128 of 137 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2007
A work of non-fiction Deborah Rodriguez's book could almost be fictional. Only that it isn't. It's a story about determination, challenge, love and heartache. It is the story of an American woman who catapulted herself from Holland, Michigan to Kabul, Afghanistan.
A maverick by nature, Rodriguez came to Afghanistan in 2002, with an American non-governmental organization (NGO) trained in emergencies. Also gregarious by nature, Rodriguez very early on turned her attention to befriending Afghans who spoke some English. Her checkered background in multitasking and a rich personal life helped her in being sought after what was badly need in Kabul - hairdressing. With this, she developed a deep bond with Afghan women, who were just coming out of the tyranny of living under the Taliban. Their heart rending stories are told poignantly by Rodriguez, throughout the book.
I lived in Kabul for a month in 2004 and for four months in 2006. I also went o Rodriguez's beauty parlour, Oasis, in April 2006, with a friend. It took us forever to find it, as houses have no names or numbers in Kabul (security reasons). I called her four times on her cell phone to get to the right place. I waited while my friend got a haircut, was served tea, and got a chance to observe my surroundings. She had a presence and charisma that was hard to miss. Her energy was infectious. When Rodriguez took a cigarette break, she told us parts of her story, all in the book.
I first read about The Kabul Beauty School in an opinion piece posted in the Kabul Guide e-list I subscribe to, a few months ago. It talked about how some people that worked with Rodriguez in starting the Beauty School felt they did not get the credit they deserved in the book. And, that in the beginning of the book (enjoyable and shocking to me) is a piece about Rodriguez helping an Afghan bride fake her virginity on her wedding night by providing her with a blood stained handkerchief. Shouldn't this be the mother's role, questioned the author of the article? I smiled as I read this.
There were so many roles for women (just as there are for men) in Afghanistan that it could get tiring. But, there are more expectations and restrictions when it comes to women. In most traditional societies in transition to modernity, these roles are shifting. Yet, both Afghans and non Afghans have a hard time with this. What to cling to, what to let go? What to support, what to oppose?
However, Rodriguez had little patience with all this questioning. With a fierce determination she dealt with men and women, ministries, bureaucracies, hoodlums, louts, children and older people. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and was not afraid to show her emotions - be it anger, frustration, love or appreciation. She was certainly not a coward.
She did some pretty unconventional things. Most of all, she married an Afghan, and became his second wife. The first wife, with her seven children, lived in Saudi Arabia. He supported her in many things and said no when he couldn't help her. While Rodriguez did a lot to blend in, she also held on dearly to what she believed in, from her background and upbringing.
Rodriguez weaves the book around her own story and those of the women she comes across in Afghanistan. Choosing to focus on setting up a beauty school, she opted to work with women most of the time. She loved them, got cross with them, and yelled at them. She cried with them, danced with them and got involved in their most intimate stories - from violence to sex.
Raised in a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are guaranteed in the constitution, Rodriguez was often outraged about what she discovered and experienced in Afghanistan. This is understandable. But, slowly she learned and adapted, often at a high cost to herself and others around her. However, that is the nature of life and work as an expatriate in Afghanistan or any other post conflict country. I myself made some mistakes in dealing with the Afghans I worked and interacted with. I too experienced all the emotions Rodriguez did.
Rodriguez ends her book in May 2006, just after riots and curfews in Kabul. I was in Kabul at that time. The women who have studied and graduated from her beauty school have gone their various paths - some to new lives and others back to the old ones (but as changed and economically independent persons, with a skill). Rodriguez's experience in Afghanistan transformed her life and the women around her. Her book is deeply personal and gives a pretty accurate picture of what goes on in today's Afghanistan.
There are whisperings (quietly and openly) that Rodriguez has betrayed and endangered the women of the beauty school - that they could be targeted by conservative elements. Also, about her going back on her promises of getting them out of the country to safe and greener pastures. And, was she going to share the profits of her book with the women whose stories she told?
