Thursday, October 2, 2008

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

The subtitle of this book is "An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil" but I think that that never really happened in the story. Rodriguez is the American Woman of that subtitle, and she travels to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002 with an NGO providing humanitarian aid. While there, she feels useless: she is not a doctor, nurse, lawyer, or other trained professional that can provide direct aid. She is a hairdresser. She continues to feel out of place until someone introduces her to other Westerners in Kabul as a hairdresser, and suddenly she is everyone's favorite person. Apparently it is impossible to get a good haircut in Kabul. This leads her to the realization that maybe she does have something she can offer to the Afghan people: she can train their women to be hairdressers. Over the next few years she travels between Michigan and Kabul every few months, helping to establish such a school, and staff it. She ends up staying permanently in Afghanistan to ensure the school's success.
This could have been a good book. At least, it may have made a better story, but with Rodriguez telling her own story, I really think she gave a different impression than she intended. She comes off as a selfish American woman who has no respect for the local culture, and could not care less who she offends in her effort to do something positive. She only occassionally seems to see the need to "go under the veil" in any way. She seems insensitive to the uncomfortable situations that she creates with her friends, and with the Afghans who are trying to help her. She allows her friends to arrange a marriage for her to an Afghan man who she does not know(this barely a year after she has finally left her abusive second husband). At this point she speaks little to no Dari, the local language, and she doesn't seem to learn much of it ever. Maybe having a husband makes it safer for women in Kabul, but not every woman is just going to go marry one whom she doesn't know and can't even communicate with.
Aside from my annoyance with Rodriguez's actions while she's in Kabul, what she is doing there is wonderful. Unfortunately, her telling of the story is disjointed, jumping from one year to the next and back again with no real reason. She loves telling the juicy gossip-type stories, and tells of the successes of her former students only in passing. Obviously I was disappointed overall with this book. Maybe the subject material is what got it listed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2007 (according to the King County Library System), because the book itself certainly does not qualify.


Rebecca Reid said...

I have a hard time with memoirs in general because it seems so many of them are written by selfish people! (Either that or they are "feel sorry for pitiful old me, please!" stories.) Why else would you write your own story? Now, that's mean, but I guess memoirs just aren't for me.

A great memoir that wasn't "pity me" was The Glass Castle. But I don't read lots of memoirs, so I guess that isn't saying a lot.

Jeska said...

I haven't read many memoirs, but this one definitely fell in the category of selfish people talking about themselves. I have The Glass Castle sitting on my shelf . . . maybe I'll give that one a try!