February 15, 2009

Kabul Beauty School

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson
Nonfiction - Memoir
Copyright 2007 Random House
Finished on 2/8/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Product Description

Soon after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid to this war-torn nation. Surrounded by men and women whose skills–as doctors, nurses, and therapists–seemed eminently more practical than her own, Rodriguez, a hairdresser and mother of two from Michigan, despaired of being of any real use. Yet she soon found she had a gift for befriending Afghans, and once her profession became known she was eagerly sought out by Westerners desperate for a good haircut and by Afghan women, who have a long and proud tradition of running their own beauty salons. Thus an idea was born.

With the help of corporate and international sponsors, the Kabul Beauty School welcomed its first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez stumbled through language barriers, overstepped cultural customs, and constantly juggled the challenges of a postwar nation even as she learned how to empower her students to become their families’ breadwinners by learning the fundamentals of coloring techniques, haircutting, and makeup.

Yet within the small haven of the beauty school, the line between teacher and student quickly blurred as these vibrant women shared with Rodriguez their stories and their hearts: the newlywed who faked her virginity on her wedding night, the twelve-year-old bride sold into marriage to pay her family’s debts, the Taliban member’s wife who pursued her training despite her husband’s constant beatings. Through these and other stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style.

With warmth and humor, Rodriguez details the lushness of a seemingly desolate region and reveals the magnificence behind the burqa. Kabul Beauty School is a remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom.

Kabul Beauty School was chosen by my book club for our February selection. I'm not sure why, but I was prepared to not particularly enjoy this memoir. Maybe I'm burned out on Afghanistan stories. I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, yet The Swallows of Kabul and Three Cups of Tea were huge disappointments. When one of my book club members mentioned that Kabul Beauty School read a bit like The Namesake, with its lack of narrative tension or arc, I was worried that I'd be bored with this selection and would struggle to finish. Boy, was I wrong!

Deborah Rodriguez's intimate story of her experiences (and ultimately marriage) and life in Kabul drew me in from the opening pages. Unlike the challenge of reading Three Cups of Tea, I was mesmerized by the details of this story, never once counting the remaining pages, never once having to assign myself a specific number of pages in order to finish the book before our meeting. I devoured the book in less than two days!

Well aware of the harsh discrimination against women by the Taliban, I was still shocked and angry by the rules and barriers Afghan women continue to face in this part of the world. Debbie Rodriguez has helped create an opportunity for many women, regardless of their marital status. They are able to utilize the skills they've learned at the Kabul Beauty School to open their own salons, ultimately providing financial assistance to their families or themselves.

On Kabul...

From the moment that I met Roshanna during my first visit to Kabul in the spring of 2002, the first spring after the rout of the Taliban, I puzzled over the sadness in her. Why did I respond so strongly to her sadness when there are millions of sad stories in Kabul? It's a city that's dense with sadness. There are so many people who lost loved ones in the twenty-seven years of war in Afghanistan, who have lost homes and livelihoods, who have lost entire towns and families, who have lost every dream they ever had. And there is still the occasional bombing or surprise mine explosion that rips away the happiness people finally think might be theirs. So why did Roshanna stand out amid all that sadness. I think it was her gaiety, her warmth and exuberance, her colorful clothes and bright smile. She was trying so hard to be happy that it hurt me when her sadness showed.

On marriage...

To keep Roshanna safe, her parents did what many Afghan families did at this time. They searched frantically for a suitable husband among members of their tribe, hoping to marry her off to a good man before the Taliban found out that she was available. They thought they had succeeded when they heard that there was a single male cousin living in Germany. It was a buyers' market for grooms in those days. The girls' families couldn't afford to dicker over dowries, dresses, and gold rings with the Taliban circling like wolves. So an agreement was quickly reached, with only a very small dowry. Because the families wanted the union to take place as soon as possible, the groom came back to Afghanistan for the engagement party right away. And because the actual wedding would take place in Germany months later, they signed the nika-khat that same night.

The nika-khat is the marriage contract drawn up according to Islamic law. This contract, more than the wedding itself, is what makes a couple legal husband and wife. In ordinary times, the nika-khat is signed well after the engagement party to give the groom's family time to put together their resources for the dowry, the clothes, the wedding, and so on. Roshanna's family took the less ordinary step of allowing her to become this man's legal wife before the wedding by signing the nika-khat at the engagement party. His family had insisted upon it, so that she couldn't change her mind about marrying him after he went back to Germany. And everyone agreed that it would be easier for her to emigrate if she was already his legal wife. But within days her new husband left&#8212without a word, without reason, and without her. She was crushed and humiliated, but it only got worse. Two weeks later, she was told the cousin had divorced her when he got back to Germany.

From the Kabul Beauty School website:

The mission of the Kabul Beauty School was to provide women in Afghanistan with access to a comprehensive vocational training program. The program taught women the skills needed to work in an array of beauty-related businesses: salons, distributorships, bookkeeping, beauty education, wellness program, birth spacing, basic nutrition, literacy program including reading and writing in both English and Dari. Graduates of the program have learned the skills needed to create a substantial, self-sustainable future for themselves and their families.

We believe in helping Afghan women build a bridge from where they are now to where they want to go. The beauty industry provides an income for millions of people throughout the world and Afghanistan should be no exception.

The Beauty School project objectives are to:

1. Maintain a beauty school in Afghanistan with a culturally appropriate, hands-on training curriculum that provides beauty and business training for Afghan women.

