An unlikely mission of support and love

April 15, 2007|By Bernadette Murphy | Bernadette Murphy,Los Angeles Times

Kabul Beauty School

An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil

By Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson

Random House / 288 pages / $24.95

With all the tragedies going on in the world - Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan - who has time or the energy to think about hair? Shouldn't we all be helping out in some substantial way, volunteering as emergency workers and learning how to respond to natural - or terrorist-caused - catastrophes? So thinks Deborah Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Holland, Mich., who first becomes involved in emergency care when she goes to New York City in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After the fall of the Taliban, she is one of the first volunteers to travel to Kabul, ready to help in whatever way possible.

At her first big meeting in Afghanistan, she watches as the various workers are introduced to polite applause: teachers, engineers, nutritionists, agricultural specialists, medical experts. Rodriguez squirms at her own lack of training and expertise. What is she doing here? When she is introduced as a hairdresser, though, the room goes mad with applause. Immediately, she's mobbed by Westerners in urgent need of a decent haircut.

Thus begins "Miss Debbie's" adventure of providing support and love not only to Westerners serving in Afghanistan but, more important, to the local women. When her services are met with overwhelming gratitude - during the years of the Taliban, all beauty salons were shut down and few local women knew how to cut or style hair - she hits upon a brilliant idea: Why not train the women to become hairdressers, thereby giving them a valuable skill that is acceptable in Afghan culture? (Though women are not supposed to interact with men outside their immediate families in Afghanistan - thus, few women hold jobs - hair salons are strictly women-only affairs, granting them the freedom to earn a living without risking their honor.) Kabul Beauty School is laid out masterfully, pulling readers in from the very first page. Before we know a thing about Miss Debbie or what she's doing in Kabul, we meet her during the wedding preparations for one of her first students, Roshanna: "She has left her parents' house under cover of burqa and will emerge six hours later wearing her body weight in eye shadow, false eyelashes the size of sparrows, momentarily big hair, and clothes with more bling than a Ferris wheel."

Only Rodriguez knows the real reason Roshanna looks so terrified: She's not technically a virgin. The wedding gets under way. Family members, Rodriguez among them, wait for the marriage to be consummated and proof of Roshanna's virginity. With both prudence and risk, Rodriguez launches a plan to save Roshanna from almost certain disgrace.

At this nail-biting moment, we see the tenacity, intelligence and wiliness that will be the touchstones of Miss Debbie's character as she tries to get this pie-in-the-sky beauty school idea off the ground; we also experience intimately the culture in which she finds herself and the daily constraints that women in Kabul face.

Throughout the narrative, persistence and hopefulness in the face of looming danger mark Rodriguez's path. Upon returning to the United States after her initial stint, she takes baby steps toward creating the beauty school by contacting makers of top hair salon products. What might they donate? Before she knows it, her garage is overflowing with beauty supplies, and she has no way of transporting them.

This is a recurrent pattern in the book: Rodriguez takes a step in faith with no idea of how things will work out and then watches, amazed, as the pieces fall into place. Before long, she's training a cadre of beauticians, feels at home in her Afghan community, introduces readers to the realities of female life in Kabul and marries an Afghan man with whom, initially, she can hardly communicate.

Though not a heavy read, Kabul Beauty School is composed of heartbreak, hope, poignancy and candor. 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.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting" and co-author of "The Tao Gals' Guide to Real Estate." She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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