Above the whispering and questioning, the truth is that the reality of Afghan woman can be changed by themselves -with some help from the Debbie Rodriguez' of the world. Just like development aid and expatriate technical assistance and expertise, it is only a helping hand to the Afghans. And, all this will take time. Decades of oppression from inside and outside Afghanistan, have left a deep impression on Afghan women and men, in separate ways. They suffered collectively and differently, each to their own, in their own way. I too, heard many of these stories. A great need in Afghanistan today is individual and collective healing. Rodriguez realised this and tried to do something about, in the way she knew best.
Rodriguez offered freedom and friendship, within the confines of Afghan society. More than that she could not do, and no outsider can. The book rings true, reads well, and is highly descriptive of a country and people Rodriguez was privileged to be part of. And, that, no one can take away from her. Just like no one can take away from the Afghan women what they got from Rodriquez.
68 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2008
My mother eagerly sent this book to me (yes here in Afghanistan) because she knows how much my heart bleeds for people (read: women) who do not relish in the wonderful things we westerners take for granted.
At times, I applauded Debbie for taking a stand, and never in a million years would I critize her for leaving, because the folks who are the heaviest criticizers have NO concept of bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and the like. It is truly one of the most horrifying things I have dealt with.
Now...Kabul...I am going to attempt to describe this large city in layman's terms so the average person can understand where I am coming from. I apologize for any hurt feelings or protests, but unless you can meet me downtown Kabul tonight for tea, please take this for what it is: a description of someone who is there.
Yes, some women still wear Burqas (chadris), but while I detest the things more than I can describe, many women still wear them to protect themselves from stares, fondling, cat calls, etc. This is not to say no woman is exempt from these things, but many prefer to wear it, much to their chagrin, because women by themselves are truthfully considered "whores" by many and thus "deserving" of being fondled and hollered at. One of the things I had to get used to as a western woman (obviously, I am rich and a prostitute because I'm not married..."obviously") is the CONSTANT gaping by young men. Truckloads of young men will physically hang out their entire bodies to gawk at a western woman. Shuras won't look at me, though (usually). I have gotten my hand shaken, however, which was considered a huge step up by many in my circle.
For those who wear it, the preferred chadri/burqa is a lovely shade of periwinkle, if only because white is nearly impossible to clean in a country that does not have running water, reliable electricity (only government offices and hospitals are required to maintain electricity; most homes only have the equivalent of a 40-watt light bulb in terms of lights...please note I said MOST), and proper (western) sanitation. You cannot stereoptype Afghans (NOT "Afghanis" like so many people have called them in these reviews) because like any other country, they are not all the same. Kabul is arguably the most "progressed" city, but there are other smaller provinces that boast more progress than Kabul, but I'll concentrate today on the capital. Kabul is a filthy city by western standards. I have lived all over the world (southwest Asia, the middle east, Europe, 12 states, etc.), and my passport is nearly filled with stamps. The nicest parts of Kabul, at least the public areas, are as nasty as the bad parts of big U.S. cities (this is a comparison so people who have never been outside the U.S. can understand...I'm sorry if I offend anybody. It's not my intent.) There is trash, feces, and dead animals along the pocked roads, but the roads are greatly improved since the Taliban was "thrown out." The Taliban is still present, and not a lot of Afghans approve of them in the least, but in some cases, it's like a pesty fly they just swat and and choose largely to ignore (for various reasons, including but not limited to, protecting their families, which is paramount.) In no other country have I ever seen such love for one's family, no matter how far apart the "cousins" are. It's truly heartwarming but can also be a downfall, like the author discusses in some cases.
However, amongst the sea of chadris are also the women who proudly wear high heels with their polished toes and glittering gold bracelets through the dirty streets, but I have never seen an Afghan woman in public without at least a head scarf. There are women in schools, colleges, and those who proudly work, and there is much reformation in parts of the cities. There are men who strongly encourage their daughters to become more educated, but just like any other family, there are some fathers who do not let their daughters do anything beyond their destiny, which is to get married and have sons. Like so many countries that take the Koran literally, the belief males are the dominant gender is held fast.
