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** Synopsis **
Growing up in Holland, Michigan, Debbie Rodriguez isn't quite sure what she wants to do with her life, but knows that the general trappings of adult life are not making her happy. Despite having a husband, children, nice house, car and career as a hairdresser she always feels as though something is missing. Getting a new job as a prison guard doesn't help either - it turns out Debbie has "too much of a bleeding heart" to work in such a tough environment, and her subsequent divorce and new marriage to a respected but cruel preacher don't bring her the fulfillment she craves either.
However, the opportunity to take part in disaster relief training through her church gives Debbie the chance to escape her abusive husband for a little while. Suddenly, in 2001, the 9/11 attacks happen and she is required to travel to New York and assist firemen working at the World Trade Center site. Still keen on getting away from her unhappy marriage, Debbie manages to talk her way onto a temporary relief mission to Afghanistan, a troubled country which is now under the world's gaze.
This might seem like a story in itself already but it's only the background to Debbie's very long, tiring but rewarding journey towards setting up a programme to help Afghan women. When Debbie arrives in Kabul as part of the CFAF (Care For All Foundation) group she is initially intimidated upon learning that all of her fellow volunteers are trained medical personnel while she is only a hairdresser. Yet she soon begins to make use of her unique skills, providing haircuts for Western aid workers and other Westerners living in the city. She notices that there don't seem to be any beauty salons in Kabul - it turns out they were all closed down under the Taliban. There is hardly even any hairdressing equipment left in the city, since salon owners were forced to destroy it in case the Taliban found it during a raid.
Working as part of an NGO dedicated to women's aid (PARSA), Debbie helps set up a beauty school to train or retrain women who want to set up their own businesses. Beauty salons are one of the only places in Afghan society where women can be their own bosses (men are not even allowed inside) and thus a salon can also become an inner sanctum and source of support for women, many of whom are leading terribly unhappy lives in Kabul.
The book charts the fortunes of Debbie and the beauty school and also gives a voice to the students by telling their stories. Though the project faces resistance from almost all sides, it goes from strength to strength and Debbie starts to feel at home in this strange country.
** My opinion **
This is a really interesting and absorbing story of how a normal woman decided to try and make a difference. It is fast-paced and full of excitement and tragedy. I couldn't put it down and read it in a couple of days.
Debbie comes across as likable, confident, brave and feisty but - importantly - not brash. There are some very funny moments in the book where she suffers from culture shock and acts like an American rather than according to the way women should behave in Afghanistan e.g. she punches a man after he pinches her bottom in a crowded market, which is an unthinkable thing for a woman in Kabul to do. Yet despite her courageous attitude Debbie also recognises that sometimes her behaviour has been out of order. On occasion she reveals that, with hindsight, she wishes she had acted differently. She also comes across as compassionate despite her tough exterior - we get the impression that she genuinely cares for and wants to help her students as best she can. Much of the book is given over to the women's sad stories - most of them have lived through the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the occupation by the Taliban.
The first two-thirds of the novel concern the efforts to found the school and keep it running, and so the plot has a momentum of its own. I really enjoyed reading the account of how Debbie travelled between the US and Afghanistan, how she persuaded huge companies such as Paul Mitchell to donate haircare products and equipment, and how she overcame one practical problem after another in Kabul, including her single woman status! I found that things slowed down towards the end, however, and the narrative seemed a bit rambling and unstructured. The school management start having problems with the government and tax authorities and its future looks uncertain. I wasn't sure where the narrative was going at this point, and I found the ending quite abrupt.
Much as the women's terrible stories were interesting, I found that the book lacked balance in this respect - it would have been good to hear more about the success stories too. By the end of the book around 180 women have graduated from the programme and many have gone on to become teachers at the school or open their own salons. We do learn that the average student, after qualifying, is able to increase their families' earnings by 400%, but it would have been interesting to see this backed up by individual cases.
I also found it strange that Debbie is so frank about certain area of her life but so reticent about others. For example, she leaves two sons at home in the US, but they are hardly mentioned in the book. One comes to visit and disappears again as quickly as he arrives, while the other makes a very brief appearance at the end. I found it strange that the book, which is narrated in the first person, reveals so much about Debbie's fears and emotions concerning Afghanistan but neglects to mention how she feels about being away from her sons. I can understand that she would want to keep some things private (and respect her children's privacy) but it seems imbalanced, especially since there is so much personal detail about her marriages.
