flee the Hazaras and the Taliban, and then Ali’s family fled to the Koh-i-Baba mountain heights and across into Wardak Province to the south, escaping both the Pashtun Taliban and the Tajiks. There had always been religious tensions between Afghanistan’s Sunnis, who include Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtun ethnic groupings, and its Shia, who are mostly Hazara. The Taliban’s extremist Deobandi version of Islam decreed that all Shia were heretics and justified killing them, a view they shared with Al-Qaeda. There was also a racial aspect to the conflict, since Hazaras are more Asian in appearance while Tajiks and Pashtuns are more Caucasian, although there are many exceptions. Tajiks and Pashtuns have traditionally derided Hazaras as outsiders, seeing them as the descendants of Genghis Khan’s invading armies of eight hundred years ago; Hazaras have never forgiven the Pashtuns for enslaving them in the nineteenth century.