Every day is Market Day it seems, with thousands of people crowding the narrow streets filled with produce (tangerines are huge here...who knew?), Coca Cola by the liter (doesn't taste the same), nuts, carcasses of dead animals for sale with the head sitting in the middle of the shop to prove what kind of animal it is, children playing, people sitting around listening to the radio (still the most frequent way people get their news), carts pushed by men or donkeys, an occassional horseback rider who narrowly misses the old Opal cars on the side of the road, the useless traffic circle with everybody going whichever way he/she chooses, etc. etc. On Fridays, traditional Afghan music is blared throughout the markets while people noisily chat to one another. Mixed in with the robes and chadris is occassionally a child wearing a Mickey Mouse sweater and Nikes. It is a beautiful place, a dangerous place, and that brings me to my final point before I ramble too much.
I only gave this book 3 stars because, while I understood everything she discussed, I was alarmed about how blase Debbie was about certain cultures...she honestly at times came across as The Ugly American. I wanted to like her, and I loved what she did, but I cannot comprehend why she thought it was okay (spoiler) to put her friend in danger in the market. Nobody is as indignant about being touched by strangers as I, but she did not think about how her actions could have put her friend in danger, or in the very least, embarrassed her. Embarrassment in the U.S. is easily overcome; in this part of the world, you rarely get second chances (Debbie was alloted many because she is a "heathen" American). Why after so long she didn't understand that, or chose to, baffles me.
49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2008
When I started reading this book, I was surprised to learn that the author is from my hometown in Michigan (I moved cross-country two decades ago, but still visit once a year). So, from the get-go I was extra curious about Debbie's story. At first glance, I thought the book was fascinating, and I admired the author's tenacity and heart. I didn't mind her writing style (I thought that was part of the charm), and I gave her ditzy personality a lot of latitude because I figured, at the end of the day, her efforts were having a positive impact. Naively, I assumed that Debbie had the Kabul women's best interests at heart... even though she chose to reveal "secrets" and privileged information about her beauty school students and peers. But, post-book, as I've learned more about the story (with a good bit of googling), my curiosity and fascination with the book has been replaced by sadness and disappointment. A recent (June 2008) article in the Chicago Tribune tells how the story has unfolded, or unraveled, since the book's been published... and it ain't pretty. Since she's a hometown girl, I still want to believe that Debbie's intentions have always been above board... but, either way, it's had a devastating impact on the women left behind in Kabul. Debbie's gotten some degree of glory, but her Kabul "sisters" are paying the price, and having to do it all by themselves. Very, very sad.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
First, the good:
The book is written in an informal, yet extremely engaging, style. It is well put-together. After I started reading it, I just wanted to keep reading until I finished. (I guess you could call that a "page-turner".)
Now, the bad:
The book starts out with great promise. The narrator is a hairdresser from Michigan who is having a difficult time extricating herself from an abusive marriage. (It is not clear to me why she doesn't just leave the guy, but that's OK. It seems to be a combination of abused wife reasons: money, psychological control. Common enough.) Then, for some reason that is never made clear, she gets the idea to use her beauty skills to travel to Afghanistan and help women there learn cosmetology. She has no money to do this, but ends up convincing a famous beauty supply company to fund her project.
She then makes the first of many selfish, and questionable, decisions revolving around responsability: She decides to move to Afghanistan. That would be fine if she was on her own--- but she isn't. She is a mother with small children. Moving to Afghanistan entails leaving her dependent children in the US without her. (It is never made clear who exactly is taking care of her children while she spends months at a time in Afghanistan. It is heartbreaking when later in the book one of her sons decides to move to Afghanistan just to be closer to her; she allows this, putting him into extreme danger. He then transfers to go to school in Cyprus just so he can be on the same continent; not long after he makes this life-altering decision, his mother abandons Afghanistan and moves back to the US. This is simply the first life of many she has irrevocably changed for the worse.)
