Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More Than a Pretty Picture

In 2007, hairdresser Deborah Rodriguez published a memoir of her experience in Afghanistan. Despite the cringe-inducing subtitle — An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil — the book itself, Kabul Beauty School, isn’t bad. (Interestingly, the book goes by a different subtitle in the U.K., The Art of Friendship and Freedom.)

Rodriguez is moved to travel to Afghanistan and help when she hears about the war and suffering of women. She has a second motive: to get away from her abusive husband. Surrounded by nurses and physicians, she soon begins to feel useless. A hairdresser, she has no extensive training for dealing with disasters. But skilled hairdressers, it turns out, are short in supply and greatly in demand. Rodriguez is greeted with excitement by Westerners and Afghans alike. (The book is rather stereotypical, not surprisingly, in its definition of femininity — nails, makeup, hair-dye — but even some men wish to get their hair cut.) Noting the lack, Rodriguez helps establish a school for training future hairdressers. Throughout the process, Rodriguez familiarizes herself with Afghan culture and customs and creates a new life for herself.

Rodriguez doesn’t turn to an East-West binary. She makes friends and finds an Afghan husband (in an arranged marriage). While the power men hold over the lives of some of the women she meets is more extreme than legally possible in the United States, Rodriguez can relate. She herself faced an abusive husband, and this background, which she retells, makes it easy for her and the reader to understand the women she meets. She shows the hardships they face with otherizing them — painting a respectful portrait of their emotional strength and endurance. She says, “I’ve been blessed with family, and I’m rich—especially rich—in sisters. I sometimes wonder if I’ve done as much for them as they’ve done for me” (269). She resists the tendency to conform Afghan women to American standards in an effort to help them. She notes that helping Afghan women is not as straightforward as Westerners think: “It takes a long time to understand how the complexities of these women’s lives differ from the complexities of ours. Sometimes she can’t help, even when understand these complexities” (259).

Despite the political context of the situation — an American woman in Afghanistan at the start of an American-led “War on Terror” — the book is free of politics. Rodriguez takes no sides. There is a mention of the war in Iraq, but only because it relates to the delayed shipping of supplies to Afghanistan. Focusing on the lives of women, the book leaves political discourse for other books to take on. It’s fortunate, because comments like this — “I still wonder if that videotape will show up on Aljazeera television someday, as evidence that American hairdressers are torturing Afghan men” — make me think Rodriguez wouldn’t be the best person to analyze the political backdrop.

Similarly, Rodriguez does not spend much time on religion. She notes Islamic practices and her Christian faith when they come up, but they are not a large part of the book. She never colors Islam as the source of all problems, but some comments are questionable. She writes, “Even though Roshanna’s parents weren’t deeply conservative Muslims, they wanted to see their country return to normal, and the Taliban seemed determined to make this happen.” Is being a “deeply conservative Muslim” equivalent to supporting the Taliban? That’s troubling.

The writing is straightforward and readable, although somewhat disjointed and not terribly sophisticated. At 270 pages, it’s easy to read in a day or two. Overall, it’s an worthwhile read, portraying Afghan women from a rare angle.

Note: The story may not be all it appears to be; see criticism here.