Kabul Survival Guide – June 9, 2007
Book Review: The Kabul Beauty School - The Art of Friendship and
Freedom, by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson
A work of non-fiction Deborah Rodriguez's book could almost be fictional. Only that it isn't. It's a story about determination, challenge, love and heartache. It is the story of an American woman who catapulted herself from Holland, Michigan to Kabul, Afghanistan.
A maverick by nature, Rodriguez came to Afghanistan in 2002, with an American non-governmental organization (NGO) trained in emergencies. Also gregarious by nature, Rodriguez very early on turned her attention to befriending Afghans who spoke some English. Her checkered background in multitasking and a rich personal life helped her in being sought after what was badly need in Kabul - hairdressing. With this, she developed a deep bond with Afghan women, who were just coming out of the tyranny of living under the Taliban. Their heart rending stories are told poignantly by Rodriguez throughout the book.
I lived in Kabul for a month in 2004 and for four months in 2006. I also went o Rodriguez's beauty parlour, Oasis, in April 2006, with a friend. It took us forever to find it, as houses have no names or numbers in Kabul (security reasons). I called her four times on her cell phone to get to the right place. I waited while my friend got a haircut, was served tea, and got a chance to observe my surroundings. She had a presence and charisma that was hard to miss. Her energy was infectious. When Rodriguez took a cigarette break, she told us parts of her story, all in the book.
I first read about The Kabul Beauty School in an opinion piece posted in the Kabul Guide e-list I subscribe to, a few months ago. It talked about how some people that worked with Rodriguez in starting the Beauty School felt they did not get the credit they deserved in the book. And, that in the beginning of the book (enjoyable and shocking to me) is a piece about Rodriguez helping an Afghan bride fake her virginity on her wedding night by providing her with a blood stained handkerchief. Shouldn't this be the mother's role, questioned the author of the article? I smiled as I read this.
There were so many roles for women (just as there are for men) in Afghanistan that it could get tiring. Except, there are more restrictions for women. In most traditional societies in transition to modernity, these roles are shifting. Yet, both Afghans and non Afghans have a hard time with this. What to cling to, what to let go? What to support, what to oppose? However, Rodriguez had little patience with all this questioning. With a fierce determination she dealt with men and women, ministries, bureaucracies, hoodlums, louts, children and older people. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and was not afraid to show her emotions – be it anger, frustration, love or appreciation. She was certainly not a coward.
She did some pretty unconventional things. Most of all, she married an Afghan, and became his second wife. The first wife, with her seven children, lived in Saudi Arabia. He supported her in many things and said no when he couldn't. While Rodriguez did a lot to blend in, she also held on dearly to what she believed in, from her upbringing.
Rodriguez weaves the book around her own story and those of the women she comes across in Afghanistan. Choosing to focus on setting up a beauty school, she opted to work with women most of the time. She loved them, got cross with them, and yelled at them. She cried with them, danced with them and got involved in their most intimate stories – from violence to sex. Raised in a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed in the constitution, Rodriguez was often outraged about what she discovered and experienced in Afghanistan. This is understandable. But, slowly she learned and adapted, often at a high cost to herself and others around her. However, that is the nature of life and work as an expatriate in Afghanistan or any other post conflict country. I myself made some mistakes in dealing with the Afghans I worked and interacted with. I too experienced all the emotions Rodriguez did.
Rodriguez ends her book in May 2006, just after riots and curfews in Kabul. I was also there. The women who have studied and graduated from her beauty school have gone their various paths – some to new lives and others back to the old ones (but as changed and economically independent persons, with a skill). Rodriguez's experience in Afghanistan transformed her life and the women around her. Her book is deeply personal and gives a pretty accurate picture of what goes on in today's Afghanistan.
There are whisperings (quietly and openly) that Rodriguez has betrayed and endangered the women of the beauty school – that they could be targeted by conservative elements. Also, about her going back on her promises of getting them out of the country to safe and greener pastures. And, was she going to share the profits of her book with the women whose stories she told?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the reality of Afghan woman can be changed by themselves -with some help from the Debbie Rodriguez' of the world. Just like development aid and expatriate technical assistance and expertise, it is only a helping hand to the Afghans. And, all this will take time. Decades of oppression from inside and outside Afghanistan, have left a deep impression on Afghan women and men, in separate ways. They suffered collectively and differently, each to their own, in their own way. I too, heard many of these stories.
Rodriguez offered freedom and friendship, within the confines of Afghan society. More than that she could not do, and no outsider can. The book rings true, reads well, and is highly descriptive of a country and people Rodriguez was privileged to be part of. And, that, no one can take away from her. Just like no one can take away from the Afghan women what they got from Rodriquez.