Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kabul Beauty School: Cut and Tease

Debbie Rodriguez' Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil is a tough book to review. On the one hand, her experiences are unique -- a hairdresser from Holland, Michigan, who winds up founding the first beauty school to open in Afghanistan after the Taliban were driven out of the capital. On the other hand, it is not a brilliantly written or particularly insightful book.

Fleeing her own abusive husband, Debbie finds purpose in Kabul. Her accounts of her dealings with the byzantine bureaucracy might make for Kafka-esque reading on their own, if the author was better able to contextualize them. Instead, Rodriguez reports them, often dismissing or simply failing to interpret the cultural differences that led to the impasses in the first place.

It's the stories of the women who attend the beauty school that make the book so fascinating -- as daughters of a tribal Islamic society, they occupy a completely different space within the cultural framework than any American woman would, a fact that the author sometimes learns the hard way. However, their stories run together, fueled by one or more antagonists: abusive father, abusive husband, abusive brothers, even abusive sons. The "men" of Afghanistan are one brutish monolith, unless they are lucky enough to be touched in some way by Western culture (cultural hegemony, anyone?). The women are more sympathetic, but often disappoint because of their own cronyism and lack of empathy for each other's plights. The women of Kabul are NOT the Sisterhood of the Traveling Burqua.

Despite this, in the end I felt great compassion for the women of Afghanistan, and that may have been the author's point. But the book reads more like an edited diary than a well-considered memoir, and most of the characters remained unidimensional to the end. Many threads were left unwoven into the final manuscript; new and interesting characters were introduced toward the end, with no resolution. The author's own life remained largely unexamined.

Finally, I couldn't help wondering whether or not the author's frank discussions of some of the personal issues associated with her long-suffering students wouldn't be exacerbated by the book, which made me feel somehow complicit in their suffering. I wound up hoping things were going well for them, but not too optimistic.

Ultimately, I would recommend reading the book, as it does tell a compelling tale. I'd suggest you bring a level of skepticism to the text, however. First book in the What's in a Name 3 Challenge -- a place name -- complete! Next up for me is the musical term, since I've chosen Brad Kessler's Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Cheesemaking.

1 comment:

  1. I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment, both on the merits of the book/writing and the ripple effect of its publication.

    While the insights into the daily life of women in a culture that is completely foreign to me were welcome and enlightening, the book's simple style was not a plus. Even a co-writer could not help Rodriguez create a smooth and coherent narrative. The transitions were non-existent and her stories were full of gaps.

    She, herself, is a frustrating woman. While her warmth and energy are laudable, her ignorance and occasional downright stupidity made me want to shake her and tell her to grow up. The constant tears and ridiculous emotional breakdowns were annoying at best and harmful at the worst. She can appear driven and goal-oriented one moment and weak and impulsive the next. In the end, we still know very little about her and what makes her tick.

    Her cavalier attitude in her everyday interactions with the men and women of Afghanistan significantly foreshadowed the fall-out from the book. The women whose lives she so blithely shared have been endangered as a result. That gives me pause, because it is learning the details of their often miserable lives is what I found so compelling about the book. The idea that the information in the book could put them in mortal danger makes me terrified on their behalf.


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