Shear insanity in 'Kabul Beauty School'

A hairdresser from Michigan uses her profession to improve the lot of Afghan women in this true-life account.

Here's a wild idea for a truly madcap sitcom: Uproot a hairdresser named Deb from Holland, Mich., and ship her to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Make sure, of course, that she's enough of a character – an ex-prison guard with spiky red hair and long fingernails who's often seen pulling hard on a cigarette – to offend even those Afghans who don't support the Taliban. But don't forget that she'll also need a heart of gold and a soft-as-mush interior in order to interact feelingly with a different traumatized Afghan woman each week.

Too implausible, you say? Not at all. This is Deborah Rodriguez's actual life.

In Kabul Beauty School, Rodriguez (with the help of coauthor Kristin Ohlson) tells the utterly improbable but also genuinely moving story of how she traveled to Afghanistan to help after 9/11 and ended up with an Afghan husband (Sam, an Afghan businessman with another wife and eight children in Saudi Arabia) and a commitment to live in Kabul and train Afghan women to become beauty salon operators. [Editor's note : The original version mistakenly omitted coauthor Kristin Ohlson.]

Somehow Rodriguez, who certainly has the hairdresser's gift for entertaining and confidential gab, manages to make it all seem almost reasonable.

Although planted firmly in Michigan for most of her life, Rodriguez had a yearning for both a larger world and a higher purpose that led her to take disaster relief training two months before 9/11. Shortly thereafter she hears that aid workers are needed in Afghanistan and quickly signs up.

She imagines, she tells us, that she will spend a month "bandaging wounds, splinting broken limbs, clambering over rubble, and helping people who were still hiding from the Taliban climb into daylight."

The reality is that, once in Kabul, no one really knows what to do with her. Unlike the medics, engineers, and nutritionists with whom she had traveled, her skills serve no clear purpose in Kabul. Even worse, Rodriguez suspects, her colleagues, many of whom are affiliated with Christian churches, are uncomfortable with her appearance. Perhaps, they suggest, she had best stay indoors and pray for them.

But Rodriguez doesn't have a stay-at-home personality. Before long she is out walking where she's been told not to walk and making all sorts of Afghan friends.

As she learns more of Kabul (a city she describes as "dense with sadness") and its residents it becomes clear to her that her profession – hairdressing – is one of the few truly viable options for would-be female Afghan entrepreneurs. There's a huge demand for such services, as many Afghan women sport elaborate hair and makeup styles under their burqas. At the same time, it's work that can be done entirely in female company – a necessity in a segregated society.

Soon, Rodriguez decides to open a school to teach Afghan women the skills they'd need to open their own salons. No shrinking violet, she petitions US beauty supply manufacturers for help, and easily raises a half-million dollars in donations.

Of course, nothing about implementing Rodriguez's plan is easy, and this is where Sam proves indispensable. As unlikely a match as they are, he at least admires and supports her goals. (When they first meet and she explains to him that as a wife she would be a partner and not a servant, he insists, "I see this kind of wife on television and I want one.")

But most of the credit for coping falls to Rodriguez herself. Ever inventive, she engages Afghan woman in hair dying by asking them to see unwanted hair pigment as Satan, who must be vanquished. She comes to find it normal to direct people to her home by telling them to turn right at the bombed-out movie theater and then continue along the street with all the dead cows. She accepts – and even romanticizes – a husband so exhausted by her emotional needs that he pays a proxy to talk to her. (Of course, compared with Rodriguez's ex back in the US and the husbands of many of her students, Sam is a gem.)

But perhaps best about Rodriguez is her refusal to either patronize her beloved Afghan students (whose heart-rending stories are woven throughout the book) or to drape herself in too much of a hero's mantle. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing much good here at all," she writes, acknowledging the limited degree to which any Westerner can fully grasp the complexities of Afghan life.

What she does know for sure, she says, is that the courage and strength she has seen in Afghan women have become her inspiration. They are moving toward the light, she tells us, and that makes it all the more poignant when, at the book's uncertain ending, Rodriguez begs the rest of us to "look, watch, and make sure nothing puts out that light again."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments or questions to Marjorie Kehe.

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