This theme of abandonment of responsability caused by questionable, headstrong decisions is one that plays out with ever-increasing devastation as the book continues.
After arriving in Afghanistan, the author succeeds in starting the beauty school. There are many colorful anecdotes about life in Afghanistan, and the many colorful and interesting characters she meets. They are especially interesting since they are told from the perspective of an American woman. Unfortunately (as I should have gathered early in the book if I had been paying attention) this perspective is a subtle one of cultural superiority. (As an example, she lives in Afghanistan for over a year, and even by the end of the book, she has never bothered to learn any form of the local language. After YEARS there, she still gets by by speaking English, using friends as translators, and hand-gestures.)
She becomes "friends" with Afghan women who she trains in her beauty school. At first everything goes well--- the women love being independent and earning their own money--- but she soon comes up against
cultural norms that threaten the school. This is not unexpected, of course. However, she deals with most of these with little cultural perspective, and which put the Afghan women under her tutelage in personal danger time and again.
Somewhere along the way, she meets an Afghan man at a dinner with friends; without either of them speaking the other's language, she agrees to marry him and become his second wife only a few WEEKS after they meet. She knows nothing about this man, yet agrees to marry him mere weeks after they meet! (Another questionable, headstrong decision, which will end badly.)
Near the end of the book, she travels one last time to Afghanistan. A lot of troubles have ensued, the beauty shop is basically closed, a lot of the women who she has dragged into her little experiment are now in danger for their lives. She decides to leave Afghanistan almost immediately, saying only that she felt danger and had to get away. She doesn't explain this at all in the book. She abandons the beauty school, the Afghan women who were her "friends", and her new Afghan husband as well-- leaving him and them without so much as a goodbye or explanation for her abandonment. It is never explained why she does this in the book, either-- but seems par for the course given her previous actions.
Even worse is what happens when she returns to the US. She basically stops calling and helping her Afghan friends. The women she brought into the beauty school rightly feel abandoned. Some of them are now political refugees in other countries because they are in danger for their lives in Afghanistan. (Even if she can't help them financially, she still hasn't even bothered CALLING them in over a year. In a recent interview in the Chicago Tribune, she questions: "When is enough enough?" Apparently after you write a bestseller and ink a movie deal after destroying dozens of lives and livelihoods.)
By the end of the book, I was left with a feeling of disquiet and unease. I really wanted to like the author (she comes across as very dynamic and engaging)-- let's be honest, it takes a certain dynamic personality to pull something like this off. Personality-wise, I ALMOST liked her. But I finally had to conclude that-- whether accidentally or purposefully--- she is also the type of person with no self-awareness, a high degree of selfishness (which is even more dangerous because she doesn't see it!), and headstrong tendencies and disregard for others that leave devastation in her wake no matter where she goes. A walking tornado.
I am giving the book three stars because it works AS A BOOK: It really kept me engaged and made me want to read it to the end.
However, it sort of left me feeling like I might feel after eating a gallon of ice cream at one sitting: Kind of uncomfortable, nauseous and, in the end, sick at heart.
89 of 105 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I have mixed feelings about this book. It's easy to read and certainly provides an interesting and informative portrayal of what life is like for the women of Afghanistan. Unfortunatley, for me it dragged on in the end, and I started counting pages wondering when it would be over. There is one heartbreaking and shocking story after the next, and too many "characters" to wrap one's mind around. This mélange of stories primarily boils down to this: Terrorizing Men and Terrorized Women. I don't believe life for Afghani women has improved because of the Kabul Beauty School, and from what I understand, because of their portrayal in this book, some of the women are in more danger now that the book is out and Rodriguez has fled.
