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Afghan Lovers So Close, Yet So Far Apart

Dating is difficult. One pair watched each other a year, then declared their devotion. As often happens, her parents saw things differently.

November 26, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan -- All that Mohammed Abrahim has left of his long-loved sweetheart is a crackly old tape of her voice, a photograph and a couple of her handkerchiefs to soak up his tears.

He lives on the third floor in the Qasaba area, on the edge of Kabul. Nazifa lived on the first floor -- until her father sent her far away last month to cure a forbidden virus called love.

His mother tried to negotiate the couple's marriage, but Nazifa's parents arranged for her to wed someone else. That engagement was broken because Nazifa, who like many Afghans goes by one name, is in love with Abrahim. Still, her father has declared that the lovers will never marry.

Abrahim's hope is not completely dead. But as he sits with head bowed, shyly murmuring the story of his love, tears slip down his cheeks.

After the strict Islamic Taliban movement was driven from power last year, Kabul, the Afghan capital, seemed poised for a more liberal era when young men and women could mix more freely together. The ban on girls and women attending schools was lifted, and arrests of unrelated couples simply for walking or talking together in public eased.

But the tradition of arranged marriages quickly snapped back into place. Private meetings between young men and women are still forbidden in Afghan society. Couples who elope can be arrested and jailed. And marriage for love remains rare.

Lovers who defy the social rules and meet in secret risk heartbreak when their parents marry them off to someone else.

Love in Afghanistan can also be a dangerous business. Farid Kharote, 23, also of Qasaba, had a girlfriend who was engaged by her parents to another man. One evening last month, Kharote hurried to her apartment for a secret assignation. A dozen men ambushed him and beat him savagely. He was hospitalized for three days, after which his love was diluted by a strong sense of self-preservation. He fled the country.

Abrahim and Nazifa, both about 20, met on the stairs of their apartment block five years ago.

"She told me she'd been watching me for a whole year," Abrahim said. "I was shaking and sweating. I told her, 'I love you too.' "

For five years, he followed her with his eyes whenever she hurried, head down in her burka, across the stony ground near their block. He had no difficulty distinguishing her from other girls shrouded in the head-to-toe garment.

"She is polite. Her eyes are almond-shaped and black," he said. "She is very small. She's beautiful."

Her former fiance lives in Iran. When Nazifa and Abrahim kept seeing each other after her engagement, neighbors talked.

The couple would meet on the stairs; there was nowhere else to go. There they quickly kissed, the moment all the more piquant because of their terror they would be caught.

"I was afraid that if someone knew about our love and saw us kissing, maybe they would tell her father or brother or the man she was engaged to and maybe they would try to kill me or her," Abrahim said.

Alarmed about the gossip, the groom's family requested a special ceremony this summer called neka -- which is as binding as a wedding, though the groom is absent. A huge dagger was placed beside Nazifa to symbolize the man. His family planned to move her to their house to live and work.

Abrahim awoke that day in a dark mood. "I thought, 'I can't get her. And if I can't get her, I don't need my life.' "

But the next day, moping on the stairs near her door, he saw engagement presents being returned from Nazifa's family to her fiance's family.

Later he learned of Nazifa's courage. With a mullah and 100 relatives present for the ceremony, she was supposed to repeat solemnly three times that she loved her fiance. She said nothing. The mullah declared that the wedding could not go ahead, and the party ended in recriminations.

From then on the lovers would sit on their balconies each night for hours, he looking down at her, she gazing back. They invented a complex system of gestures to convey their thoughts.

But that was in September, before her father sent her away to the distant city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

Their love is full of sorrow and pain. But for many young Kabul residents, love in this post-Taliban time is more of an exquisite game. Some young men and women ring phone numbers randomly for hours each day, then engage in long, giggly phone conversations when they find a willing partner.

One handsome 18-year-old, Fahim, who asked that his second name be withheld to avoid damaging his chances of marrying the young woman he loves, sat in a house in Kabul, phone-flirting with a girl named Maryam, who was so paralyzed with shy laughter it was difficult to get much sense out of her.

He was trying to set up a meeting.

"When I meet her, I'll continue my friendship -- if she's beautiful. If not, I'll just cut it," he said after hanging up, the meeting not quite arranged.

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