Our latest Notable Narrative, “A Groom’s Tale,” introduces us to Ozyr Khul, who is about to get married in Oqa, Afghanistan. Anna Badkhen, who wrote the story for Foreign Policy, has been in and out of Afghan homes since 2001, visiting and talking with residents. That experience shows in her account of a boy whose age no one knows exactly but whose parents need him as a groom in a trade of brides between families. Here, Badkhen describes him not long before his wedding:
Ozyr Khul is slight; not even 5 feet tall in his plastic flip-flops and his turquoise and fuchsia skullcap. His best friends are ages 12, 11, and 8. His favorite pastime is to fire his slingshot: at speckled desert birds, at distant rocks, at the immense blue sky. He recently got into a wrestling match with a 9-year-old girl. (He won.)
After she introduces us to Ozyr, Badkhen breaks the arc of the story to share some quotes from a human rights worker and a UNICEF report. What might normally be ill-advised narrative technique plays two important roles. It first makes clear that the reporter has not parachuted in and found an atypical case to cover – Ozyr’s story is common. Equally valuable is the space the narrative pause provides, allowing readers to breathe before contemplating the wedding and what will follow it.
Badkhen doesn’t show us the wedding itself – and we don’t need to see it. The illiterate married Ozyr’s future stretches ahead as vast and predictable as the landscape into which his town has been dropped (as if “by some absent-minded cartographer”). We are spared Ozyr’s marital interactions with his 16-year-old wife, spared the image of him trying to feed a family, and spared what lies ahead for the other couple in the bridal swap (a 17-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man). Instead, we witness something precious just before it vanishes: the last moments of Ozyr’s life as a child.