In the end, reading Kabul Beauty School did not elicit the feelings I thought it might, which was to have met an extraordinary, selfless woman who achieved a major accomplishment. Throughout the reading, I didn't understand or appreciate the author's motivation and, as a result, found it difficult to champion her cause. It's excellent memoir or journal material, but that's where the excellence ends. Does it entertain a broad audience? Absolutely not. In addition, there's a certain lack of credibility from the merely average writing skills of the author. In the retelling of this tale, Deborah Rodriguez often comes across as victim of circumstance. She makes a series of foolish choices particularly when it comes to marriage, acts rashly, and often irreverently, probably drinks too much and smokes. (This may be harsh, but these traits, to me, have nothing to do with "beauty.") For example, it doesn't make her the least bit likeable when we learn she verbally assaults a man at an outdoor market when he follows her around and grabs her backside. Embarrassing and endangering her closest friend (and translator) in the process, the friend tells her outright that she will "never go to the market with her again." Rodriguez brings her strong, independent and liberated American woman traits with her, wears them on her sleeve, and it does not earn her respect from the people around her, or from this reader. It makes her nickname "Crazy Debbie" perfectly understandable. Also, she lets her friends arrange a marriage for her, (and granted the presence of an Afghani husband, "Sam," does help her cause in one dangerous and surprising circumstance after another), but this man already has a wife, and we soon learn, a baby on the way. It's all very bizarre.
It feels as though Rodriguez returned to Afghanistan (after her first genuine venture there to provide aid after the ousting of the Taliban) in search of an extraordinary life rather than because she wanted to be the savior of Afghani women. I'm not saying this is true (I don't know this woman), but if the purpose of this book was to tell the world who she is and why she went to Afghanistan at great personal expense to become the director of a beauty school with the hope of making life better for the women there, she has been successful. The book, published by a major house, and the movie deal also deem her "successful." As for the school and the cause? A failure. She is not, like the book jacket indicates, living in Afghanistan and still running the school. According to an article on NPR, "the subjects of her book say Rodriguez and her newfound fame have put their lives in danger. They say they've seen none of the money or help to get them out of Afghanistan that Rodriguez promised them in exchange for having their stories appear in the book." Rodriguez counters by saying the women misunderstood what she promised them.
In spite of this rather negative review, I do think Kabul Beauty School is an EXCELLENT CHOICE for book clubs as it will no doubt, provoke a very interesting and thoughtful discussion about the lives of women living in Afghanistan, and whether or not the outside world should or shouldn't have something to say or do about this culture and the emancipation of women there. I also suggest Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time.
Michele Cozzens is the author of Irish Twins
54 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2007
Deborah Rodriquez, known by Kabul shop owners and Michigan prison inmates alike as "Miss Debbie," first came to Afghanistan in 2002 as part of a group from the Care for All Foundation, a Christian Humanitarian Organization. A hairdresser by trade, Rodriguez is deemed significantly less useful than her medically-trained compatriots and is given any number of odd jobs and a good deal of free time to explore the city. Little did she--or the relief group--realize exactly how desirable her skills might be in that war-torn city.
When the expatriate community discovers a hairdresser in their midst, Rodriguez is swamped with requests. One woman summed up the situation quite succinctly: "We have literally risked our lives for highlights. [...] Once I drove ten hours over the Khyber Pass to get my hair done in Pakistan" (39). During Taliban rule, hair salons and their feminine space were banned. In 2002 salons were only just starting to reopen, struggling without the supplies and skills needed to be truly successful.
As she begins to befriend both westerners and Afghans in Kabul, Rodriguez begins to see a niche that she can fill. She returns to Michigan hoping to find a way to open a teaching salon in Kabul. Armed with her dream and a lot of gumption she manages to get $500,000 worth of donations from Paul Mitchell and other large beauty companies. Just when Rodriguez is at a loss as to how to proceed, she discovers Mary MacMakin and her nonprofit, PARSA. Aligning herself with PARSA, she returns to Kabul in Spring 2003 as a founding faculty member of the Kabul Beauty School, eventually becoming its lead instructor and administrator.
While Rodriguez's story of an American woman helping to make a difference in the lives of Afghan women is not unique, it is both moving and powerful. KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL is compulsively readable. A strong opening chapter illustrates both the struggles of modern Afghan women and Rodriguez's inimitable blend of brazenness and kindness, leaving readers with a desire to know more about this spunky, resourceful hairdresser and her students.
