- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2011

THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA: FIVE SISTERS, ONE REMARKABLE FAMILY, AND THE WOMAN WHO RISKED EVERYTHING TO KEEP THEM SAFE

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Harper, $24.99, 288 pages

”The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” is a heart-wrenching, heartwarming story about the courageous women of war-ravaged Afghanistan, akin to Greg Mortenson’s inspiring best-seller, “Three Cups of Tea.”

Set in Kabul, it is the true tale of the heroines who managed to survive the brutality of the Taliban regime, the “bread winners in burqas,” who not only suffered but flourished against inconceivable odds right under the noses of their implacable minders and tormentors, the dreaded Amr bil Maroof.

The focus of the narrative is Kamila Sadiqi, an enterprising, fearless young woman who literally stitched her way to success. On her own, banned from the streets, from school and from work because of her gender, and frantic to provide for her six siblings at home, she picked up a needle and thread and created a dressmaking business in her small living room. It became a rallying point, providing lessons, work and a much-needed sanctuary for 100 neighborhood women.

It is a harrowing account of women without men. The males in their families either fled, were imprisoned or died, and by edict the women were confined to their homes and forced to wear a chadri, a suffocating full body cover-up, anduse a “mahrain,” a boy relative as chaperone and go-between whenever they needed to go out.

The author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, depicts the boredom, depression and terror of daily life. She also examines the women’s innate determination to persevere and has the credentials to do so. Ms. Lemmon, a former TV producer, left ABC to pursue an MBA at Harvard, where she began writing about female entrepreneurs in war zones Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. On a trip to the latter for the Financial Times in 2005, she discovered the plight of the women and started a three-year shuttle among Kabul, London and Washington in order to research and chronicle their experiences.

Kamila stood out because of her commitment to her family and community. Despite the bombings, kidnappings, lack of electricity and violence in the streets, she and her cadre of acolytes worked around the clock creating beautiful hand-sewn beaded dresses and tailored suits. The Taliban knew about her business and looked the other way because she was discreet and they admired her product. Some even drove their fiancees to her house to fit an dpurchase their wedding gowns.

For those who worked there, time at the shop was a lifeline to sanity. “It was like there was no war, no problems just laughter and friendship. It wasn’t even like being in Kabul city,” said one young participant.

A crucial figure throughout the ordeal is Kamila’s dedicated young brother, Rahim, the only male in the group, who served as a confidant, companion, lookout, scout, consigliere and duenna, who even learned to embroider and bead in order to help out. Allowed to attend school and travel freely, he was the eyes, ears and protector for the entire operation.

Nearly a decade after the United States invaded Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations in the world, there is now talk about reconciliation with the Taliban, which makes this book even more significant. Through these women, Ms. Lemmon has shown the optimism and tenacity of the resilient Afghans along with their aspiration for freedom, combined with hope and the firm belief that the years of bloody conflict will ultimately subside and a stable, civil society will emerge.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast.

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