"Are you excited about the wedding, Ozyr Khul?" "Do you like your bride, Ozyr Khul?" "Ozyr Khul! Ozyr Khul is getting married!"
Embarrassed, Ozyr Khul blushes and runs off. He runs from questions about his wedding, from the pestering adults and from the taunting children. Mostly, he runs because that's what boys do in his tiny, arid village: They run, alone and in flocks, dashing about like hosts of sparrows, dirty heels flashing over the hard-packed soil, slingshots in hand.
Ozyr Khul's exact age is a matter of some dispute in Oqa, a waterless hamlet prostrate in the middle of the desert of northern Balkh province, without a single tree or field, as though accidentally placed here by some absent-minded cartographer. He doesn't know how old he is; one of his friends says he might be 13; another suggests 15. His parents swear he is 16, the legal marrying age in Afghanistan.
"I know he looks small, but I know he's old enough because he goes to the desert every day to collect firewood," an uncle says. But in Oqa, all boys older than 10 go to the desert every day to collect tumbleweed they sell as kindling in larger villages.
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.)
Child marriage in Afghanistan is pandemic. "In the villages people believe very strongly that the earlier you marry the better: This way your children are old enough to help you with work while you are still young," says Farid Mutaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e-Sharif. The U.N. agency that monitors the rights of children worldwide, UNICEF, reports that 57 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age limit. Afghan and international nonprofits consider the problem of child brides to be one of the foremost threats to women's rights here.
What is addressed less often, and studied less thoroughly, is that many of the child newlyweds are boys.
Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged by the parents and are a form of a calculated financial exchange between families that focuses on the merger of two estates rather than the union of two people. Such marriages rarely take into consideration the wishes of the bride or the groom.
On top of being arranged, as all marriages in Oqa ever have been, Ozyr Khul's marriage is a badaal, or bridal swap -- a common practice in poor Afghan villages where families cannot afford a bride price that can be as high as $9,000. In a badaal marriage, two men, usually cousins, marry each other's sisters. This lowers the bride price significantly, though some money usually still is exchanged, thus ensuring that the inheritance of both women -- or girls -- remains within the family.
The union of Ozyr Khul and Anamingli, who is 16 years old, parallels the marriage of Anamingli's brother, Naim, to Ozyr Khul's sister, Mastura. Naim is 40 years old. He was betrothed to Mastura three years ago, when Mastura was 14, and has already paid her family more than $1,000 for the bride. This month, Mastura's parents finally agreed that it was time to consummate the marriage.
Ozyr Khul and a dozen other kids run through Oqa. Spotting a visitor, the kids push the boy forward, like a curio, or a sacrificial offering. They chant a nursery rhyme to tease the groom:
Eagle, eagle, there is no hen here,
But there is a hen in another house.
Ozyr Khul does not know how to count, read, or write. He has no trade other than foraging for tumbleweed with his camel. If he ever had a chance of breaking out of the grip of poverty that suffocates his village, which has received not a cent of the billions of international aid dollars pumped into Afghanistan in the last decade, it is gone now that he has a family to support. The marriage cements his life in Oqa, a life that will mirror the lives of the town's men for generations: of scantly paid toil in the desert, of children perpetually sick for want of clean water or doctors, of an opium pipe at the end of the day to take his mind off his hardship.
"Ozyr Khul!" an older man calls out. "When you are alone with your wife for the first time, what will you do?"
Ozyr Khul breaks free from his tormentors, and flees.
The wedding day arrives.
By seven in the morning the desert is aglitter with women sashaying in their holiday embroidery like some displaced mermaids past piles of donkey droppings and bellowing camels. The women congregate inside and around Ozyr Khul's honeymoon suite, a single-room, doorless house hand-slapped out of clay and straw. It is spiffed up for the occasion: Tin garlands and headscarves hang from a temporary ceiling fashioned from a sheet of dark-green cloth, concealing the dusty thatch roof. A pillow-sized papier-mâché heart at the western wall of the room marks the spot where the newlyweds will later lie together atop a narrow tick mattress. The colored reflections of the women's dresses rebate off the clay walls like strobe lights at a disco.
Anamingli, Ozyr Khul's bride, in a pinkish shaft embellished with silver beads and tiny flecks of foil, seems grown up enough in the corner of the room. She nods at the visitors gravely. She is taller than her husband-to-be, her face already lined with desert hardship. Vines of henna flowers trail up her wrists; her lipstick is blood red.
Ozyr Khul is somewhere outside. He is wearing the same plastic flip-flops, the same bright skullcap, the same pale salwar kameez as he has all week. Flanked by several other boys, he darts about the village, peeking into other people's yards and chasing birds.
"Ozyr Khul!" a wedding guest calls. "Are you happy you are getting married today?"
Without a word, the boy runs off.
At the eastern end of the village, a cook brought in for the occasion from a larger village stirs a giant vat of veal palau with a shovel. When the wedding lunch is ready, Oqa's elders stand around the vat and open their palms to the heavens, blessing the food, the day, and the wedding. The cook shovels the palau onto trays. The men eat separately from the women. Someone has managed to corral Ozyr Khul inside one of the houses, where he sits with the younger crowd. On a straw mat outside, men make crude comments about his age.
"The boy is very young," says one guest, sucking marrow out of a bone. "He won't know what to do with the bride. He may just end up smelling her, that's all."
"Nowadays, they grow up so quickly," says another, swapping at wasps. "I'm sure he knows everything there's to know already."
Half a village away, the women blast folk tunes from an ancient, battery-operated radio and accompany the music on several large goatskin tambourines. The syncopated, forward-moving rhythm of the songs toll across the village like a countdown, propelling the sun across the sky from east to west, changing morning to night, boys to men.