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Kabul Beauty School

February 23, 2011

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil
by Deborah Rodriguez, 2007, 328 pages

When Deborah Rodriguez, a brash, outspoken hairdresser, joins a mission to volunteer in Afghanistan, she isn’t sure what she can offer, alongside doctors and real aid workers. And then she begins to cut hair for a few volunteers, and to figure out how to do perms and highlights in a country where the electricity doesn’t always work. After meeting Afghani women, she begins to work on a plan to start a beauty school. It will give the women confidence, a necessary skill, and most importantly, money to help them assert themselves against a culture of overbearing husbands and fathers. Completely insulated from men’s prying eyes, the beauty school becomes a safe space, where women can laugh, joke, share, and draw strength from one another’s stories.

I spot more than a few similarities to Steel Magnolias. A group of women draws close together, in a warm, sometimes funny celebration of their bond, sharing their frustrations about men and wanting to be taken seriously in their small community. Rodriguez plays to comparison easily in the persona she adopts throughout the narrative. Even when she acknowledges that she’s being culturally clumsy in her exuberance (smoking, dancing, yelling for her rights, not honoring the taboos between genders) her heart’s in the right place. She fights to get the school money and shipments of makeup and hair supplies.

Some aspects of the school are a success. It’s a joy to read about the women growing confident in their skills, and welcoming the salon’s safe space. Deborah recounts her own cultural pratfalls with warm self-deprecation. Even dangerous scenes like a confrontation with violent neighbors that scare her entire street feels as though it’s going to turn out all right.Her humor and focus on stories of kindness insulates the reader. Maybe it’s the beauty school setting. Maybe it’s just Rodriguez’s upbeat worldview.
That steadily upbeat worldview is just one of the similarities between this and Rodriguez’s recent novel, A Cup of Friendship. Reading both slightly close together becomes a treasure hunt, for stories Rodriguez polished and idealized to tell in her novel. A grumbling housekeeper hides her perm under a veil. Her story weaves through the memoir and the novel both, albeit transformed and resolved into romance in the latter. The stories of the beauty school students finding their way are collapsed into one or two characters in Rodriguez’s novel. The culture that Kabul takes for granted has so many emotionally wrenching stories to tell. Women emerging slowly from under the rule of their husbands to find confidence and purpose. Violence so unrelenting that the first class of women in the beauty school can scarcely learn about primary and secondary colors, because they’re so traumatized.
Both the novel and the memoir use a scene in a women’s prison as an emotionally charged turning point, to show an American just how terrible women’s circumstances are. Deborah puts together packages of hair notions and conditioner samples as a treat for the women- only to see starving, sick women packed into cells and realize how inadequate her gifts are.

Another storyline the novel keeps refreshingly honest is Deborah’s marriage and romance to Sam. When she decides to stay and anchor herself in the Kabul community, she knows that being married will give her more power and access in the community. Half-joking, her friends arrange a marriage for her. Sam is shy. The marriage is rocky with culture clashes and language barriers. I like the space she gives that story to be messy, argumentative, even a little unresolved.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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