Kabul Beauty School … a review

Some kind and enterprising folks have started a ‘book swapping’ shelf downstairs. Of course, it has taken off. There’s everything on it from ‘How to write stand-up comedy’ to a 1000-page biography of the Queen Mother. This book is one I picked up. I put The Librarian of Auschwitz on the shelf in its place.

A middle-aged American lady, Debbie Rodriguez is fed up with her life and her relationships. To make a change to her life, she volunteers with an aid organisation to travel to Kabul in the mid-naughties. At this time, Afghanistan is war torn, with a heavily militarised capital that turns into a Taliban badland every night. Debbie ends up starting a ‘beauty school’, where she imparts hairdressing and makeup skills. Her students are women who come from all walks of Afghan life, and when the hijabs come off, their eclectic personalities shine.

I read later that this book has been controversial, because apparently events did not happen as Debbie claimed in the book. But to me, making one trip alone, never mind spending 5 years there, is courageous. And if she embellished some stories to spin a yarn then it’s fine by me. She does end up imbibing life enough that she marries an Afghan. In some ways, Debbie is a typical American – she never manages to learn the language, and she does present some cultures through the incredulity of a Western lens.

But the girls she introduces – from Roshanna to Nahida, are ones that will warm your heart. And there’s a multitude of experiences – from forced marriages to the utter hilarity of these women dancing with thongs on their faces. This is a lighthearted book with a serious war raging in the background. Don’t use it as the defining guide to Afghan life (for that, Khaled Hosseini perhaps?). But read it for a sneak peek into the women and their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I did enjoy it.

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