Sunday, January 27, 2008

6. Kabul Beauty School

Subtitle: Beneath the Veil of Afghan Women
by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson, audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunn

This book was mesmerizing but irritating. Mesmerizing, because Deborah Rodriguez can tell a good story. Irritating, because Deborah Rodriguez behaves so stupidly.

Rodriguez was a hairdresser in Michigan in her second bad marriage in 2002 when she joined a Christian humanitarian group and went to Afghanistan as a nursing assistant. While there, she found that her beautician skills were more in demand (especially among Westerners now in Afghanistan), and that Afghan women miss the beauty salons they had before the Taliban came into power. The book chronicles Rodriguez’* efforts to start and run a beauty school for Afghan women, to empower them to run their own businesses and gain some freedom from the controlling men in their lives.

*One of the most irksome things about the book is that Rodriguez makes it sound like she was almost totally responsible for starting and running the beauty school, which was NOT the case. Rodriguez appeared in the 2004 documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul, which makes it clear that six women were involved in the establishment of the school, although Rodriguez eventually took over its operation. I get really exasperated with people who don’t give credit where credit is due.

Worse, Rodriguez’ brash personality and egotistic actions made me cringe. She displays little cultural sensitivity, smoking, drinking, cussing, wearing lots of makeup, punching a man and yelling about him “grabbing my a**” in a public market (embarrassing and endangering her friend and translator in the process), and threatening the terrorists who live next door. While she may not have been intentionally trying to offend, her brazenness may have made things more difficult for the very people she was trying to help.

Rodriguez’ feminist actions make it unbelievable that she would marry an Afghan man 12 years her junior only 20 days after meeting him. He has another wife and seven daughters in Saudi Arabia, and Rodriguez becomes upset when “Sam” doesn’t tell his parents about her, and when the first wife becomes pregnant with and gives birth to a son. What was she expecting in this “marriage” (which she admits she entered into for companionship, protection, and sex)? Even more appalling was her involvement of her visiting teenaged son in her attempts to help an Afghan girl who was being sexually abused – he offers to marry the girl! What kind of lessons about marriage is she teaching her son (who, along with the rest of her family of origin, did not learn about her Afghan marriage until they read about it in the paper)?

Nevertheless, I found the book compelling despite its annoyances. Rodriguez (probably with much help from her co-author, journalist Kristin Ohlson, whose own book sounds intriguing) does tell a good story in typical confiding-hairdresser-gossipy style. Rodriguez seems to care about the Afghan women she meets and shares their heartbreaking stories. She also provides a glimpse into Afghan customs and culture – the opening chapter on Afghan wedding rituals was fascinating! The book’s appeal was heightened by the audiobook reading by actress Bernadette Dunne, who had just the right voice for the self-assured Rodriguez.

This book would generate some interesting discussions for book clubs, particularly those that have read other popular books set in Afghanistan, such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, and/or those who have watched the documentary mentioned earlier. Here are some other websites that would be useful in a dialogue on the book: - Random House Publishing’s website on the book, including a video interview and printed Q&A with Rodriguez. (5/12/07) (6/1/07) (6/17/07) (1/5/08)

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