The edition of the book that I read contains an afterword written in 2007, which reveals that Debbie ended up fleeing Afghanistan due to rumours that her life and that of her visiting son were in danger. This is a really sad ending to the story, especially since Debbie goes on to suggest that the warnings may have been lies spread by a false friend in Kabul. At the moment the school is still closed and Debbie is in the US.
What is confusing is that the book then contains acknowledgments and an interview that seem to have been written before the 2007 afterword, and so do not quite make sense. I found this irritating and it could have been avoided very easily, simply by placing the afterword at the very end of the book.
The book interested me so much that I carried out some further research on Debbie's story. It turns out that the publication of 'Kabul Beauty School' caused great consternation in Afghanistan, with Debbie being accused of endangering her students by publishing their personal histories. Although all names have been changed, I wonder whether it wouldn't be possible for people in Kabul to work out who was who, since the classes were quite small. Debbie was also accused of being a self-publicist and of cashing in on the students by writing about them, though she stresses that any money she made from the book was put back into the school. There are also people who say Debbie took too much credit for the school and exaggerated her role in its founding - after all, it was originally part of a project by the NGO PARSA and Debbie was not the only Western hairdresser who helped to set up the classes.
I cannot pass comment on any of this myself, of course, but I think it is a real shame that things turned out the way they did. I hope the beauty school can be re-opened at some point and that Debbie is able to return to Afghanistan, which became her second home. Despite the book's failings, which I've mentioned above, I found it captivating, humourous, and sad all at once. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.
The book is 302 pages long, including an afterword and an interview with the author.
** This review also appears on ciao.co.uk under the same user name **
Kabul Beauty School is the true-life account of a hairdresser from the United States who helped to start a beauty school in the beleaguered city of Kabul in Afghanistan. Debbie Rodriguez gives us a colorful and honest account of her experiences in Kabul. She shares with us her fleeting first marriage, and her disastrous second that inspired her to join the Care for All Foundation right after 9/11.
She had some disaster relief and emergency training, but neither her careers as prison guard or hairdresser could prepare her for the unique experiences she developed in her years living in Afghanistan. For all it's moral rigidity, it is a diverse culture with many subtleties that could easily be overlooked by observers who do not know what they are looking for.
Insightful and unique, Debbie's generous nature, kind and impulsive heart, and ingenious naivete lead readers through the heart of Kabul as seen from an independent woman's view in a society that does not support the independence of women. Readers will learn about marriage laws, attend weddings, meet various tribes that share the city, discover the varied needs of Kabul's citizens, weep for the fate of some, rejoice at others, and worry at the undetermined fates of yet more.
Debbie's narration leads us through some very tumultuous events. She reveals moments of tender beauty made all the more lovely for being unsought. Some of the tales she shares of the women of Kabul may break your heart or outrage you, but all will certainly touch you. The friendships Debbie formed, the shared experience of empowering the women of Kabul with training in an area which will allow many to be gainfully employed, provide better lives for their families, and begin down a path to recover their place in a society that has denied and even abused them for too long.
During Debbie's time in Kabul, she enters into a marriage with an Afghanistan man. Debbie and Sam's marriage is, as one might guess, a tumultuous one. Sam once quipped, "It is easier to have a 1000 Afghanistan wives than one American wife. You tell 1000 Afghanistan wives to sit, they sit. You tell 1 American wife to sit, she says, "Bite my @$$!" There are many quietly supportive and loving gestures made by both Sam and Debbie.
The end of Debbie's time in Kabul is very sudden, and her abrupt departure from the city, the school and even her marriage leaves readers questioning.
Although it is perfectly understandable that she left given the circumstances which threatened both Debbie and her son, as well as creating the potential for other supportive individuals to come to harm.
This detailed look at the lives of the women beneath the burqas of Kabul is thoroughly enchanting for all the uncertainty, upheaval and heartbreak. Curiously embracing, this is a wonderfully inspiring and uplifting account. A compulsive read, once you begin, you must know what happens to the people that you meet through Debbie's writing.
Excellent choice for book clubs, there is much room for debate and discussion. Touching, thought-provoking and impassioned, Debbie's experiences are vivid and compelling. Harsh and loving in turns, her view of Kabul is a fine illustration of true Beauty resting within the eye of the Beholder.
Kabul Beauty School "is a remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women, all of whom have stories to tell, who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom. Arriving in Afghanistan in 2002 with nothing more than a beauty degree and a desire to help, Deborah Rodriguez set out on a course of action that would change her life and those of many Afghan women. The once proud tradition of beauty schools had been all but destroyed and with it Afghani women's ability to support themselves. As one of the founders of the Kabul Beauty School she set about training women and helping them rebuild their lives.