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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe Hardcover – March 15, 2011

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Product Description

The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war—a rare achievement for any Afghan woman—Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the incredible true story of this unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community under the Taliban. Former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years on the ground reporting Kamila's story, and the result is an unusually intimate and unsanitized look at the daily lives of women in Afghanistan. These women are not victims; they are the glue that holds families together; they are the backbone and the heart of their nation. Afghanistan's future remains uncertain as debates over withdrawal timelines dominate the news.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana moves beyond the headlines to transport you to an Afghanistan you have never seen before. This is a story of war, but it is also a story of sisterhood and resilience in the face of despair. Kamila Sidiqi's journey will inspire you, but it will also change the way you think about one of the most important political and humanitarian issues of our time.

Amazon Exclusive: Greg Mortenson Interviews Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Since a 1993 climb of Pakistan's K2, Greg Mortenson has worked in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan to promote education and literacy--establishing 145 schools, primarily for girls, which provide education to over 64,000 students, including 52,000 females. He is a co-author of The New York Times bestsellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools.

Greg Mortenson: In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Kamila and her sisters sew a collection of wedding dresses overnight for a wedding party they later find out is connected to the Taliban. How did writing this book affect your view of the Taliban period?

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: That scene in the book captures precisely the extraordinary complexity of the period. Reporting on the Taliban period I quickly learned there were many different views of what those years were like, depending on who you were, what you did, and where you lived. A lot of women I knew, including, of course, Kamila, told me stories about local Talibs who knew of their work and even helped them to keep it going. And they said that many of the Taliban in their neighborhood were men they had known for years who simply needed to support their families.

What I kept coming back to—and what moved me deeply during so many conversations with young women , some of them tearful—was the raw loss they felt at having been deprived of five and a half years of education. And yet even amid all that despair they found ways to come together to build a community for the sake of their families. We are so used to seeing women as victims of war to be pitied rather than survivors of war to be respected. I really hope The Dressmaker of Khair Khana does its small part to change that.

Mortenson: How has your work at Harvard Business School informed your view of Afghanistan’s predicament?

Lemmon: My experience at HBS has made me even more keenly aware of the constellation of obstacles facing entrepreneurs in some of the toughest parts of the world. That’s perhaps why I am so taken by stories of entrepreneurs like Kamila who succeed every day despite all the obstacles (and sometimes even because of them).

Economic growth strengthens families and communities. More attention must be paid by Afghanistan’s leaders and the international community to the importance of making business easier for entrepreneurs, so they can spend time making money to support their families and less time fighting red tape, corruption and security obstacles.

Mortenson: In many ways, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads like a novel, and yet it is all true. How much energy did you focus on the craft of storytelling vs. the reporting itself?

Lemmon: I believe in the power of stories to shape and change our world. The Dressmaker happens to be set in Afghanistan during the Taliban, but it could just as easily have been the US during the Civil War or the UK during World War II. Storytelling allows us to see just how similar our struggles really are. My hope was that my godmother and my aunt, who will never go to Afghanistan, could pick up this book and see themselves in this universal story of family and faith.

For me, the reporting is where the joy is—it’s a privilege to be allowed to take a step into people’s lives and to be entrusted with telling their story. In this case the reporting was much more physically difficult than the storytelling—the fall of 2008 in particular was a time during which kidnappings and bombings became regular occurrences in Kabul; both Afghans and foreigners I visited with constantly swapped stories of terrifying incidents which involved their friends and relatives. I knew a lot of people who were affected by the violence, and all the insecurity made it much harder to convince young women to speak with me about their experiences.

Mortenson: You’ve spent a lot of time on the ground in Afghanistan. What is it like to travel there as a young woman?

Lemmon: I love going to Afghanistan, though the trip from California is nearly 40 hours. It is a beautiful country with incredibly generous people who will give you anything they have even if it is all they have. (And I highly recommend the food!)

Being a young woman actually made my work easier. I could meet women of all ages and spend time with them at their homes hearing their stories and sharing my own. This is a world many foreign men will never have access to, for cultural reasons. I also could meet Afghan men because, as a foreign woman, you sort of fit a third category—not male, but not exactly female, either. I worked hard to build trust with those women and men who entrusted me with their stories—I tried to learn Dari and to draw as little attention to my ‘foreign-ness’ as possible: I often was the frumpiest woman I saw all day in my uniform of black pants, black socks, black shoes, black t-shirt, and a dark jacket and head scarf. I think those I wrote about respected the fact that I kept coming back to Afghanistan.

Mortenson: You've worked and studied in conflict and post-conflict regions such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Women are rarely involved in the high level decision making that affects conflict negotiations or even consulted about their own creative ideas for resolution. How can we help and empower women to play a much larger role in resolving conflicts?

Lemmon: This is a question I think about all the time. We are used to women pulling families through war, but having no say in the peace which follows. This must change for the world to be a safer, more stable place.

A great example has been set by the women of Liberia, who insisted their voices be heeded when it came time for UN negotiations to end their nation’s civil war. (There is a great film about their push to be heard called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”) Afghan women, too, are speaking up to make sure that no peace negotiations happen without their real and substantive representation. Each one of us can help advance their cause and this effort by insisting that our own elected officials don’t take part in any talks in which women don’t take part. Holding our own leaders accountable is a great place to start.

