Book of the Week: The Lovers – Rod Nordland

This is a terrific blend of suspenseful narrative nonfiction and up-to-the-minute reporting. NYT reporter Rod Nordland took up the story when a woman with the Women’s Ministry in Bamiyan, Afghanistan emailed every reporter she could think of about the plight of Zakia and Mohammad Ali. These two young Afghanis put their lives at risk when they wanted across religious, racial and ethnic lines; it was hoped that international publicity for the story might help save their lives.

It’s a gripping “Romeo and Juliet” story that has unfolded on the pages of the NYT over the last year. (Here’s the latest NYT update, chronicling their dilemma with trying to leave the country.) Now married, Ali and this brothers guard the couple’s home around the clock because, as Nordland says, there isn’t a timeline of honor killings. Zakia’s family may well bide their time over years before taking revenge on the daughter and sister who chose her own husband and chose to marry for love.

Most advance reviews rightly highlight one of Nordland’s central points—voiced by a former Afghan minister—that Afghanistan is “the worst place in the world for women.” A bright spot in the situation is made by Nordland in an MSNBC interview: While older Afghans disparage the idea of marrying for love rather than for family,

…among young people, though, they’ve become kind of heroes…photographs that have been done of them have been re-rendered as paintings and they’ve kind of entered the popular folklore in Afghanistan.”

This is shaping up to be one of the major nonfiction releases of the new year with a lot of review coverage and publicity coming. Print includes NYTBR, the New York Daily News, People, Boston Globe; TV; radio includes CNN’s Amanpour and NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.

Nordland opens a window onto [Afghanistan’s] country’s fierce resistance to change, particularly regarding the status of women. Mohammad Ali and Zakia, whose fathers owned adjoining fields outside Bamiyan, a city in central Afghanistan, first met as children. They fell in love as teenagers, but his heritage as a Shiite and ethnic Hazara and hers as a Sunni and ethnic Tajik posed seemingly insurmountable barriers. In Nordland’s telling, the pair emerge as fully rounded characters even while serving as symbols of Afghan culture’s stifling restraints. From the couple’s initial elopement to their unexpected elevation to media prominence in 2014—due to the author’s reporting and a media-savvy New Jersey rabbi with connections to the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs—Nordland’s storytelling remains gripping, with more than a hint of Shakespearean drama.”
Publishers Weekly

Nordland develops a captivating and beautifully-written true story of an elopement into an analysis of Afghan misogyny and domestic violence which reveals more about conservative Afghan life and the struggle to change it than most other non-fiction books about the country.”
The Guardian

“Nordland offers a stark, eye-opening look at the deplorable state of women’s rights in Afghanistan through the travails of a brave, determined young couple.”
Booklist (starred review)

“With keen and nuanced insight, Nordland details the tortuous road that Zakia and Ali traveled… Meticulously reported and written, Nordland’s book is an exceptionally well-delineated glimpse into the marriage practices of a closed patriarchal society and the suffering it has caused women. The author thoughtfully considers the extent to which the West, acting from the outside, can effect social reform in Muslim fundamentalist cultures. A provocative, well-told story of love at all costs and an incisive examination of the continued violation of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

“A heartfelt, readable account for those interested in the personal impact of a decade of American engagement in Afghanistan.”
Library Journal

The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing (9780062378828) by Rod Nordland. $26.99 hardcover. 1/26/16 on sale.

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