2. Provide post-graduate support to graduates to operate their own businesses.

3. Develop a cadre of trained Afghan beauticians who can replicate the training program around the country.

As with A Thousand Splendid Suns, upon finishing this book, I felt sadness for the harsh and restrictive lives of the women in Afghanistan; I remain ever so thankful that I was born into a culture in which the extent of my rights as a human being are not determined by my gender.

I'm anxious for my book club meeting later this month. I suspect the discussion will be quite lively and I'm looking forward to persuing topics such as ethnocentrisism and women's rights in the Middle East, as well as the author's arranged marriage to her Afghan husband.

I'm also interested in reading up on some of the controversy surrounding the author and the school. You can find detailed information about this here (New York Times), here (NPR, with a powerful audio report), and here.

To read about potential strife in Rodriguez's marriage, go here.

To learn more about the Kabul Beauty School/Oasis Rescue Home, go here.

To listen to the author speak about the book and her life in Afghanistan, go here.

I discovered a marvelous photo blog on Aminus3, which has some fabulous photographs of the people and landscape of Kabul. You can find it here. Enjoy!


  1. Sounds like a powerful book. I haven't read it yet for the same reason you gave - I've read so many books set in Afghanistan already Unlike you, I really liked the Swallows of Kabul.

    It will be fun to hear about your book group discussion. Hope you'll tell us about it.

  2. I was curious about this book but like you I was a bit hesitant to read another Afghanistan story. Sometimes you just get a bit overwhelmed you know... Anyway, this sounds very good and it's on my list. Hope it's a hit with the book group!

  3. I am the opposite--and have read no books set in Afghanistan so when I read Kabul beauty school, I delved into it with no dread. It gripped me from the first page, and even though the author' story is a bit controversial, I have no doubt that much of what she wrote is true--especially concerning the lives of the Afghan women. I am so thankful to live in America! I bet your book club will have an interesting discussion surrounding this book!

  4. I really want to read this book! I have had it on my wish list since it came out. Maybe once I get the pile down a little bit I will justify getting it to myself!

  5. Anonymous8:02 PM

    Les, you wrote a really good review of this book. The controversy over it was a big topic for discussion when my book group read it last year. I was kind of on the fence about it personally. Most everyone else in my book group was passionately on one side or the other. We had a great discussion. :-)

    P.S. I just finished IN THE WOODS. Wow. I'm trying to decide whether to pick up THE LIKENESS right away or put another couple of books in between.

  6. Booklogged - I'll try to post a follow-up after Monday's meeting. I have a feeling it will be one of our better discussions!

    Iliana - I think it's due to my love of memoirs that this was such a hit. But now I'm finished with Afghanistan -- at least for a while yet!

    Kim - Isn't it a gripping tale? If you haven't read A Thousand Splendid Suns, I highly recommend it - even more so than The Kite Runner.

    Kailana - I'd send you my copy, but I borrowed it from the library. :) It's definitely worth reading. Not sure if it's something I'd want to own though, as I doubt I'll read it again.

    Kay - Thank you!! I'm not sure if a lot of my book club members will know about the controversy, but I'll bring it up at the meeting. I have a couple of articles to share, as well. Should be a good discussion. :)

    I can't wait to hear your thoughts on In the Woods. I've just started The Likeness and am loving it!!

  7. Her attitude in this book stroke me as rather patronizing -- I didn't like her as a person. The book was interesting though.

  8. Katya - I have to agree. I think she was a bit patronizing. I didn't feel that way, though, while reading the book, but upon reading some of the controversial info and listening to her at a reading after I finished the book.

  9. I don't know what's going on with my spelling lately -- of course I meant "struck me as patronizing" not "stroke"! I promise I do proofread my comments -- I don't know why I didn't catch that.

    Almost from the very beginning, I thought that about her but I cannot really say why. I've never heard her read anything -- I have read about some of the controversies though.

  10. Anonymous7:42 PM

    I'm glad to hear this was such a readable book. I have to admit that I gave up on Three Cups of Tea about halfway through. Have you read The Bookseller of Kabul?

  11. I'm burned out on Afghanistan stories, too. I think my wick was smoking long before yours extinguished, however. I could barely finish Thousand Splendid Suns, and I didn't even want to pick up the others. I saw this at Borders, and was somewhat tempted, but found the strength to move on. Of all my appreciation for other cultures, I have to work hard to develop an understanding for the Middle Eastern mindset.

    While persuing Borders I saw so many current books that you, and other current book bloggers, have read and reviewed. It makes me feel a little dusty. Here I am, with War and Peace, or some Dickensian tattered copy... ;)

  12. Katya - I knew what you meant to type! :)

    I think her ghost writer did a nice job polishing the story. Listening to Rodriguez read and discuss the book was interesting. She sounded like a young teenager or college-age girl, sprinkling her sentences with "like" and "he goes" and "she goes" (instead of "he/she said"). An annoying verbal tick that surprised me.

    Lesley - No, I haven't read The Bookseller of Kabul, but I'm curious about it. Have you? Did you enjoy it?

    Bellezza - It's certainly a challenge to not judge the culture, especially when it comes to women's rights (and those of young girls!).

    I've only just recently started reading a lot of the current books that are published. Partly because of all the ARCs I receive and partly because I like being able to discuss them with customers. I do plan to go back through my TBR stacks, though, and pick a few books that have been languishing for a few years. I know they were purchased for a reason!

  13. This sounds really good! I've been reading a lot of contemporary fiction the past few months and need a change...more nonfiction and classics may be on my reading horizon.

  14. JoAnn - I think this might be just the ticket for you, if you're looking for something a bit different from all the contemporary fiction you've been reading. It's so readable that the pages just fly.


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