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Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veilby Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson
Synopses & Reviews
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 the idea for the Kabul Beauty School was born.
With the help of corporate and international sponsors, Rodriguez founded the Kabul Beauty School and welcomed the first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, she 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 tolove 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.
"Almost anywhere in the world, a beauty parlor is a sanctuary from the male world, a hive of gossip, a school of feminine wiles and fount of sage advice for jittery brides-to-be. In Afghanistan, where war and religious oppression have long kept women socially isolated, and where displays of sensual allure became criminal offenses under Taliban rule in the 1990s, the reopening of beauty... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) parlors after the Taliban regime fell in 2001 was a widely noted symbol of the country's democratic rebirth. But when Deborah Rodriguez, an American hairdresser, decided to contribute to Afghan women's emancipation by establishing a beauty school in Kabul, her project exposed the constraints of conservative tradition and male-ruled culture that still trap many Afghan girls and women into lives of suffering and injustice. As readers of her 'Kabul Beauty School' watch the makeup being applied and the curls being coiffed, we also hear the confessions of Roshanna, a tearful young bride who is terrified that her in-laws will discover she is not a virgin — a cardinal sin by Afghan standards — when her consummation ceremony fails to produce a bloody sheet. We also learn the story of Mina, forcibly married to an ugly old man in repayment of a debt, then later beaten, disowned and threatened with having her only child taken away because families are feuding over her dowry money. These women, and many others, find in Rodriguez's classes both a temporary safe haven and the seeds of future emancipation. Inevitably, though, the school has to be shut down after it becomes a target of suspicious scrutiny and bureaucratic greed — neighbors complain there is 'too much laughter' inside, while officials try to confiscate a fortune in beauty products donated from the United States. 'Kabul Beauty School' is not a work of literature. Its writing is clunky in some spots, breezy in others, and the text is full of cliched epiphanies about the hardships of Third World living. A good editor would have looked up how to spell 'salaam aleikum' and taken out the author's whine about having to boil water on an old gas stove. Since the book's publication, a variety of people, including her former partners, have complained that it contains numerous inaccuracies and overplays the author's role in establishing the beauty school. But the real-life victims we meet and the tortures they routinely endure give the book its power. No reader will fail to wince at the description of a bride forced to have every pubic hair plucked so she looks as young as possible for the groom. No reader will fail to be outraged at the image of a girl's scarred back and burned feet — all punishments inflicted by her pious Taliban husband. When Rodriguez describes Roshanna's wedding celebration in an ornate hotel, it is with compassion born of terrible insight. 'She and her husband sit without touching, without smiling, like bride and groom mannequins propped in the chairs. ... For a moment, it's hard to believe that this woman with the dead eyes and rigid body is my Roshanna. ... I realize she is so stunned with fear that she can't do anything other than stare. I don't even see her breathing.' Rodriguez also takes a personal plunge into the minefield of Afghan romance by marrying a man she meets there. The subplot of that tempestuous bicultural relationship is revealing, but it also has a self-indulgently confessional quality. In contrast, her story of the beauty school and the Afghan women who found refuge there is an important testimonial to the stubborn misogyny of a country many earnest Westerners are trying so hard to change. Pamela Constable, a Washington Post staff writer, has reported frequently from Afghanistan since 1998." Reviewed by Carlos LozadaAlan WolfeMichael DirdaBill SheehanSteven PearlsteinRon CharlesElizabeth WardElizabeth WardJonathan YardleyBrian HallElizabeth WardRobert PinskyElizabeth WardPamela Constable, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"There's a lot of crying and a lot of laughing, but Kabul Beauty School transcends the feel-good genre largely because of the author's superior storytelling gifts and wicked sense of humor." New York Times
"Rodriguez introduces a culture that will be foreign to many readers, but then proves that obstacles can be overcome when they're approached with the unshakable belief that they must be." Los Angeles Times
"Rodriguez...manages to make it all seem almost reasonable." Christian Science Monitor
"Brash and clearly uninterested in political niceties, Rodriguez understands the needs and fears of the Afghan women who befriend her because she, too, has left a brutal husband back in the United States." Library Journal
"Terrifically readable, and rich in personal stories." Kirkus Reviews
In the tradition of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Rodriguez tells the story of the beauty school she founds in the middle of the Afghan city of Kabul, and lifts the veil of secrecy about the vibrant women who were her students there.
About the Author
Deborah Rodriguez has been as a hairdresser since 1979, except for one brief stint when she worked as a corrections officer in her hometown of Holland, Michigan. She currently directs the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty academy and training salon in Afghanistan. Rodriguez also owns the Oasis Salon and the Cabul Coffee House. She lives in Kabul with her Afghan husband.
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