Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet, defying religion and culture for love

Ali and bride Zakia are shown in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush region in April 2014. Journalist Rod Nordland says their image is iconic for some Afghans.

Story highlights

  • Zakia and Ali, a young Afghan couple, stays together despite the chance of Zakia's "honor killing"
  • In the new book "The Lovers," Zakia talks of being courted by Ali's poetry and song

(CNN)Zakia and Ali knew theirs was a forbidden love.

She was Sunni and ethnically Tajik; he was Shiite and ethnically Hazara -- the Montagues and Capulets.
"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
    "A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life"
    So begins, with gloomy prophecy, one of the most famous stories in English literature. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet would take their own lives out of despair.
    Rod Nordland, a journalist who found Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet, says that in that country, the despair all too often comes to an end in a so-called honor killing.
    Watch the interview with Nordland
    Watch the interview with Nordland


      Watch the interview with Nordland


    Watch the interview with Nordland 07:45
    "I expected that the next and final article would be about how the girl's family came one night and dragged her from the shelter," he writes in his new book, "The Lovers."
    "We would all be outraged and then turn the page. That's how such stories usually end, but I was wrong, and theirs was just the beginning."
    Fleeing home with nothing but their faith in each other, they survived.
    "They're illiterate," Nordland told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "They haven't gone to school; they have one or two years between the two of them."
    "What the most surprising thing was what a big role poetry played in their lives. They couldn't read it, but they could get it from popular music."
    In the book, Nordland writes of Ali's ringtone -- a contemporary Pashto love song.
    "Come here, my little flower, come!
    "Let me tear open my breast
    "And show you my own heart, naked!"
    Zakia is Sunni and ethnically Tajik; Ali is Shiite and ethnically Hazara -- the Montagues and Capulets.
    "Ali courted Zakia with poetry that he recited to her, the words from songs that he recited, and stories, old Persian love stories, that go back to the Bible and even before the Bible."
    "It's a very big part of their emotional life. And it was kind of heartening to see that, even in these unlettered people from a very remote corner of Afghanistan."
    Zakia was cagey at first about accepting Ali's proposal -- she knew the taboo, and danger, in such a marriage.
    She would be offending her family's "honor," as they would put it, for running away with a Shiite, Hazara man.
    "One hundred percent, they would kill me," Zakia told Nordland.
    "There's even a law in Afghanistan," Nordland told Amanpour, "that if you're a man and you kill a woman in your family because she offended your honor, the maximum penalty is two years."
    "In Afghanistan, there are cases of families waiting six and eight years before they killed the girl. And sometimes they'll pretend to reconcile, and then when everybody kind of forgets about the case, then turn around and kill the person. It happens over and over again."
    Zakia's father with three of his younger children.
    They left their homes just after their parents found out about their relationship.
    Her father was outraged, Nordland writes.
    "I swear to God that even if it costs me everything, I will try to bring my daughter back home," Nordland quotes him as saying. "She is a part of my body like one of my limbs -- how can I let her go with that boy?"
    Ali's tenderness won her over, defying the near certain death she faced.
    "It was very hard," Zakia told Nordland. "Everyone in my family was against me."
    In 2011, a Thompson-Reuters foundation poll listed Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world for women.
    According to Amnesty International, "any form of immorality, whether adultery or rape, is considered a way of dishonoring the family and may lead to 'honor' related violence."

    Star-crossed lovers

    Their story was even complete with its own balcony scene; Romeo wooing his Juliet.
    "If someone loves someone, she should have that bravery to do whatever has to be done," Zakia told Nordland.
    "It was very hard," Zakia told Nordland. "Everyone in my family was against me."
    As Zakia lay on the roof of her house, Nordland writes, Ali recited an Afghan song.
    "Your two dark eyes are those of an Afghan,
    "But the mercy of Islam is not in your heart.
    "Outside your walls I spent nights that became daylights;
    "What kind of sleep is this that you never wake up?"
    "That poem moved me, it increased my courage," she told Nordland. "Those days were so cold, and he was coming to meet me anyway, even though I told him not to come, because the weather was very cold, and he came anyway, and then he recited this poem."
    Zakia and Ali with their daughter, Ruqia, just outside Bamiyan in central Afghanistan in December 2014.
    Writing their story for The New York Times, Nordland made Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet famous.
    "They've become heroes to their generation because they're obviously not the only people that have fallen in love," he said. "Afghans fall in love, and then they put that aside and marry the people they're told to marry."
    "What makes her case so perilous is that her family, if they were to kill her, they can rest easy knowing that nobody would be prosecuted. Or if anybody was prosecuted, nobody would be seriously punished."

    A 'low bar'

    Nordland, who has long reported from Afghanistan, was no stranger to the story of honor killings.
    "The issue of women's rights has just come up over and over again because there were such great expectations for it," he told Amanpour. "And there has been a lot of improvement, it's true. But it's a pretty low bar."
    "It is kind of shocking to think that you can be killed for something as small as deciding who you want to fall in love with, and that the predominant view, at least among the patriarchy, among the mullahs and so on, is that love is wrong and people should marry who their fathers tell them to and be satisfied with that."
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    Ghani: Terrorism 'well and alive,' al Qaeda has reemerged


      Ghani: Terrorism 'well and alive,' al Qaeda has reemerged


    Ghani: Terrorism 'well and alive,' al Qaeda has reemerged 09:13
    Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, speaking with Amanpour in Davos, Switzerland, last month, said the government stood "for the constitutional rights, and particularly for women's rights."
    "This is one of the most fundamental challenges that Afghan society faces. It's because 40 years of violence have destroyed the historical role of women," he said.
    Nordland says Ghani deserves some credit in this regard; his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, kept his wife hidden from public view.
    "In a very important symbolic sense," he said, "he's brought his wife out in public. He's given her jobs to do."
    "But on the other hand, the negotiations now going on (with the Taliban) -- the sort of stage two, tier two negotiations -- there are no women involved, and women are very upset about that."

    A bleak future

    By their own tenacity, Zakia and Ali have survived, hidden from their families. But in Afghanistan, Nordland said, their future is bleak.
    "They have a young daughter now who's just over a year."
    "They've become heroes to their generation because they're obviously not the only people that have fallen in love," Rod Nordland says.
    "They haven't been willing to risk her life by swimming across the Aegean on the way to Europe and where, if they applied for asylum, they would be shoo-ins. They qualify on four out of the five international grounds for asylum. "
    "The law does not allow them to do that from their home country. They have to first risk their lives and get somewhere where they can."
    "And they actually saw the picture of Alan Kurdi, the little boy who was washed up on the beach in Turkey, and a friend showed it to them on his cell phone, and that just sort of got them where they lived and they just thought they're not going to do that to their own daughter."
    "And they don't understand, either, why it shouldn't be possible, if they have such a good case for asylum, to make some sort of arrangement for them, you know, where they could just get a visa and leave from their own country in a civilized way."