Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kabul Beauty School - Deborah Rodriguez

Summary:  Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan with nothing but a desire to help and a degree in cosmetology.  There she joined the Kabul Beauty School, which welcomed its first class in 2003.  Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez, one of the school's first teachers and its eventual director, stumbled through language barriers and overstepped cultural customs as she learned how to empower her students to become their families' breadwinners, teaching them 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 their stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style.  With warmth and humor, Rodriguez reveals the magnificence behind the burqa--and present the remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom.  (Summary from book - Image from http://www.kobobooks.com/ )

My Review:When I saw this book sitting on the shelf at my local used bookstore, I all but leaped at the chance to skip the luggage fee, leave my burqa behind, and experience life behind the veil in Afghanistan. Kabul Beauty School tells the story of Deborah Rodriguez, an American woman fleeing a terrible marriage and who hopes to make a difference in a post 9/11, war-torn Afghanistan by establishing a beauty school. The author's descriptions of the Afghani people, their culture and traditions, and her stories of courage, friendship, and adversity were definitely worth the trip. I loved being able to experience Afghanistan with her, in all its wonder, but without the inherent dangers.

More than a simple travelogue, Kabul Beauty School carries an important message.  While some of the more extremist elements of Afghani culture frown on the education of women,Afghan men are not allowed in beauty salons as a matter of propriety (the women’s hair is uncovered). In an exclusively female environment, Deborah’s students were able to learn a skill that could financially support their families in a country that suffered from 40% unemployment. The school also provided an escape from abusive homes and helped create strong bonds of friendship between students and teachers. Each student's story was heartbreaking and, while difficult to read, especially with eyes used to certain freedoms, these accounts only helped to emphasize the everyday struggles faced by Afghani women and the genuine need for programs like KBS.

Deborah’s understanding of Afghani behavior was limited by both a substantial language barrier and some massive cultural differences. Her diligent attempts to navigate the morass of societal rules and traditions provided ample entertainment whenever she would unintentionally horrify the local population. Throughout the book, Deborah's take-no-prisoner’s personality conflicted with more extremist elements in the country (like the time she kicked down her neighbor’s gate, machine gun in hand, after they threatened one of her workers). While I wonder at the wisdom of such action, I certainly enjoyed reading about it. It was also fascinating to read about Deborah’s struggle to reconcile American with Afghan in a marriage that is, by western standards, extremely unconventional.

I experienced the same internal conflict reading Kabul Beauty School that I felt when I read Three Cups of Tea. Both books relate the story of a humanitarian that traveled to Afghanistan in the hopes of educating women, and in both books, they left families behind. I long to travel the world, making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, but now that I have children, I can’t reconcile doing any of those things if it comes at the expense of my own family. I admire Deborah greatly for her compassion and dedication to the women of Afghanistan, and while I understand the passion she found in dedicated service, I wonder at the cost to her own children. Did they understand? Did they miss the time they could have spent with their mother? Where was she more needed? That question weighed on my mind as I read the book, and it is a question with no easy answer.

I will admit to being saddened and a little disappointed by the end of this book (mostly the afterword). Deborah’s program could make a profound difference in the lives of countless women, but is hindered by a culture that seems resistant to change, especially in regard to women’s rights. When faced with the loss of a particularly close friend, Deborah writes,

“There are many of us Westerners who want to help Afghan women, but our efforts don’t always help them in the ways that we hope they will. There are so many ties that bind these women and hold them back, and many of the ties aren’t visible to the Western eye. It takes a long time to understand how the complexities of these women’s lives differ from the complexities of ours. Sometimes we can’t help, even when we understand these complexities. The culture is changing so much more slowly than their dreams are.”

 I can only hope that the political atmosphere in Afghanistan will eventually become one that will welcome and nurture this type of humanitarian aid.

Similar to Three Cups of Tea or The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I thought this book offered an increased understanding of a complicated issue and that its value lies less in its literary quality (eh.) and more in the humanitarian concepts that it promotes. Education and the promotion of strong, self-sufficient families is a vital step towards a securing civil rights, a better economy, and a more peaceful world.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book contained some profanity and brief discussion of sexual matters, though usually within the context of cultural differences.  There are also several horrifying (but essential) stories that illustrate the difficulties of growing up female in Afghanistan. 

Sum it up: An aesthetician’s Three Cups of Tea.

1 comment:

Teresa said...

I read this one in 2007 after I saw it featured in People magazine as I was leaving for my honeymoon. I searched bookstores high and low trying to find it. I didn't end up getting it until I got back home, but when I finally did I devoured it.

I agree with you about both its literary merit and its exposure of the humanitarian efforts.


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