- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

Deborah Rodriguez’s “Kabul Beauty School” opens with the author’s account of an important festivity: “If it were any other day, I’d still be in bed, trying to sink into a few more minutes of sleep. I’d probably still be cursing the neighbor’s rooster for waking me up again at dawn. I might even still be groaning about the vegetable dealers who come down the street at three in the morning with their noisy, horse-drawn wagons, or the neighborhood mullah, who warbles out his long mournful call to prayer at four-thirty. But this is the day of Roshanna’s engagement party, so I’m dressed and ready for work.”

Ms. Rodriguez, who will bring all her skill as a hairdresser to this important occasion is, emphatically, not in Michigan anymore.

Ms. Rodriguez left Holland, Mich. for Afghanistan in May 2002, the first spring after the fall of the Taliban. With two grown children and a failed marriage, little tied her to her home. Nevertheless, as she writes, “I didn’t have any idea that I’d still be here nearly five years later doing spiral perms” and bringing a host of other grooming techniques to a female population newly, though not entirely, liberated from the burka.

Ms. Rodriguez writes that she took emergency and disaster relief training two months before September 11 with a nonprofit organization called the Care for All Foundation (CFAF), then managed to secure herself a place on the first team the organization sent to Afghanistan. Though she imagined she would spend time “bandaging wounds, splinting broken limbs, clambering over the rubble, and helping people who were still hiding from the Taliban climb into daylight,” her scissors and hair gel became her sword and shield.

The story Ms. Rodriguez tells in this remarkable book is transfixing and often harrowing. Written with Kristin Ohlson, a writer, it is a memoir notable for its directness and humor. Without being mawkish or sentimental, Ms. Rodriguez gives an account of a very brave mission that overflows with generosity. While readers learn about some of Ms. Rodriguez’s struggles coping with the family she left behind, memories of her abusive husband and a culture so different from her own, this is anything but the just-another-me-me memoir it could have been. Her eye stays trained on the numerous Afghan women she groomed and she taught enough beauty basics that they could open their own salons.

Bringing the Kabul Beauty School into existence is the focus of the book, and a description of the building first erected for this purpose, which she describes mid-way through the book, is telling:

“When I saw the outside of the building that would house our school and salon, I got tears in my eyes because it was so beautiful. It was a low building built from a sort of caramel-colored marble on a side of the compound where someone obviously intended gardens: there was a big circular flower bed made of stone as well as three narrow, rectangular ones. There were also three pine trees near our building, which immediately made the setting seem incredibly lush — there weren’t many trees left standing in Kabul because the Taliban had cut them all down just in case anyone wanted to hide or shoot from behind them.”

But the exterior, however altered by the Taliban, was still no clue to what awaited Ms. Rodriguez: “When we went inside, however, we discovered that the building was not even close to being done — certainly not ready for the shipping container full of beauty supplies were supposed to start moving into it the next day! There were the whitewashed walls I seemed to see in every Afghan building, but they were dirty and stained in many places. The overhead lights were in, but the switches weren’t — in fact, there were holes in many parts of the walls with long wires dangling out.”

Moreover, the students didn’t immediately take to their lessons. First there were language barriers to overcome. Then complex matters of coloring technique.

She writes, “I was trying one more time to get across the idea of the contributing pigments [underneath everyone’s primary hair color, there is a contributing pigment] as something you had to counteract in order to get the color right. They were all looking at me with courteous incomprehension — blank if benign stares — and I was groping for an analogy. ‘Think of it as Satan!’ I finally said, pointing at a patch of orange paint. ‘It’s this evil thing in the hair that you have to fight. You have to use the opposite color to keep it from taking over.’

“And suddenly, one of the students got an aha! look on her face.”

Ms. Rodriguez, one imagines, was a good and patient teacher, a no-nonsense fighter equally at home with keeping students in line as well as would-be molesters at bay with a well-placed punch. Much of the book proceeds with stories that highlight contrasts. Women learn to supplement the native kohl, used as eyeliner, with Western cosmetics, yet they are not permitted to be seen by men dancing with each other. Women can learn to make money from their skills as beauticians, but they may not live on their own without the risk of being seen as prostitutes. An early story about the sad Roshanna who nearly missed being married because she was not a virgin — a truly evil man who was briefly her first husband ran away with her honor — is saved by a ruse Ms. Rodriguez cleverly devises.

In story after story, the women who succeed do so against terrible odds, these most often coming from abusive men who have no compunction about deterring their independent spouses or daughters with physical violence or the threat of it.

Ms. Rodriguez benefited from the largesse of cosmetics companies like Paul Mitchell and Clairol, and from grants from Vogue magazine, in setting up her school. But in the land she called Manistan, it is not hard to imagine that what she relied on most were her own wits.

At the end of her book, Ms. Rodriguez writes: “Whereas they were once dependent on men for money, they are now earning and sharing their wages. Whereas they were once household slaves, they are now respected decision makers. Not all of them, not all of the time. But enough to give them and so many other women hope.”


By Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson

Random House, $24.95, 275 pages

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