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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: Kabul Beauty School

Last week I led our last regular book discussion meeting of the year.  [In December we will read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, but have a party, watch the movie, and not discuss too much.]

We met to talk about the nonfiction title The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez with help from Kristin Ohlson.

From the publisher:
Soon after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid to this war-torn nation. Surrounded by men and women whose skills --- as doctors, nurses, and therapists --- seemed eminently more practical than her own, Rodriguez, a hairdresser and mother of two from Michigan, despaired of being of any real use. Yet she soon found she had a gift for befriending Afghans, and once her profession became known she was eagerly sought out by Westerners desperate for a good haircut and by Afghan women, who have a long and proud tradition of running their own beauty salons. Thus an idea was born.
With the help of corporate and international sponsors, the Kabul Beauty School welcomed its first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez stumbled through language barriers, overstepped cultural customs, and constantly juggled the challenges of a postwar nation even as she learned how to empower her students to become their families' breadwinners by learning the fundamentals of coloring techniques, haircutting, and makeup.
Yet within the small haven of the beauty school, the line between teacher and student quickly blurred as these vibrant women shared with Rodriguez their stories and their hearts: the newlywed who faked her virginity on her wedding night, the twelve-year-old bride sold into marriage to pay her family's debts, the Taliban member's wife who pursued her training despite her husband's constant beatings. Through these and other stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style.
With warmth and humor, Rodriguez details the lushness of a seemingly desolate region and reveals the magnificence behind the burqa. Kabul Beauty School is a remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom.
We had an extremely vibrant and frank discussion.  I have been trying to group our thoughts into larger discussion points, but we really bounced all over the place.  I want to capture how fluid it was so this report will be more of a blow by blow of comments as they happened.  I cannot stress enough how surprised I was by how little moderating this discussion needed.  This is a book that begs to be discussed.

Enough me, here is what we talked about:
  • We started by taking a poll on liked, disliked and so-so on the book.  We were evenly split 8 and 8 between liked as so-so.  
  • I loved how much description there was about everyday life in Afghanistan, a country I know so little about besides the war aspects.
  • Even though I knew women were treated badly by the Taliban, I was stunned over and over again by how ingrained sexism is in their society.
  • [a so-so comments, which I personally agree with] I liked when she talked about the culture, but the entire time I couldn't stop thinking about how all of this good she was doing in Afghanistan meant she abandoned her kids back in America; kids who had witnessed her being abused and needed their mom.
  • Here in the US she is seen as "just a hairdresser," but over there she is a lifeline of hope to hundreds of women.
  • We did spend some time talking about the genre of memoir and how it inherently biased.  No one in the group took everything Rodriguez said as 100% true.  We all realized that she probably inflated her own importance, and did not give us an even picture of what was happening.
  • "This gal is a loose cannon."
  • Deborah's marriages: We hear about 2 of them here.  Her second husband, a preacher in Michigan was so abusive that she volunteered to go to Afghanistan to get away from him.  She thought she was safe marrying a preacher, but it was awful.  On the other hand, her arranged marriage to Sam in Afghanistan was a true partnership.  Yes, they had many cultural differences and a language barrier, but they respected one and other. 
  • This led to some participants arguing that nothing about the way Afghan men run their country is right.  I stopped the conversation there and cautioned that we cannot put our cultural difference on others and use them to judge others.  This is a dangerous idea.  We can disagree, but we CANNOT say we are right and they are wrong.  That is how dictatorships and holocausts begin.  Throughout the discussion we had to step back and remember this.  We can disagree but we cannot judge. Debbie walked this line well.  She was reporting on how things were; she was forced to live with the rules herself; but she never judged.
  • As people continued to grumble about how "wrong" the society is, we talked about the positive strides that Debbie was taking.  It takes generations to change a society.  I reminded the group how long it took every vestige of slavery to leave our laws, and we discussed if the legacy of racism is even gone now.
  • We should never forget that we--American Women-- are the most fortunate women who every lived on this planet.  We have the most freedom, power, wealth, and safety of women ever.  Reading this book hammered that point home.
  • We made some parallels to the years of us trying to demonstrate the values of equality and democracy in the Middle East and
  • Can you believe that the Afghan language does not even have a female pronoun? How can we even begin to understand what it is like to live in a society like that?
  • It is as if everyone in Afghanistan is living with PTSD after so many years of war in a row.
  • We talked about how much we admired the work Debbie was doing in Afghanistan but at the same time many of us could not get past the fact that she abandoned her family to do it.  Also with so much need here in the US, could she have stayed with her boys and found people who needed help in Michigan.  She was the right person at the right time in Afghanistan though.  Her skills as a hairdresser is a skill that is respected by Afghan women and deemed as an acceptable profession to the men.  She is healing herself by helping them.  At its heart, this is a book about empowering women in a situation that seems impossible.
  • Some of our participants had lively discussions with their own hairdressers about this book, which I think is the highest praise.
  • Finally, at the end I always ask everyone to share words or phrases that sum the book up to them:
    • women helping women
    • inspiring
    • candid
    • courage
    • admirable
    • enlightening
    • grateful to be an American
    • chatty tone
    • culture shock
    • feminine gift
    • what did she really accomplish?
    • "Manistan"
Readalikes: There are many ways to go here.  First, I should point out the documentary made about the founding of the first Kabul Beauty School of which Debbie was only a small player in a big project. The DVD Beauty Academy of Kabul is the first place many readers will want to go.  A participant also mentioned the reality TV show All-American Muslim on TLC as an excellent watch alike too.

The group also talked about our discussion of The Lemon Tree back in 2008.  Click through to see more.

I would also suggest 2 other memoirs in which a female author recounts how she overcame adversity.  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman.

Rodriguez has also written a  novel which got good reviews, A Cup of Friendship.

And of course there is an entire library of 21st Century books (both fiction and nonfiction) about Afghanistan.  A few I would suggest are The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad and A Thousand Splendid Suns by  Khaled Hosseini.

1 comment:

Espana said...

This book is terrific - both poignant and comedic, she does a great job of shedding light on this topic without demeaning it. I joined a woman's rights advocacy group after reading this because I was so stirred. I don't know what took me so long. For anyone that's lived through a domestic violence, this book is a must.