From the moment that I met Roshanna during my first visit to Kabul in the spring of 2002, the first spring after the rout of the Taliban, I puzzled over the sadness in her. Why did I respond so strongly to her sadness when there are millions of sad stories in Kabul? Its a city thats dense with sadness. There are so many people who lost loved ones in the twenty-seven years of war in Afghanistan, who have lost homes and livelihoods, who have lost entire towns and families, who have lost every dream they ever had. And there is still the occasional bombing or surprise mine explosion that rips away the happiness people finally think might be theirs. So why did Roshanna stand out amid all that sadness? I think it was her gaiety, her warmth and exuberance, her colorful clothes and bright smile. She was trying so hard to be happy that it hurt me when her sadness showed.
It had taken a few weeks for her to tell me her story. I had noticed that she seemed to light up when a certain young man came into the building where she was a secretary and I was a volunteer with a nonprofit organization. At first, I thought she might be sad because he wasnt interested in her, but then I thought I saw the same light in his face when he caught sight of her from across the room. I started to tease her about it.
Got a boyfriend? Id whisper, and shed blush and turn away.
We dont marry for love here, she told me after I had teased her a few times. I have to marry the man my parents pick.
I knew that Roshanna and the boy couldnt admit their feelings or be obvious about themthey couldnt do a damn thing about them, in fact, because there isnt any dating in Kabul. But I thought that maybe his mother could talk to her mother and a match could be made that began with love. My mind started to race ahead with the possibilities. Which I mentioned to her one day, but she pulled me into a dark hallway.
It cant happen, Debbie, she said, her eyes glistening in the faint light. I was engaged once to someone else. This boys parents would never let him marry me.
I slumped against the wall. Why is it a problem if you were engaged before? Arent you allowed to change your mind?
You dont understand, she insisted. We signed the nika-khat at the engagement party.
This other, almost-marriage had taken place when the Taliban were still in power. Her family was living the miserable life of refugees in a camp just over the border in Pakistan. Roshanna was then sixteen years old and so bright that shed actually found opportunities to get ahead in the camp. She learned English and some computer skills, and then found a job as a secretary with an international aid agency. She often had to cross back into Afghanistanaccompanied by her father, of courseto do some work for the agency.
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