Love in the time of Taliban

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The World

KABUL, Afghanistan — It’s reassuring to know that Cupid strings his little bow as often in Afghanistan as elsewhere.

And while love is never a simple proposition, the Afghans delight in making it as complicated as possible.

Here are four of their stories: 

Burqa no barrier

Aman, a 19 year old with good prospects and an attractive face, caught the eye of Fatima, the unmarried girl next door. Wrapped in her sky-blue burqa, she would arrange to linger by her gate when he left his house, and began passing him notes, which amounted to blatant seduction by the standards of the time.

Given Aman’s romantic disposition and frustrated libido, it was not long before they were an item. There were more notes, and furtive meetings at the market, when Fatima could get out of the house. They even, shockingly, held hands sometimes when the Virtue Police were not around.

If caught, it would have meant disaster, dishonor, a beating or worse.

“Several times we passed her father on the street,” Aman laughed. “He never knew. One burqa looks the same as another.”

Fatima began pressuring Aman to marry her. Aman, a student, was in no position to take on a wife, and Fatima broke off the relationship.

A few years later, once the Taliban had gone, Aman was approached by a strange woman on the street. She was quite a bit older than he, perhaps 35 or more, with a plain face and a round, matronly body.

“Don’t you know me?” she smiled. Her voice gave it all away. It was Fatima.

“I was shocked,” he said. “This old woman was my former love!

"You see,” he added wistfully, “In the three years we were together, I never saw her face.”

Romeo and …  Leili?

Afghans have a taste for tragedy, not surprising, given their history. Every child knows the story of Majnoon and Leili, star-crossed lovers who met, fell in love, and were separated by family squabbles. It ends of course, in death and madness.

Aziz was a modern-day Majnoon. He and Shukria fell in love in high school. She was a flashing, dark-eyed beauty, he a brooding Heathcliff type. They were both headed for medical school when the Taliban took over their northern city. Along with music, kite-flying and photography, the Taliban put an end to female education, and Shukria was closeted at home.

But the north was much more difficult to subdue than Kabul. Aziz went on to study medicine, and became something of a renegade. He and his classmates made moonshine in the X-ray lab, had secret music parties and continued their banned but beloved pastime, gambling.

Shukria’s father also loved a good game of cards, until he lost a great deal of money one night to a very nasty man. He could not pay, so resorted to the time-honored Afghan tradition of baad — settling debts and disputes by giving away commodities like sheep, goats or girls.

Shukria became the wife of a man older than her father, and Aziz was in despair.

“I could not give her up,” he told me one night, over an illegal bottle of wine. “I arranged to meet her secretly.” The two began an affair – no more chaste looks and smiles, they became lovers. Aziz would go to her house at night, while her husband was out drinking or gambling. Under the Taliban, they would have been executed if they were caught.

For more than a year they continued their liaison dangereuse. Then Shukria vanished.

Aziz suspected that her husband had found out and murdered her. Honor killings are still frequent in Afghanistan, and are seldom punished.

He had no word for seven years. By then the Taliban had toppled, and the wonders of the modern age had come to Kabul. Aziz, who in the interim had become a doctor, learned English and turned into a computer whiz, was online late one evening when he received an e-mail from Shukria. She was in London, sans husband, and wanted to establish contact.

Yahoo became their motel room in cyberspace, and they chatted for hours. Sometimes he would arrive for work red-eyed and unshaven, having stayed up all night with his London lady love.

“So go and marry her,” I suggested. He just shook his head. “She is not for me,” was all he would say.

Perhaps the taint of scandal still clung to the pair, or perhaps Aziz had grown too comfortable with his role as tragic hero. They never saw each other again.

Childhood sweethearts

Sometimes things do work out, in an Afghan sort of way.

Rahman and Belquis were first cousins, and had grown up together. Childhood playmates, they realized when they reached puberty that they had also formed a deeper attachment.

First cousins marry all the time in Afghanistan. It cuts down on bride prices, and you know you’re marrying into a good family. Doctors warn in vain of genetic consequences, but a hefty percentage of all marriages are between relatives.

Rahman could not say that he wanted to marry Belquis – such directness in matters of the heart is frowned upon. Instead, he began to make noises that it was time to find him a wife. When, as expected, his mother suggested Belquis, he pretended reluctance, but finally agreed. That was enough to seal the deal. They were duly affianced.

Then the trouble started. As cousins, they could meet, talk, even touch, but as fiances, they were not allowed to see each other or even to correspond for the next three years. Rahman’s mother would make visits, and occasionally bring him a photo, but he could not so much as hear Belquis’s voice.

Finally, the day arrived. Afghan weddings are almost invariably segregated. The men are on one floor, the women on another. The men dance the furious atan, the women sit and chatter about children, housework, or, of course, men.

Rahman and Belquis saw each other only late that night, when the mullah came to recite the nikaa, or blessing. They kissed the Koran, sat under a veil and looked together into a mirror, where their eyes could meet for the first time in three years.

The pair are happily married, with a healthy baby boy who looks just like both of them.

Love and other disasters

A final, cautionary tale: Be careful what you wish for.

Gul Ahmad was working in his father’s fabric store in Kandahar when Fawzia came in. They began speaking. He made a bold proposition – could he see her face? So she raised her burqa, and a spark caught fire — the two were in love.

But soon after, Gul Ahmad was forced to join the Taliban — his family having been "taxed" one son for the cause. He spent several months with the group, until the American invasion set him free. He made a run for home, to marry Fawzia.

In the meantime, his father had arranged for his engagement to a cousin. He tried to refuse, but the deal had been made. His Gul Ahmad wanted Fawzia to become his second wife — Afghans by law are allowed four.

But Fawzia was heartbroken. Her family would not agree to the less prestigious second-wife position, and said no to the match. Fawzia refused to marry anyone but Gul Ahmad.

The standoff continued for more than six years. The two could not meet, but in the remarkable post-Taliban freedom, he was able to speak to her by phone, sometimes as many as 10 times a day.

Just a few months ago, Fawzia’s father finally relented, most likely because the poor girl was getting a bit long in the tooth to fetch a good bride price.

Gul Ahmad scraped together the $20,000 needed for a wedding, and he now lives with both wives in his family compound.

“This is really hard,” he said a few weeks after the wedding, shaking his head. “One wife is trouble enough.”

More Valentine’s Day dispatches:

BeNeLux: Is chocolate recession-proof?

Ghana: Cocoa crops threatened by disease

India: A million Romeos, a million Juliets

Italy: Beneath Juliet’s balcony

Jordan: A high price for true love

Nigeria: Love helps couple cope with HIV

Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of forbidden romance

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