Rod Nordland was a feisty and intrepid reporter going back to his days at the student newspaper at Penn State. In the meantime, he’s matured and gotten even better.
His latest is the story of Zakia and Ali, neighbors who fall in love and want to marry against all rules and customs of Afghan society and the Islamic religion. (Both are Muslims, but she's Sunni and he's Shia.) Women have no say in their lives. They are told what to wear. A woman’s father decides whom she will marry—and at what age. If a woman is raped, it’s her fault. For shaming her family, she can be stoned to death by her own father and brothers. Child brides are common.
Despite the book’s title, this is almost as much a book about Nordland’s role in trying to help the couple despite the fact that it means he sacrifices his journalistic neutrality, something he initially resists and does not do lightly when he finally slips on the slippery slope. Thanks to his initial story in his newspaper, The New York Times, money flows in to help the couple, and when that is not happening, Nordland provides some of his own. (A major donor is Miriam Adelson, wife of Sheldon, herself Jewish and assisting a Muslim couple.)
Woven within the story are historical examples of star-crossed lovers, including some from Afghanistan and a particular couple created by Shakespeare, although not with the same outcome. What I found particularly charming is that Nordland reports Ali’s changing ringtones, most of which are from love songs and poems. Given that Ali is illiterate, the ringtones create a bit of a mystery, and Nordland withholds explaining how Ali got them until toward the end of the story, a reward for continuing with a story that is so gripping, no reward is necessary.
Getting the couple out of the country is a challenge, and when they finally do flee to Tajikistan, they are fleeced by corrupt authorities who send them back to Afghanistan—penniless. In one of the more bizarre twists in the story is that Zakia and Ali are still in Afghanistan living with his family. I’m hoping they are safe, but given that families exact revenge even centuries after the original provocation, I don’t hold out much hope for the couple.
The only major criticism I have about the book is that after the epilogue, which is usually at the end of a book, Nordland continues for 50 more pages with two chapters about the conditions for women in Afghanistan. It’s all very interesting but it is an odd fit, as though Nordland was cleaning out his notebook. The story of Zakia and Ali needs no supporting chapters to tell us had bad conditions are for the women and girls of Afghanistan.
(Never kiss by the garden gate,
Because love is blind,
But the neighbors ain’t.)