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Zakia is 18 and Mohammad Ali is 21, both the children of farmers in this remote mountain province. If they could manage to get together, they would make a striking couple. She dresses colorfully, a pink head scarf with her orange sweater, and collapses into giggles talking about him. He is a bit of a dandy, with a mop of upswept black hair, a white silk scarf and a hole in the side of his saddle-toned leather shoes.
Both have eyes nearly the same shade, a startling amber. They have never been alone in a room together, but they have publicly declared their love for each other and their intention to marry despite their different ethnicities and sects. That was enough to make them outcasts, they said, marked for death for dishonoring their families — especially hers. Even though she is legally an adult under Afghan law, the local court has ordered her returned to her family. But there are plenty of analogues in the stories they are both steeped in, and those, too, end tragically.
In 21st-century Afghanistan, as well, life is no fairy tale, especially in rural places like Bamian. Young people who want to choose their own mates face the harsh reality that strict social traditions still trump new laws and expanded rights — and that honor killings in such cases remain endemic. Afghan courts can also apply Shariah law, interpreting it to justify parental authority even over an adult child. Zakia and Mohammad Ali knew each other from childhood, working in adjacent fields in the village of Khame Kalak, near the provincial capital.
Their love affair did not begin then. But their friendship was close, and it was abruptly cut off. Once past puberty, girls must remain covered and usually can go out only in the company of close male relatives. Zakia is a Tajik, a Sunni ethnic group. As with many Afghans, neither has a surname. Occasionally, though, Mohammad Ali would glimpse Zakia in the fields and catch her eye under her head scarf.
He was sure she returned the interest. He found a young girl to be an intermediary, and gave her a cellphone to take to Zakia. Zakia hid the phone where no one would find it, and for most of the past four years they spoke to each other once a week or so. Whenever Zakia, one of 10 children, could find some privacy, she would call him, let it ring once, and he would call back. Mohammad Ali gave her calls a ringtone that was a verse from a popular Afghan song that recalls the story of Yusuf and Zuleika.