Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Kabul Beauty School (Random House, April 2007)

As often happens, I find a brilliant passage in an article that describes something far more effectively than I. In this case, the following from the New York Times captures both the co-author, Deborah Rodriquez, and the bottom-line effect of Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind The Veil:

The book, released April 10 [2007] by Random House, is a story of a
flame-haired, cigarette-smoking, multiply-divorced Michigan hairdresser who travels to Afghanistan, falls in love with the country, and returns later to set up a beauty school.

The story provides a greater appreciation of the cultural mores (and sometimes laws) governing male-female relationships in Afghanistan and it is this kind of ethnographic detail of both fiction and nonfiction that I generally crave.

Initially, I wanted to say that the account is kind of thin. The author could have done more to flesh out relationships, maybe focus more indepthly on the follow-up of the individual lives that she affected.

And I asked myself: What was Deborah Rodriguez's original intention in writing this book? Clearly, she wants to let the world know about the organization responsible for getting the beauty school-cum-salon off the ground.

She probably wants people to know her own difficulties in getting and keeping funding for the school which included starting a salon of her own. (In this way, she trained would-be professional beauticians, generated revenue and sourced additional teachers as the project grew.)

I like to think that she wants to convey the magnitude of the accomplishment: Empowering women with skills to run their own salons and generate income for themselves or for their families seems no small feat in a country in which women are discouraged from doing such things.

Considering the general public reaction to the book, my own observations seem inconsequential. The narrative, at times, is jagged and I wonder what, if anything, I might be missing. But I like the dialogue and the sometimes creative means by which the author overcomes language barriers.

I think she fails in some important respects. The personal stories -- when mentioned -- are not detailed enough for me. I still want to know what happened -- what really happened -- to Topekai, Baseera, Roshanna, Laila and Hama. I am still curious about Shaz.

But there are bigger problems and I may have been too optimistic in thinking that she and others might have started social reform in Afghanistan from which future generations will benefit.

According to the NPR in June 2007, the details already shared in the narrative cause controversy and anger:

the subjects of her book say Rodriguez and her newfound fame have put theirlives in danger . . .

About the subject women, the article continues:

At least one of the girls from the school has made an escape plan. One, who is called "Topekai" in the book, says her husband, who read the book, is moving their family to Pakistan.

The others — whose husbands are unaware of the
book — say they don't know what to do.

The woman called "Baseera" in Rodriguez's book says it may not matter. She is convinced someone will kill her.

This is serious and saddening: Cross-cultural value systems colliding, sociopolitical fears casting shadows over well-intentioned efforts.

And there is yet more controversy. According to quoted subjects in the New York Times (April 2007), there are questions about consistency and accuracy and perhaps enough changes to actual details that place the very nature of the narrative in question.

Frankly, like the project itself, the book initially seemed to be the start of something and, hopefully, the promise of something more. Now, I am not so certain. Did I even read a memoir?

Shades of Truth: An Account of a Kabul School Is Challenged (Abby Ellin, NYT, April 29, 2007)

Subjects of 'Kabul Beauty School' Face New Risks
(Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR, June 1, 2007)

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