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Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil
by Deborah Rodriguez, Kristin Ohlson

Published: 2007-04-10
Hardcover : 275 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 2 members
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, ...
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(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.

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Discussion Questions

1. We so often think of ourselves as more socially advanced than Middle Eastern nations. What does it say about this assumption that the author was treated by a preacher husband in the US the same way that Nahhida, wife of a Taliban member, is treated in Afghanistan?

2. Did Debbie take a chance of repeating her abusive history by marrying a relatively unknown man from a culture with a reputation for mistreating women?

3. Were you shocked when she revealed that her husband had another wife?

4. Why do you think Debbie was so emotional upon meeting Sam’s father? Would you have been eager to meet him or preferred not to? Were you surprised at his reaction?

5. As a mother of two, was Debbie irresponsible in taking risks like crossing the Khyber pass and confronting her neighbors? Should she have gone to Afghanistan at all, knowing the conditions in the country?

6. Debbie’s “bad” neighbors were potentially dangerous. What would you have done in her situation? How would the ineffectiveness of the local police make you feel?

7. Was it foolish for Debbie to continue running the beauty school in the face of government interference and hostility?

8. Debbie goes to Afghanistan in order to change the lives of women there and give them greater power in their personal lives, a mission that she has fulfilled for many women. How have these women changed her?

9. Does the example of a strong self-sufficient woman Debbie sets for the Afghan women provide them with helpful inspiration or does it set a dangerous precedent, encouraging them to model behaviors and aspirations that might be dangerous to them in their environment?

10. Would you have let a known Taliban member, and opium addict at that, stay under your roof in order to help his wife? How dangerous do you think this decision really was?

11. Why do you think Hama was unable to follow through and accept the generous offer of a place to live and a new life in the US?

12. How would you have reacted if your son offered to marry Hama? Would you have encouraged him? Argued against it?

13. How do you think American women are similar to and, at the same time, different from the Afghan women Debbie befriended and works with?

14. Did it surprise you to read about some of the frank discussions and depictions of sex among the Afghan women at the beauty salon and the wedding that Debbie attended?

15. Do you think it was wise for Debbie to help Roshanna escape detection as a non-virgin on her wedding night? Would you have chosen to interfere? Why or why not?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

About The Spirit of Sweetgrass

The Spirit of Sweetgrassis about Essie Mae Laveau Jenkins, a 78-year-old sweetgrass basket maker who sits on the side of Hwy. 17 in the company of her deceased husband, Daddy Jim. Inspired by her Auntie Leona, Essie Mae finally discovers her calling in life and weaves powerful "love baskets," praying fervently over them to affect the lives of those who visit her roadside stand. When she's faced with losing her home, her stand, and being put into a nursing home, Daddy Jim talks her into coming on up to Heaven to meet sweet Jesus, something she's always wanted to do. Once there, she reunites with Gullahs and African ancestors; but soon, her heavenly peace is disrupted. Now Essie Mae, who once felt powerless and invisible, must find the strength within her to keep her South Carolina family from falling apart.

The origin of The Spirit of Sweetgrass

When I was expecting my second child, I was struck with the idea forThe Spirit of Sweetgrasswhile driving home past the quaint roadside stands of Mount Pleasant sweetgrass basket makers. It came unexpectedly and with such force that I found a scrap of paper and begin writing while driving. (Do not attempt this at home.) After initial research I remember waking the next morning at 4:00 AM with the voice of my narrator, Essie Mae, coming through loud and clear.

A month after beginningThe Spirit of Sweetgrass, I went on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy and tried to settle in to what might be a very long couple of months. I was unable to write, but I reveled in the stories and loving care of a Lowcountry basket weaver who was taking care of me and my young daughter. Just two weeks later, my son was born, small but healthy. We both nearly lost our lives, and the circumstances of his birth left me awed and grateful for the blessings of a second chance at life and a healthy child. I soon found the voice of Essie Mae louder and more persistent than ever, and I'd wake in the middle of the night to put the story on paper--that of Heaven and family ties.

I had no idea the importance of this story until I began receiving feedback from readers. One woman came to me in tears and said Essie Mae reminded her so much of the sweet woman who raised her. Another said she finished my book one day and the next day, her mother passed away. She said she'd never been able to imagine heaven before reading The Spirit of Sweetgrass but could now imagine her mother in a better place. It's my amazing readers who give true meaning to this book. It's my hope that you'll be touched and inspired as I have been by Essie Mae's story. Enjoy.

Book Club Recommendations

Research the author
by cahendrix (see profile) 06/30/09
There is also a sort of documentary "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" that you can find on Netflix that is very interesting to watch.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by barbara W. (see profile) 11/10/15

  "Flawed memoir"by F Tessa B. (see profile) 06/04/13

Audio book read by Bernadette Dunne

Rodriguez impulsively went to Afghanistan while escaping a bad marriage and looking for meaning to her life. Willing and eager to work, she came up wi

... (read more)

  "Admiration for a Brave Woman"by Denise B. (see profile) 07/22/10

  "Interesting and thought provoking - both book AND author!"by Carol H. (see profile) 06/30/09

We all enjoyed the book and felt that it exposed some incite into the women of Afghanistan. However, we were baffled by the author's behavior and concerned about her motives for writing the book and the... (read more)

  "Good Book to Learn Something New"by Sherry K. (see profile) 04/22/09

This book was great for discussion. We were able to compare and contrast the similarities and difference between our cultures. Plus we were able to discuss the controversy about the book. Did Debbie make... (read more)

  "An American hairdresser tries to make a living in Kabul. She teaches the women there a trade so they can be self sufficient among cultural differences and terrorism."by Susan M. (see profile) 02/01/09

Interesting story, but very disappointed in controversy surrounding book.

  "Deborah Rodriguez wants to help the war torn country of Afghanistan. She does this by opening up a beauty school in Kabul which in turn helps to return pride, joy, and confidence to the Afghan women."by Chris K. (see profile) 04/17/08

This was a wonderful true account that tugged at the heart strings and served as an inspiration to hope in the future of Afghanistan. It was quick and enjoyable to read.

  "Not one of my favorites."by Jeanne A. (see profile) 02/10/08

While I believe that Debbie Rodriguez' heart was in the right place, I question the way she went about some of the things she did. She wanted to help the people and especially the women in Afghanistan,... (read more)

  "This book offers opportunities to discuss contrasting lifestyles, moral standards and attitudes."by pam t. (see profile) 02/08/08

Ms. Rodriguez's attempts to teach Afghan women new styling skills in a country where she does not speak the language nor understand the culture was courageous and in some ways foolhardy! He... (read more)

  "American Expatriate opens a Beauty School in Kabul, Afghanistan"by Abbie R. (see profile) 01/22/08

I enjoyed reading about the cultural aspects of living in Afghanistan as a westerner, but I thought the book was anticlimactic. It did lead to some interesting discussions about the differences in American... (read more)

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