Los Angeles Times April 18, 2007
That's the beauty of it
Deborah Rodriguez wanted to help in Afghanistan. Turned out, women there
needed her skills. She chronicles her work in the book 'Kabul Beauty
By Laura King
KABUL, Afghanistan Deborah Rodriguez has an explanation, of sorts, as
to how a twice-divorced cosmetician from Michigan wound up running a beauty
academy in the most incongruous of locales: the dusty, chaotic and
blast-barricaded Afghan capital.
"Something about this place well, something about it just really brings
out the hairdresser in me," she said with a wave of her scarlet-lacquered
"The hairdresser in me" is a kind of personal shorthand for the character
traits on ready display in Rodriguez's engaging new memoir, "Kabul Beauty
School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil" curiosity, pluck, an
abiding love of dishy gossip and a warm bond of sisterhood with the women of
her adopted country.
Together with a close-knit band of former beauty-academy students, Rodriguez
presides over what is perhaps the world's only high-end hair salon that is
guarded by a gunman and heated by a sooty woodstove, with top-of-the-line
beauty products stored in a chilly metal shipping container perched atop a
mud-brick wall in the weedy yard. In the book, published this month by
Random House and co-written with Kristin Ohlson, tales of blond highlights
and Brazilian waxes blend with a portrait of a society struggling to find
its footing five years after the fall of the Taliban one in which fear and
oppression still fall most heavily on women.
In Kabul's expatriate community and beyond, the 46-year-old Rodriguez is
known as "Miss Debbie," a flamboyant figure with a waist-length waterfall of
hair in a shade of red she cheerfully describes as "one not found in
She came to Afghanistan as a volunteer aid worker months after the Sept. 11
attacks and the subsequent fall of the Taliban, uncertain whether she had
the skills to make any dent in the despair and disarray she saw around her.
Rodriguez found her niche when she made two important discoveries: that for
Afghan women, the beauty trade had been a treasured but perilous source of
underground income during the Taliban era, and that Kabul was full of
Western diplomats, journalists and aid workers who were simply desperate for
a decent haircut.
A much-needed skill
As word of her skills spread she had been working as a hairdresser since
the age of 15 Rodriguez would return to her guesthouse room to find the
door plastered with notes from foreigners pleading for an appointment. "It
was like they were searching for water in the desert!" she recalled. She
obligingly made the after-hours rounds with scissors and permanent-wave
solution in hand, improvising her way through cold water, curfews and power
At the same time, Rodriguez was meeting Afghan women and realizing how
limited were their opportunities for earning a livelihood. Due in large
measure to the traditional beliefs of their husbands and fathers, relatively
few were able to work outside the home, even once the Taliban had been
toppled. With the country having been closed off from the outside world for
years, Afghan beauticians who had previously managed to eke out a living
from "secret salons" in their homes were badly in need of training and
supplies if they wanted to launch themselves in business.
The heart of the book is Rodriguez's relationship with the women she
befriended in the beauty academy, which was originally established with
other American hairdressers and became the subject of a documentary film.
She helped some of her students found their own small salons but plucked out
the most talented ones for lucrative jobs in her Oasis salon in the center
of Kabul, which has a mainly foreign clientele and charges Western-style
prices money that is then plowed back into the beauty school. On any
working day, the salon has the intimacy of a sorority or a harem, a steamy
and sweet-smelling sanctuary in a city whose streets are patrolled by
armored vehicles and that echoes several times a day with the sound of
explosions or small-arms fire.
The stories of the women, who are given pseudonyms in the book to protect
them, are a troubling and fascinating snapshot of life in today's
Afghanistan. One's father-in-law considers her a prostitute for working as a
beautician. Another's Taliban husband beats her and confiscates her
earnings. Another was forced into marriage as a teenager with a much older
In the book's opening chapter, a description of the elaborate Afghan
pre-wedding beauty ritual is interwoven with the gradual revelation of the
bride's terror that her new husband's family will discover her secret that
she is not a virgin and kill her. Rodriguez helps the girl devise a
subterfuge to save herself.
As the salon's clients come and go, the beauticians drink tea, toy with one
another's hair and makeup, gossip freely and talk haltingly, sometimes with
piercing simplicity, of their troubles. "Only God understands my sorrows,"
one of Rodriguez's protιgιs murmured as she carefully scrutinized a
customer's eyebrows in preparation for a "threading" to remove excess hairs.
The day wore on, and peals of raucous laughter alternated with an occasional
bout of tears. Everyone joined in both.
Rodriguez can relate to the complex and difficult lives of her Afghan
co-workers, she said, in part because her own life has taken a turn she
Three years ago, after an acquaintance of just 20 days, she married an
Afghan man a decade her junior who already had a wife and children living
in exile in Saudi Arabia. Thus the book's overarching theme of women's
empowerment is shot through with descriptions of Rodriguez's struggles,
including her scalding jealousy when her Afghan husband's other wife gave
birth to another child, two years after they married.
Moreover, her husband is an aide and onetime comrade-in-arms of Abdul Rashid
Dostum, an Afghan militia leader who is now a member of the government of
President Hamid Karzai. International organizations, including Human Rights
Watch, have called for Dostum to be put on trial for war crimes a scenario
unlikely under a general amnesty recently approved by the Afghan government.
She's a fighter as is he
Rodriguez's sometimes-jocular references to her husband's colorful career
have had some unwelcome repercussions. Earlier this year, a British
newspaper ran a profile of her under the witty but wounding headline:
"Reader, she married a warlord."
"He's not a warlord," she said, her green eyes filling with tears. But she
does refer to him a "mooj" a mujahedin, a fighter. Her husband, who is
called "Sam" in the book, was with Dostum when the Northern Alliance battled
the Taliban and now advises him on foreign affairs.
"He's a warrior at heart," she said. "But then, so am I."
The book is written in much the style in which Rodriguez speaks full of
vivid descriptions and funny asides. The love story between her and "Sam,"
who spoke almost no English when they married, has some oddly charming
moments. Once, in a romantic fervor, she called him to the balcony to look
at what she thought were shooting stars. He gently informed her that they
As a novice author, Rodriguez was nervous about the book's reception. But
reviews have generally been favorable, with some predicting it is all but
tailored for massive success with book clubs. The influential Kirkus Reviews
called it "terrifically readable ... rich in personal stories."
Rodriguez, the mother of two grown sons, said she finds it hard to envision
a permanent return to the United States, though she is embarking on an
extensive book tour and will be away from the salon and the beauty school
for longer than she has been since her arrival in Afghanistan.
Even when she pokes fun at herself as an incorrigible "loudmouth," Rodriguez
says she believes she is speaking up for Afghan women in a way that they
have not been able so far to speak up for themselves. Change is coming,
she believes, but progress is painfully slow.
"Well, that's when I can finally stop talking," she said. "When their voices