When Mohammad Anwar trudged home after a long day tending the fields in the late summer of 2013 and opened his door, Zakia was sitting there on floor cushions and drinking tea with his daughter-in-law.
Anwar’s house was a dwelling that shouted poverty but was scrupulously clean — earthen floors swept, carpets shaken and beaten, latrine isolated and limed. The home was made up of four separate rooms, each a little building opposite the courtyard wall. Afghans love walls around their compounds; it is how they keep their women safe from the view of outsiders. Anwar had run out of money for mud bricks, and the wall was only three-quarters complete, with a jagged gap where he hoped one day to install a gate. There was no running water — the nearest water came from a well a few hundred yards away, beside the main road — nor any electricity, save for a tiny lightbulb and wire in one room that could be connected to a nine-volt battery, when they could afford one. The family’s two-inch-thick Afghan mattresses were quarter-folded and stacked along the rooms’ interior walls during the daytime; bamboo mats or the cheaper plastic mats were used where they could not afford carpets. There was no furniture; thin cushions were scattered around for seating. At mealtimes a plastic sheet was unrolled on the floor to make a dining area, and meals were taken communally, everyone eating from a common plate with their fingers, according to Afghan custom. Like the rest of the dwellings in Surkh Dar village, the homestead was nestled into a narrow valley that rose from the road into the northern mountains; they had used the steep hillside to create the back wall in some of the four rooms.
After only a ten-minute climb up the slopes nearby, one could glance back and Anwar’s house and the rest of the village would seem to disappear into the landscape, its walls and roofs made of the same earth as the bare slopes all around. Anwar’s house was also old, built by his grandfather, and decades of wind and storms had softened all the edges so that it seemed not so much erected as grown in place.
Anwar sat down to tea with Zakia, dazed with surprise. Zakia sat twisting her wrist with the opposite hand, as she often did when nervous, but was otherwise composed. There was already a lot on Anwar’s mind those days; harvest time for potatoes, their most important cash crop, was not far away. Prices were good that year, and harvests were likely to be bountiful, although labor-intensive. He might even begin paying down the debts he had incurred with the marriage of his eldest son, Bismillah, several years before, and his next-oldest son, Ismatullah, the year after that. Sons are highly prized in Afghanistan; they are the measure of a man’s worth.
Though daughters can bring a substantial bride price to their fathers, they are disdained. A man with many sons is considered a rich man no matter how poor it makes him. Anwar had five sons but only three daughters, so he was proud but perennially broke.
Many Afghan men do not even know how many daughters they have; if you ask them how many children in their family, they’re likely to reply “five” if they have five sons and five daughters, for instance, since daughters don’t count. Press them for the number of daughters and often they will have to consult with a child or a wife to be sure. Anwar, however, is not one of those men.
As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Zakia calmly poured Anwar some tea.
“Why are we here?” he said. “What is this, daughter?” He used the term as an older man addressing a young woman, nothing more.
Things had been coming to a head for months now; it was nearly a year since Ali’s return from the army and months since their secret engagement. Zakia was on her third phone, keeping this one hidden in her underclothes after first her brother and then her father found the earlier ones. Although Sabza had not been able to identify Ali that dawn when she caught her daughter with him in the garden, and Ali managed just in time to climb the wall and run off, by then everyone had a pretty good idea with whom Zakia was involved, even if they couldn’t prove it. Once Anwar had formally asked for Zakia’s hand, it was no longer a secret in either of their villages. “Everyone knew about it. I just made up my mind: I’m not free here at home, so I have to go to him, and I just went,” Zakia said. “I just thought about Ali, and I thought, ‘I have to go to him.’ I was hopeful he would keep me or accept me, but I didn’t know. I just had to do it, even if I wasn’t planning.”
What she didn’t say, and could not say, is that she and Ali had become lovers and she had no other choice; there could never be another Afghan husband for her.
From “The Lovers” by Rod Nordland. Copyright © 2016 by Rod Nordland. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.