The New York Times had a story from Afghanistan a couple days ago that should make even the most optimist nation-builder give up on the place. It's just too foreign to succumb to our Three Cups of Tea blandishments.
The story is a standard Romeo and Juliet tale, except it happened in Herat rather than Verona, and it has a couple of plot twists that Shakespeare couldn't have imagined.
In Afghanistan, Rage at Young Lovers:
HERAT, Afghanistan — The two teenagers met inside an ice cream factory through darting glances before roll call, murmured hellos as supervisors looked away and, finally, a phone number folded up and tossed discreetly onto the workroom floor.
It was the beginning of an Afghan love story that flouted dominant traditions of arranged marriages and close family scrutiny, a romance between two teenagers of different ethnicities that tested a village’s tolerance for more modern whims of the heart. The results were delivered with brutal speed.
This month, a group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, yanked them into the road and began to interrogate the boy and girl. Why were they together? What right had they? An angry crowd of 300 surged around them, calling them adulterers and demanding that they be stoned to death or hanged.
When security forces swooped in and rescued the couple, the mob’s anger exploded. They overwhelmed the local police, set fire to cars and stormed a police station six miles from the center of Herat, raising questions about the strength of law in a corner of western Afghanistan and in one of the first cities that has made the formal transition to Afghan-led security.
-- snip --
Ms. Mohammedi’s uncle visited her in jail to say she had shamed the family, and promised that they would kill her once she was released. Her father, an illiterate laborer who works in Iran, sorrowfully concurred. He cried during two visits to the jail, saying almost nothing to his daughter. Blood, he said, was perhaps the only way out.
“What we would ask is that the government should kill both of them,” said the father, Kher Mohammed.
-- snip --
The case has resonated in Herat, in part because it stirred memories of a brutal stoning ordered by the Taliban last summer in northern Afghanistan.
A young couple in Kunduz was stoned to death by scores of people — including family members — after they eloped. The stoning marked a brutal application of Shariah law, captured on a video recording released online months later. Afghan officials promised to investigate after an international outcry, but no one has faced criminal charges.
The NYT makes the point that the legal system in Herat, and officialdom there generally, is treating the star crossed lovers pretty leniently. Even the clergy is not the problem, since "top clerics" have not condemned them. Rather, it's the Capulets and the Montegues themselves - well, the Tajiks and the Hazaras, but you have to dig down to paragraph 21 of 30 before the story reveals the identities of the parties - who want to kill their own children.
Suraya Pakzad [director of Voices of Women Organization, which operates the only women’s shelter in the Herat province] said most of the women and girls in the shelters of western Afghanistan had fled forced or abusive marriages, or had been ostracized from their communities for dating young men without their families’ approval. Male relatives often punish such transgressions with beatings or death.
But in separate interviews at the juvenile jail, Ms. Mohammedi and Mr. Mohammed said they had not worried about such things.
He did not think about the rage that would erupt if a young Tajik man picked up a Hazara girl in a neighborhood dominated by conservative Hazaras, members of one of Afghanistan’s many ethnic minorities. “It’s the heart,” Mr. Mohammed said. “When you love somebody, you don’t ask who she is or what she is. You just go for it.”
-- snip --
They now spend the days at opposite ends of the same juvenile jail, out of each other’s sight. Mr. Mohammed nurses the wounds still visible in his swollen face and blood-laced eyes, and Ms. Mohammedi has been going to classes and learning to tailor clothes.
Both say they want to be together, but there are complications. Family members of the man killed in the riot sent word to Ms. Mohammedi that she bears the blame for his death. But they offered her an out: Marry one of their other sons, and her debt would be paid.
Even assuming that nation-building is possible in a multinational state like Afghanistan, which I don't, it would still not change the deep cultural beliefs and practices that are on display here.
Romeo and Juliet always die in the end, which is the point of the play.
"These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume." - Romeo and Juliet, 2.3