Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Posted by Simcha 3:44 AM, under | 4 comments

Wow, that a fantastic book!

In The Kabul Beauty School Deborah Rodrigues shares her memories of her time in Afghanistan, from her first visit with the Care for all Foundation (CFAF) to her decision to return as a beauty school instructor.

Deborah Rodrigues was a hair dresser from Michigan with two sons and an abusive husband. Needing an escape from her troubled marriage, Deborah signed up for disaster relief training given by the CFAF. A year later Deborah convinced the CFAF to include her on a team that they were sending to Afghanistan to help the locals recover after the fall of the Taliban.

While at first Deborah felt out of place, being the only member of the team without a medical background, she soon discovered that her services as a hairdresser were just as welcome. Hair salons had been banned by the Taliban and were now mostly out of business or were run by women with very little experience. Deborah quickly realized that she could make a big difference in the lives of Afghan women by passing on to them her skills as a hair dresser so that they could have a means of supporting themselves and their families. Fueled by this vision, Deborah went ahead and managed to put together just such a school, changing for better the lives of the many Afghan women who graduated from there.

Deborah’s recollections of her time in Afghanistan and the stories of the women whom she befriended there had me glued to this book, from start to finish. The book is narrated in a friendly and easy style that made me feel as if Deborah were a friend with whom I was sharing a cup of coffee with while catching up on each others lives.

The book opens up with the wedding-day preparations at the salon for one Deborah’s Afghan friends. While the bride’s friends and family flutter around her excitedly the bride herself is pale and anxious, looking more miserable as the day goes on. Only Deborah knows the real reason for her friend’s distress, a secret which will cause her groom to immediately reject her if he ever finds out. But in the last-minute Deborah manages to save the day and her friend’s reputation, though later she will wonder if it would have been better had she not intervened.

Many of Deborah’s stories are bittersweet in this way since these small triumphs are just a part of the bigger struggle in which these women are caught up in, as Afghan wives and daughters. It’s the main reason why Deborah opened up the salon, to give the local women a place where they could escape for a short while from the husbands and fathers who control them, while also giving them an education they could use to gains some independence.

Deborah recounts the story of one woman whose husband had become dangerous and abusive after being attacked by a group of Taliban. Using the money she made from working at the salon this woman took her husband to be treated by a special physician who was able to help bring her husband back to the caring man he used to be. Another woman used the money she made working to bribe her husband’s first wife to divorce her so that she could live in independence with her son.

Unfortunately not all of Deborah’s attempts to help her Afghan friends were as successful as in the stories above. Deborah soberly tells of her failed attempts to help a young girl who was being horribly molested by a man whom Deborah had previously considered a friend. And one of Deborah's best friends is never heard from again after being married off to a man whom her family has never even met.

But Deborah’s love for Afghanistan and the Afghan people shines through, even when things get particularly tough or when she herself becomes the target of injustice or abuse. And despite the often difficult subject matter, the book is narrated in a light, and often humorous tone, particularly when recounting one of Deborah's numerous cultural faux passes.

As an obvious foreigner, one who is often loud and brash, Deborah was excused from many behaviors which an Afghan would suffer serious consequences for. One of my favorite stories was of the time she went to an open market with a friend, both modestly dressed in burqas, and felt herself being groped by the man behind her. Deborah immediately turned around and punched him in the face, much to the astonishment of the onlookers, and the embarrassment of her friend. Had she been an Afghan women Deborah would have probably been arrested for hitting a man but as it was, she managed to get the groper arrested instead.

Deborah also recounts in amusement the time someone sent the salon a box of thongs, in a misguided attempt to do a kindness for the students. The Afghan women had no idea what the thongs were for but once they found out they had a great time teasing each other with them; throwing them in the air or wearing them on their heads, until finally the box of thongs got thrown in the fire.

I finished
The Kabul Beauty School with reluctance, wishing I would find at least a few pages more hidden at the end of the book, because there was still so much more I wanted to know about Deborah’s story. The edition of the book that I have includes a Afterword, written several months after the publication of the book and which provides a bit of an update (though it is from 2007), though the news it gives is rather sobering. Next, I went turned to the Internet to see if I could find more recent news about Deborah and her beauty school, but unfortunately I was unsuccessful. I’m tempted to just email Deborah herself to satisfy my curiosity, though I suspect that might be a little too intrusive...

As I’m sure you can tell, this book had a strong impact on me. I’m in awe of Deborah and inspired by the way she threw herself into building a beauty school in a country completely foreign- and often dangerous- to her, in order to help improve the lives of women she didn't even know. It's also a wonderful example of how any one person can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others, just using the skills that they already have at hand.

While I can't imagine myself doing anything as amazing as what Deborah did in Afghanistan, this book makes me think that perhaps someday I could at least give it a try. And I'm sure that I'll be rereading The Kabul Beauty School many times, especially when I want a reminder of this.


I could not have done anything like what she did either. Sure I would want to, but too afraid

Oh, I've been hearing raves about this book and your review makes it sound even more amazing. Now, I have this indelible image of Afghan women shooting thongs in the air. It sounds like Deborah is a force of nature and while she dove deep into the culture, she still managed to exert her personality. I don't know if I'd have the guts to slap a man in Afghanistan either.

I've been hearing about this book on and off for a while, what a beautiful article you wrote about it!

Stephanie: Yes, that image also stuck with me. I could just imagine a roomful of giggling women in head scarves tossing thongs at each other or prancing around with thongs on their heads. Makes me wish I could have been there to join in the fun :)

redhead: As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book and can't recommend it enough.

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