The stories of Rodriguez's students fill the pages of this memoir: the wife of a Taliban-aligned opium addict, the bride who must fake virginity, and the young girl sold by her parents to an older man, just to name a few. The author, however, is just as interesting as her students.
One of the things that sets Rodriguez apart is her ability to empathize with her students. Having suffered an abusive husband, she is attuned to the indignities--both large and small--that affect Afghan women every day. Rodriguez is dynamic and personable; more than that, she clearly loves Afghanistan and its people. As she so elegantly puts it,
"as soon as I set my foot on this soil, I knew I'd somehow managed to come home. I've been renewed by the spirit of this place and roused by its challenges" (269). While Rodriguez maintains both her personality and independence throughout the period covered in this memoir, she becomes ever more a part of the Afghan community, even allowing her friends to arrange a marriage to an Afghan businessman.
The history of the school--and Rodriguez's life in Kabul--is not without drama. The school has political and financial problems. There are cultural misunderstandings, most perpetrated by the clueless, but well-meaning Rodriguez. At the memoir's end, we learn that both the school and affiliated salon have been closed. Nevertheless, the reader is left with a sense of hope: if anyone can turn things around, it is Rodriguez.
The narrative is a bit uneven (for example, the handling of her son's stay in Afghanistan is cursory, simply tagged onto a story about one of her students). However, that is almost to be expected in a first effort and the natural charisma of the author, and the compelling tale of the school, will be enough to keep readers interested.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2008
First, let me say that the writing in this book is not bad - it's not great either, but it is readable. The content is a different story. The first chapter of this book describes how Debrorah saves her friend by tricking her friend's new husband (and everyone else in the family) into believing that her friend was a virgin when she got married. I spent the next 15 minutes leafing through the rest of the book, hoping to see that the friend had somehow escaped what was undoubtedly the death sentence that Deborah had committed her to when she published her book. Not getting any such assurance, I have been hoping since then that Deborah was lying through her teeth. I can not believe that anyone who knew fully well what would happen, could have been so irresponsible. Deborah comes across like Amazonian airhead - after all, she must be fairly muscular to collar a fully grown man when he groped her bottom and drag him across the street to a cop; and marrying a man who she knew absolutely nothing about can't be considered the wisest move in world. She is obviously very proud of being feisty and not standing for any nonsense, but she has an American passport and could (and did) get the hell out of Dodge when the going got rough. All those girls she "liberated" and then wrote about might not agree that their lives were worth the story she lived to tell.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Debbie's got guts! She's an adventurer, a teacher and a mentor and a beacon for Afgan women.
What all the coalitions and NGOs are missing in Afganistan, and elsewhere, is that the key to building peace is empowering women. Look at all the trouble spots in the world. What do they all have in common? The disregard of the rights of women. Empowering the women stabilizes the country, it stops the first tyranny, the one at home.
Debbie felt out of her element with the doctors and medical personnel who took her to Afganistan, but she had the guts, stamina and interpersonal skills to make a lasting contribution. It's a tremendous credit to her that she toughed it out.
The opportunity to build democracy in Afganistan is not totally lost, but as I write this there are still 22 Koreans being held political hostage. In a separate, totally criminal situation, a German was just released. I am of the opinion that had the US govt. kept its eye on the ball and had resolve of Debbie Rodriguez Afganistan (and the USA) would be on a far better track today.
The situation of the women, who have NO rights makes you cry. The fate of so many good and capable women lies in the hands of opium abusers, physically abusive husbands and pompous government officials. Reading this book will make cry, laugh and give you hope.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Facts aside, the book is an interesting read and I believe does paint a semi-accurate picture of the life in Afghanistan. However, the writing style is sub-par and the story jumps around from past to present so much, that it's hard to tell what already happened and what's going on right now.
