KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The young poet sat in the barber’s chair, facing a giant mirror on the wall that he could not see.
The poet was Zaheer Ahmad Zindani, and this was the eve of his wedding day. The war in Afghanistan had taken many things from him: his eyes, his father, his sister, his first love. But he had a chance at a new beginning, preparing to marry a woman his mother had worked tirelessly to find.
“Make it so no matter which of the four directions I comb, it looks good,” Zindani told the barber.
The narrow alleys and matchbox houses in his neighborhood of Kandahar city, in southern Afghanistan, were dark. Electricity had been patchy since the Taliban blew up a cable that fed power to the city. Despite that, he was busy entertaining relatives.
Leading the celebrations for the big day last month was his mother, Bibi Sediqa, the anchor of a family devastated at every turn, drawing on all her strength to keep it together and hopeful. Late into the evening, she and a group of women took Zindani to the bride’s for a traditional henna party where the couple painted little full moons in each other’s palms. The next evening, she was in the front seat of the car that brought the bride to her new home.
“This was my first real happiness in life,” Sediqa said after the wedding.
In a deeply conservative and patriarchal society in which many women are kept out of the public eye, even Sediqa, who is the main breadwinner for her family, did not want to be pictured for this article and was reluctant to be interviewed.
She said she married at 14. In the early years of the U.S. invasion, a U.S. airstrike killed her husband in their home district of Gereshk, in Helmand. She was 26 and left with three young daughters and two sons. Zaheer was 7.
Relocating to Chaman, a border area with Pakistan, she cooked for and cleaned Pakistani homes to feed her children. Her young boys each worked for small change as a mechanic’s apprentice inside Afghanistan. Zaheer was in love with a childhood friend, their teenage romance blossoming with gift exchanges and sneaky dates.
Then, another tragedy. As Zaheer, 17, and a younger sister were traveling to visit relatives in western Herat province, their bus hit a Taliban roadside bomb. She burned to death; Zaheer was left blind. Sediqa rushed him to hospital after hospital — in Kabul, in the Pakistani city of Karachi, and even in India years later when she had saved enough.
“They said the nerve endings in the eyes are finished,” Sediqa said.
Sediqa moved the family to Kandahar city. For a couple years, she became a polio vaccinator, going door to door. At night she took classes, resuming an education that had been disrupted when she was in third grade.
These days, Sediqa has a day job as a literacy instructor, traveling to villages to teach adults how to read and write. She continues her own education at night. (Just before the wedding, she completed her 11th-grade exams.) When Zindani returned home from a grueling and poignant peace march against violence that captured the country’s attention, he and his younger brother sold blocks of ice.
Zindani’s urge to get married, and urgently, was as much out of a hurt. The family of his teenage love rejected him after his eyes were blinded, marrying the girl to someone else. He was determined to prove that blindness was not the end.
But persuading any family to marry their daughter to a blind man was tough work, and it fell on Sediqa. She knocked on as many as 18 doors, Zindani said.
“They would all say, ‘We would happily agree if he hadn’t been blind,’ ” Zindani recalled. “My mother would say, ‘His eyes will be fixed.’ They would say, ‘Come back when they are fixed.’ ”
Sediqa actually had not given up hope that her son’s eyes would be fixed, going so far as to sell jewelry, borrow money and fly to Kabul to pay for a solution that turned out to be a scam.
During her vaccination work, Sediqa met Sima, a woman in her early 20s who was teaching children Quranic studies at her home. Sediqa would go to the class to give the children polio drops. She grew to like Sima and started talking to Sima’s family. After more than a dozen trips to visit them over a year, Sima’s parents said yes.
Zindani’s disability was not much of an issue, they said, as long as he had good character and proved he could take care of a new family. Zindani’s assurance: He possessed a disability benefits card, and his family owned a lot of land back in their village in Gereshk. Once the Taliban were gone, they could make use of that land again.
Sima’s parents said she had consented. But before a final nod, Sima’s mother and sister came over to Zindani’s home for one last conversation with the future groom.
“They wanted to make sure I would be nice to their daughter, that I would respect her rights, that I wouldn’t be abusive,” Zindani said. “Both my mother and I told them since I am disabled and they are being generous with me, I will treat her as my crown.”
On the wedding day, a small convoy of cars set off from Zindani’s home to the bride’s, snaking through Kandahar’s streets as an excited 14-year-old drummer provided a soundtrack from the back of a three-wheeler.
Zindani seemed happy and excited, too. He said that what remained of his previous love, and the heartbreak of it, was now largely limited to poetic inspiration. He recited one of his latest verses:
I came to this alley to ask about my love I wander in ruins; I hoped she hears my sigh.
He said that he was stuck with images of his life before he went blind, as he is unable to visualize people he has met only after the bombing.
“Love with open eyes — when you have fallen in love with someone you have seen — is different with that of closed eyes,” Zindani said. “When you can’t see the person, the thirst is not fulfilled the same.”
At Sima’s house, the men were led to the veranda of an open-air mosque and the women into her home. The men sipped orange soda as the sun set while the women’s voices, singing to a simple hand drum called a daf, echoed through the neighborhood. The ceremony ended in about an hour, with a prayer by a local imam who wished the newlyweds eternal love — “the kind between the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Khadija.”
As the bride made her way out of her parents’ home and into the car adorned in flowers, Zindani’s friends danced in celebration in front of it. The young drummer played a simple rhythmic beat in the dim light of the moon.
When the convoy returned to Zindani’s house with the bride, the women, still singing and playing their daf, took her inside to her throne where the party would continue into the night. Zindani stayed outside, in the dark alley, as his friends continued to dance.
One friend spun and spun and spun, until the young drummer’s hands tired and he signaled its end.
“I wish I could see it,” Zindani said. “But my heart is happy.”