From Publishers Weekly

In 2005, Lemmon went to Afghanistan on assignment for the Financial Times to write about women entrepreneurs. When she met a dressmaker named Kamila Sediqi, Lemmon (once a producer for This Week with George Stephanopolos) knew she had her story. It's an exciting, engrossing one that reads like a novel, complete with moments of tension and triumph, plus well-researched detail on daily life in Kabul under Taliban rule. When that regime descended in 1996, it brought fear, violence, and restrictions: women must stay home, may not work, and must wear the chadri—a cloak, also known as a burqa, that covers the face and body—in public. After Sediqi's parents left the city to avoid being pressed into service, or worse, by the Taliban, it fell to her to support the family. Her story is at once familiar (she came up with an idea, procured clients, hired student workers, and learned as she went) and wholly different (she couldn't go anywhere without a male escort, had to use an assumed name with customers due to the threat of being found out and punished, and could fit in work on the sewing machine only when there was electricity). It's a fascinating story that touches on family, gender, business, and politics and offers inspiration through the resourceful, determined woman at its heart. (Mar.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061732370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061732379
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (505 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #283,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jeannie Mancini VINE VOICE on January 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When American journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon sets out to research stories on unsung heroines that became extraordinary entrepreneurs, never did she imagine she'd come across Kamela Sediqi.

This is the incredible story of one young woman who set out to find a way out of a world of despair, and turned a war torn land of death and destruction into a private den of hope for her and her sisters, in order to save their lives from turmoil. When the Taliban suddenly storm into Kabul, life changes for the Afghani people in a frightful and restrictive manner. The take over of Kabul leaves it's happy peaceful residents turning on their heals to either secretly evacuate at night across the mountains into Pakistan, or stay and be forced to adhere to severe laws of injustice. The Taliban edict enforces women to be completely covered from head to foot, they are not allowed to go outside without a male chaperone, they must not work in the public and must only work at home. Books, education, colorful clothing, music and joy, are taken from their lives leaving only a world of darkness. Strict adherence to Muslim law and religious creed are mandatory. Evening curfews are set, Taliban spies hide in waiting, offenders are publicly beaten, jailed, or killed.

When the family funds get low, and when then level of daily violence in Kabul escalates out of control, Kamela's father leaves Kabul to get help from his family, her brother is sent to Pakistan to work. The family desperately needs food. Times get tougher and tougher but as the burden of taking care of her family weighs heavy on Kamela's shoulders, she miraculously finds a way to keep their chins up and hatches a plan to save the day, and their threatened lives.
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This is the latest in a string of inspiring and heartwarming true stories about how determination and the human spirit can literally triumph over adversity and change hundreds or thousands of lives. (Think Three Cups of Tea and its sequel.) On that level, it works well. It offers a fascinating and sometimes horrifying look at life under the Taliban, who for the most part are every bit as brutal, ignorant and fanatical as they've been depicted elsewhere. The title character, Kamela Sidiqi, is clearly a remarkable woman, and one can't help but be filled with admiration for all she achieved, particularly considering how young she was when she started the dressmaking business that sustained her family and many of her neighbors during the dark years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. I couldn't help wondering if it has been optioned for a movie because in the right hands, it would make an incredible film.

But while I enjoyed it, that's precisely why I think it's not as successful a book as it could be. Throughout, there were leaps in time and gaps in the narrative that left me wondering what happened to this person or that and what had transpired in the interim. It's as if the author, who researched her material long after the fact, didn't have the information she needed to flesh out the narrative, so took some shortcuts, kind of hopping around and in places reducing the storyline to a series of episodic vignettes. A good editor would have caught these and worked with the author to fix them, but several slipped through, and I found myself going back to see if I'd missed something about a character. Sometimes I had, but just as often, I hadn't. Particularly toward the end she seemed to be kind of speeding up just to finish the narrative.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We have come to view the women of Afghanistan as oppressed victims of the Taliban -- which they are -- but they are not just that, writes Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. They are heroes who under the harshest of circumstances have carved out a niche for themselves as entrepreneurs and activists. They have no choice, if they and their families are going to survive.

Until I read this story of Kamela, a young woman struggling to stay alive in Taliban-occupied Kabul, I had no idea of what that oppression meant. I knew that women were denied an education and forced to cover themselves entirely. But I could never have extrapolated how cruelly their lives were shut down. Gangs of "morality police" roam the streets, beating any woman whose covering reveals a stray hair, or who has lifted her chadri for a second so she can see what she's buying at the market. Women are unable to work, to go out without a male family member, or talk with anyone when they do venture out. It is risky business to walk down a street, and they cannot recognize even a friend, covered as they are from head to toe. Women are essentially cut off from society and put under house arrest.

Kamela can't bear this enforced captivity. First, she and her sisters figure out how to swap books with friends to ease their boredom. Then, she sets in motion a plan to become a seamstress, since her plan to teach has come to an end. It doesn't matter that she has never sewed! She is determined to learn; otherwise, her family will starve. Her father and brother have been forced to flee the country, as most men have in order to escape impressment or death, leaving her and her sisters without an income.
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