Every morning she wakes up with her favorite Pashto good-morning greeting “sahar pakhair” and I respond in Dari “sobh bakhair” explains Said Noor Ahmad, who is 25 and a Pashtun from Herat province. Two years ago while a student, he met the love of his life Zahra, who is a Hazara.
Afghanistan is a mosaic of diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions and languages. There are no reliable figures of just how many Afghans today marry outside of their ethnic group, and the practice remains a taboo for many families. Said Noor Ahmad thinks that marriage between Pashtuns and Hazaras are probably the most unusual.
He and Zahra enjoy a happy marriage, but it was a challenge to achieve this. “You should have seen the initial reaction of my parents when I told them that I wanted to marry a Hazara” he explains, adding “This was a complete break from tradition and at first it seemed to be impossible – even to me.”
“But I talked to my family over a period of months to try to convince them, but also tried to understand their views on the issue. Marriage is never an easy decision and I was adding to the challenge. I suggested to my family that they should at least meet with Zahra’s parents, as they too needed convincing about our decision.”
Normally the groom’s family visits the bride’s family to make a formal marriage proposal, and this was made more difficult because they knew almost nothing about each other’s traditions. Said Noor Ahmad adds: “We had no idea how to interact – our languages were different, with my parents unable to speak more than a few sentences in Dari even though they could understand more.”
“I had a similar experience” says Zahra “My family for some reason held negative feelings towards Pashtuns so it was really difficult for them and took me weeks to get them to accept that I wanted to marry outside of our community. Our tradition is that Hazara parents do not accept a proposal at once, but play for time to see how committed the groom’s family are. This was made harder by the fact that he is from another culture.”
Despite these hurdles, after a few months Noor Ahmad and Zahra were married and moved into a house in a neighborhood where mostly Hazara people live. Noor Ahmad therefore needed to learn more about the Hazar way of life. He explains “I needed to learn about their values and sensitivities, while picking up some of their unique dialect in order to be accepted within the community.”
For both of them, marriage has been a form of cultural exchange. Zahra explains “Loving someone who is different from you in terms of ethnicity, culture, language and religious practice means you have to open your mind to your partner’s perspectives, respect each other’s differences and be tolerant.”
Noor Ahmad thinks that intermarriage should become more common among Afghans, saying “We should encourage this despite the challenges, as a way of improving relations between different ethnic groups – it has the potential in the long run to strengthen national unity.”