Rod Nordland’s soul-shattering new book, “The Lovers,” comes to us packaged as Shakespearean drama. The story’s star-crossed couple, Ali and Zakia, appear on the cover with the subtitle “Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet: The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing.” Flower-patterned pages lead to an epigraph from the actual Romeo. And after a Dramatis Personae introducing the Ahmadis and Sarwaris — our Afghan Capulets and Montagues — there is a Prologue, though mercifully it is not in iambic pentameter.
The problem with this motif, aside from a lack of subtlety, is that, unlike “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Lovers” is not fiction. The realities that Nordland brings to light are so brutal and urgent, that romance seems beside the point.
Nordland first brought Ali and Zakia’s story to light in a series of articles for The New York Times in April 2014, while he was the Times’ Kabul bureau chief. Ali, then 21, and Zakia, then 18, grew up on neighboring farms in Bamiyan; their families got along despite Ali’s being ethnically Hazara and Zakia’s Tajik. But when their furtive relationship was discovered, the couple was forced to flee, dodging Zakia’s clan on a journey through mountain hideaways, women’s shelters, Kabul slums and an ill-fated venture to Tajikistan. Zakia’s father and brothers were intent on killing her for destroying their honor, and criminal charges were brought to hamper the couple’s every move.
Nordland, with the help of his extraordinary fixer, Jawad Sukhanyar, and several Afghan women activists, followed their story and eventually became part of it. His articles in the Times triggered an outpouring of interest from readers — including donations of money for the couple.
But, as Nordland makes clear, Ali and Zakia are only one case among many. “On the scale of horrendous abuses of women in Afghanistan, Zakia’s situation, so far, did not rate very high,” he writes. Indeed, by the end of “The Lovers,” the titular tale has been eclipsed by a staggering view of how women in Afghanistan are treated in general.
Despite the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law, held up as the West’s signature achievement there, the country remains a place where, after a woman is raped, she may be raped again by the police when she seeks their help, then forced to apologize to her rapist, and then — if she is not murdered by her brothers or stoned by her village — forced to marry the rapist to restore everyone’s honor. If one is to believe Nordland — and his careful, layered reporting gives us no reason to doubt him — it really is that bad.
Balancing the obvious appeal of a Romeo and Juliet story with this grim larger picture proves cumbersome on the page. The first few chapters are disorganized and repetitive, perhaps because they depend largely on information that comes to Nordland secondhand and in translation. At the other end of the book, bizarrely, an Epilogue is followed by two “supplementary” chapters. Here Nordland describes, with satisfying anger, the absurdity of Western governments’ reluctance to intervene in cases like Ali and Zakia’s for fear of undermining the Afghan legal system they have helped set up. Writes Nordland, “This is the state of things after fourteen years of massive international intervention, $104 billion in development aid from the United States alone by 2014, much of it earmarked to women’s programs and gender equality.” This material is central; its orphan status at the end of the book looks like the result of a rush to publication.
Structural shortcomings aside, one of the big challenges in a book like “The Lovers” is for the narrator to take accurate measure of his own role, and here Nordland succeeds, sharing his concerns without becoming self-important. “I had deep misgivings and a growing sense of guilt,” he writes, describing his first attempt at tracking the pair to their hiding place to get photos for the Times story. “It seemed likely that we would expose the couple if we did find them, without any guarantee that a more visual story about them would save their lives.” Later, when he is fully involved, he writes, “The more I did for them [Ali and Zakia], however, the more they expected me to do; the more dependent they became, the more independent they wanted to seem; the more I did, the more I felt obliged to do. I felt like their personal Friar Laurence, in an increasingly compromised scenario.” For once, the “Romeo and Juliet” comparison feels just right.