As for the facts, a 2007 New York Times articles exposed just how over exaggerated the story really is. Ms. Rodriguez was not the founder of the Kabul Beauty School - the beauty school was already established, the building built and donations received before Rodriguez even came into the picture. Ms. Rodriguez described with much drama being held at gun point and being told that the Women's Ministry is taking over the school. In reality, others involved with the school stated that Ms. Rodriguez moved the school to her own private residence to make profit. As long as the school was at the Ministry, it was non-profit.
One of the women, Roshanna, figures promptly in the book. When questioned as to her existence, Rodriguez said that she fabricated many of the details of Roshanna's story. The reality is that Rodriguez profited from her experience through the book and movie deal, and then left this women to fend for themselves. She placed them in danger by telling their stories, and then left Afghanistan for good. As one article states, the beauty school is currently closed and Ms. Rodriguez has no plans of returning there.
94 of 123 people found the following review helpful
Her husband was a minister --- and a pig. You know the type: jealous, possessive, calls the wife 70 times a day if he suspects she's in the mere presence of another man. She had no college --- she'd worked as a prison guard and was now on her second stint as a hairdresser --- and she lived in Holland, Michigan, not exactly a center of opportunity.
But Debbie Rodriguez had a personality as vivid as her short, red, spiked hair. She'd taken emergency and disaster relief training in the summer of 2001. And she had a big heart.
So what did she do right after 9/11?
She volunteered to spend a month in Afghanistan. At the first meeting of her group with other foreigners living in Kabul, the women burst into wild applause when she was introduced --- there wasn't a decent hairdresser in the entire city.
Debbie Rodriguez loved Afghanistan. When she returned to Michigan, a friend suggested that she move to Kabul and start a beauty school. The idea itched. She couldn't stop watching television footage of the Taliban. She read book after book. She knew, from her own experience, that she could help Afghani women: "A salon is a good business for a woman --- especially if she has a bad husband." And she identified with them: "I was still married to such a mean man that Afghanistan, then considered by many people to be the most dangerous place on earth, felt like paradise."
"I hope you die in Afghanistan," her husband said as she left for the airport in March of 2003.
"I'd rather die than live here with you," she said. And, with that, "a door in my heart opened, and the tiny piece of him left inside tumbled out. I flew to Afghanistan, where my heart would soon fill with new people to love."
And, it turns out, for you to love. Debbie Rodriguez is the kind of fearless woman that women instinctively adore (and men, at their peril, learn to respect). And in a beauty salon, women literally let their hair down --- that is, once they've removed their burkas. So you get stories.
There's the long-deflowered bride who, on her wedding night, needs to prove she's a virgin. The woman who takes her burka off for the first time in fifteen years and has to shield her eyes from the sunlight for the first three days. The woman who hadn't been out of her house in eight years. The hairdresser who had been jailed by the Taliban for practicing her trade.
And you get a glimpse of Afghan customs. Did you know that, in Afghanistan, both men and women get their bodies completely waxed before they marry? That at the wedding party, some women dress as men so they can more authentically dance with other women? That there are no rude Afghans? ("Even when they're pointing a gun at you, they're polite.")
And, mostly, you get Debbie. Her determination: When the owner of Paul Mitchell phones her in Kabul, it's only seconds before the question of donated beauty supplies becomes "how much do you need?" Her ferocity: I counted two incidents --- there may be more --- when she lifts her burka so she can see better to punch an offending Afghani man in the face. And her wild spirit: The story of her semi-arranged marriage to an Afghani will have you slack-jawed more than once.
"One person can make a difference." I usually cringe when I hear that. But Debbie Rodriguez is living proof. She set a stage upon which women transformed their lives. She brought laughter into rooms that had only known tears. And, in the process, she found her own joy.
In May of 2006, some American military vehicles crashed into civilian cars. Several Afghanis died. A riot followed. American troops said they fired over the heads of the rioters, but several Afghanis were killed and many were injured. After that, strict curfews were imposed. And the Kabul Beauty School had to close.
Count that as a shadow. Debbie Rodriguez kicked open doors and smashed windows, and now there is light in the hearts of hundreds of Afghani women. I can't imagine there are men tough enough to put those lights out.