Book Club, Memoir/Autobiography, Nonfiction

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

We had our first self-isolation book club meeting this week! While we were supposed to discuss Kabul Beauty School in March, we discussed it a few days ago, and we had a very lively video discussion!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan with nothing but a desire to help and a degree in cosmetology. There she joined the Kabul Beauty school, which welcomed its first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez, one of the school’s first teachers and its eventual director, stumbled through language barriers and overstepped cultural customs as she learned how to empower her students to become their families’ breadwinners, teaching them 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 their stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style. With warmth and humor, Rodriguez reveals the magnificence behind the burqa – and presents the remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom.

Review

I put Kabul Beauty School forward for Nonfiction Book Club voting on the recommendation of our of our publisher reps. The group was excited, we hadn’t read many memoirs because judgement of the book feels like critiques of the author and we try very hard not to bash authors in book club when we don’t like the book. We can talk about a misguided motivation, but we don’t often find our opinions of their life choices on the radar for our discussion.

While I never want to say we will never read a particularly type of book, I think we might need to put memoirs on the “approach with caution” list. The book was first published in 2007 and the world has changed drastically since then. When Debbie first went to Afghanistan, it was shortly after the invasion and the Taliban was on the outs. And the US had a bad case of white savior syndrome.

We had to fix everything, change everything, and impose our western “democratic” ideals on the rest of the world. We still do this as a nation. If we didn’t like something, we would fix it and remake it in our image, cultural customs and beliefs of those affected be damned. Debbie went to Afghanistan to help. By teaching Afghani women how to do American hair and make up and stop looking like, as she described them, drag queens.

Beauty salons in Kabul were the primary business enterprise that women could undertake and were places where only women could spend time. As such, they were a place for friendship and gossip, but also accused of being brothels. To open and run a beauty parlor was to undertake significant personal risks. The school excited the women of Kabul as they sought to change their lives. And Debbie was there to observe it.

In 2020, I firmly believe that while Debbie wrote about her life and it was her perspective that was published, it would not be the book published today. Her life, and decisions, are ultimately uninteresting. What happened? What changed? Did any of the women, beyond one, have a career afterwards? We have no idea. I don’t know what inspired her to seek publication for her book – to raise money for the school? To beat someone else to doing so? To make sure that her narrative is the dominant one of the school? I don’t know.

When it’s your book, and your perspective, it’s all about you, I get that – it’s the point of memoir. But I wonder about everyone else in it. Did they ask to be included? Was it run past them first? I love a memoir, I’ve read a lot of memoirs, and I find myself asking why I don’t feel such simultaneous disinterest and animosity towards the authors of those authors. Maybe it’s because I’m judgemental and feel like Debbie was ultimately incredibly selfish, and maybe it’s because a memoir has to have a point and while they cannot have a definitive ending (unless published posthumously), there should be a conclusion, or at least a point. I would have loved to have known more about the students and teachers at the school, and less about Debbie.

Rating: 5 of out 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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