Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Kabul Beauty School

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Deborah Rodriguez, known by Kabul shop owners and Michigan prison inmates alike as “Miss Debbie,” first came to Afghanistan in 2002 as part of a group from the Care for All Foundation, a Christian Humanitarian Organization. A hairdresser by trade, Rodriguez is deemed significantly less useful than her medically-trained compatriots and is given any number of odd jobs and a good deal of free time to explore the city. Little did she--or the relief group--realize exactly how desirable her skills might be in that war-torn city.

When the expatriate community discovers a hairdresser in their midst, Rodriguez is swamped with requests. One woman summed up the situation quite succinctly: “We have literally risked our lives for highlights. […] Once I drove ten hours over the Khyber Pass to get my hair done in Pakistan” (39). During Taliban rule, hair salons and their feminine space were banned. In 2002 salons were only just starting to reopen, struggling without the supplies and skills needed to be truly successful.

As she begins to befriend both westerners and Afghans in Kabul, Rodriguez begins to see a niche that she can fill. She returns to Michigan hoping to find a way to open a teaching salon in Kabul. Armed with her dream and a lot of gumption she manages to get $500,000 worth of donations from Paul Mitchell and other large beauty companies. Just when Rodriguez is at a loss as to how to proceed, she discovers Mary MacMakin and her nonprofit, PARSA. Aligning herself with PARSA, she returns to Kabul in Spring 2003 as a founding faculty member of the Kabul Beauty School, eventually becoming its lead instructor and administrator.

While Rodriguez’s story of an American woman helping to make a difference in the lives of Afghan women is not unique, it is both moving and powerful. Kabul Beauty School is compulsively readable. A strong opening chapter illustrates both the struggles of modern Afghan women and Rodriguez’s inimitable blend of brazenness and kindness, leaving readers with a desire to know more about this spunky, resourceful hairdresser and her students.

The stories of Rodriguez’s students fill the pages of this memoir: the wife of a Taliban-aligned opium addict, the bride who must fake virginity, and the young girl sold by her parents to an older man, just to name a few. The author, however, is just as interesting as her students.

One of the things that sets Rodriguez apart is her ability to empathize with her students. Having suffered an abusive husband, she is attuned to the indignities--both large and small--that affect Afghan women every day. Rodriguez is dynamic and personable; more than that, she clearly loves Afghanistan and its people. As she so elegantly puts it, “as soon as I set my foot on this soil, I knew I’d somehow managed to come home. I’ve been renewed by the spirit of this place and roused by its challenges” (269). While Rodriguez maintains both her personality and independence throughout the period covered in this memoir, she becomes ever more a part of the Afghan community, even allowing her friends to arrange a marriage to an Afghan businessman.

The history of the school--and Rodriguez's life in Kabul--is not without drama. The school has political and financial problems. There are cultural misunderstandings, most perpetrated by the clueless, but well-meaning Rodriguez. At the memoir's end, we learn that both the school and affiliated salon have been closed. Nevertheless, the reader is left with a sense of hope: if anyone can turn things around, it is Rodriguez.

The narrative is a bit uneven (for example, the handling of her son’s stay in Afghanistan is cursory, simply tagged onto a story about one of her students). However, that is almost to be expected in a first effort and the natural charisma of the author, and the compelling tale of the school, will be enough to keep readers interested.

Read the review at Front Street Reviews...


  1. Hi, had never heard of this book but it sounds really good! Thanks for the in depth review, I will certainly seek it out.

  2. I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I want to read this.

    Feel free to give me a push one way or the other...

  3. Read, I'd say.

    Or just put it on your wishlist and see if you ever end up with a copy.

  4. What an interesting sounding book, you've captured the author's essence to make this sound compelling. Other reviews I've read of this one made it sound like one I could skip, now I'm going to have to add this one to my wishlist!