Q&A with Deborah Rodriguez
author of The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul
You left America for Afghanistan in 2002. What took you there, and how did you end up running the Kabul Beauty School?
In August 2001, I trained with an organization for disaster relief, and then the attacks on the twin towers in New York City occurred. I was deployed to Ground Zero to work with the fire-fighters. A few months later, I learned the same organisation was sending a team of doctors and dentists to Afghanistan. I begged to be part of the team. One problem: I’m a hairdresser, not a doctor. I called the president of the organization every day, asking to travel with them to Afghanistan, and eventually they agreed to let a hairdresser be part of a medical team.
I felt so privileged to be in the company of such talented doctors, but of course everyone wondered why a hairdresser was in a war zone, and on this team. I tried to make myself useful, and would stay busy doing everyone’s laundry. Between loads I had free time to explore the few beauty salons that had emerged from the rubble. This was an eye-opening experience.
When I walked into my first salon, I was shocked at how primitive it was. I saw my hairdressing sisters working with cracked mirrors, scissors the size of hedge clippers, and sticks for perm rods. I had never seen a beauty salon that had no running water. I knew that I could not turn my back on these wonderful women. The country was flooded with doctors, lawyers and engineers; the focus was understandably on hospitals and schools. However, what they failed to realize was that these salons offered freedom and a safe place for them to make friends with other women. And it offered them and their families an income. I had to do something to help. I was a hairdresser, my mother was a hairdresser; and I suddenly knew what to do. This is how the idea for the Kabul Beauty School began. I wanted to play a part in giving these women hope.
You also co-owned the Cabul Coffee House – undoubtedly the inspiration for Sunny’s coffee house! Are you two very similar?
Sunny came from my imagination, and from the women I met in my travels. And of course she is in many ways like me. I know I am hard-headed but I’m basically pretty much a softie, like Sunny. Many of her experiences in the book are similar to ones I had in Afghanistan. I’ll admit that I lived out some of my fantasies through Sunny, and also gave her an ending to her time in Afghanistan that I wish I’d had.
What were the greatest challenges you faced when running the coffee house? For example, was security as big an issue for you as it is for Sunny?
Security is always an issue in Afghanistan. Getting UN security compliance is an expensive challenge, but a very necessary component to running a business in Kabul is keeping your customers safe. If a restaurant is safe, serves good food and has a great vibe, people will gather there.
I wanted the coffee house in Kabul to be as Western as possible. I was so tired of instant coffee and figured there had to be others who felt the same way; a coffee house seemed the only solution. This was easier said than done, of course. With no reliable electricity, no clean water and all the coffee, syrup and machines having to arrive from Dubai, no day was without a crisis of some sort. Add to that frequent police raids on the coffee house (they always imagined that we foreigners were doing illicit things) and you’ll get an idea of my life there.
In the past, you’ve described Afghanistan as ‘Manistan’ – what did you mean by that?
I first arrived in Kabul not long after the Taliban had been in power. The women were still afraid to go out in public places. Men ran everything – from the shops, banks and restaurants. I didn’t even see many Afghan women until the beauty school was opened.
Presumably at the beauty school you met mostly women. Was the coffee house, on the other hand, frequented mostly by men?
The coffee house was a place where mostly foreign men and women gathered, and a few Afghan men. It was very unusual to see an Afghan woman in the coffee house. When a progressive Afghan woman would enter to use the Internet or drink a cup of coffee, the Afghan men – including my waiters – would stare and make her feel uncomfortable. It didn’t matter how many times I would talk to them about it, the same thing happened each time an Afghan woman came through the door. It was very frustrating.
The coffee house was also expensive for the average Afghan salary. Because everything was imported from Dubai, the cost of our coffee and food was the same as a Western coffee shop. If you are earning top wages of $150 a month, have a wife and five kids to support, it’s hard to pay $3 for a cup of coffee.
While in Kabul you married an Afghan Muslim. What cultural differences did you have to overcome, and did you feel this gave you a better insight into the lives of Afghan women?
Being married to an Afghan man was a huge learning curve. I found it very difficult to accept that men and women could not mingle at social events. When we visited his friends, I would be escorted to the women’s room, and he would be socializing in the men’s room. My Dari was OK but not good enough to have a comfortable conversation. A 10-year-old child would be sent into the room to translate, but this never worked, and I would sit, drink tea, and be stared at until my husband was ready to leave.
Often I was envious of the other foreign women, who had foreign boyfriends or non-Afghan husbands. They were freer to do what they pleased as a couple.
What I did gain was a better insight into the world of an Afghan woman and the working of an Afghan household. I was welcomed into their homes and lives because I was married to an Afghan. However, it was difficult for me to understand the hierarchy of the family. I could not conceive of a grown man being so afraid of his father, uncle, or elder brother. I’d thought that the women were the only ones who were controlled by men, but that’s not the case. The eldest male in the extended family is in control of the entire family. He must be obeyed by the men as well as the women. Fear is the tool to maintain control. If a man doesn’t obey the eldest male family member, someone will pay the price; most likely one of the women or children. I was shocked at how this system worked. Physical abuse is an accepted form of punishment no matter what your age. If they can’t beat or hurt you, they will hurt someone close to you.
Your husband, you later discovered, already had a wife. How did this affect you and your marriage?
For a Western woman to embrace the idea of being a second wife is near impossible. This was a huge problem for our marriage. I met a group of foreign women who were also in marriages with multiple wives. We had a common bond and would talk to each other about how to cope with such a difficult situation.
Ignoring his first wife was easy at first as she didn’t live in Afghanistan. She was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and was very afraid to move with him to Kabul. But I was forced to face the reality of the other wife when she gave birth to his first son and my father-in-law threatened to send all eight children and the wife for me to take care of!
You fled Afghanistan in 2007, shortly after the publication of your bestselling memoir, The Kabul Beauty School. What caused you to leave, and will you ever go back?
When I returned from my book tour in the United States I found that rumours were flying around Kabul that I had fallen into a lot of money after the book was published. Trying to explain the publishing business to someone who makes $40 a month didn’t work. Security became a huge issue for me and for anyone who was near me. A private security company notified me that my coffee house and salon would be listed as an unsecure venue if I continued to stay in Kabul. My first instinct was to stay in Dubai for a little while and let things blow over. But then the threat became much worse. There were rumours of a plot to kidnap my son to extort money from me.
A private security company told me that they would help my son and I get out of the country but we had a very small window of opportunity. They told me that if I wanted them to help, I had to move fast: they only gave me ten minutes to pack my life into two suitcases. This was the most frightening moment of my life. They took my cell phone away from me, and banned me from the Internet. I was ordered not to contact anyone until I arrived in the United States. I was not allowed to tell my husband, or any of my girls from the beauty school, or anyone from the coffee house that I was leaving the country. They took my son and I to a safe house until they could get us on a flight to Dubai, and then to the United States. The first time I could make contact with anyone was when I arrived in California.
It took a long time to sort out all the events that happened. In fact, I’m still sorting them out. But you never really know what is going on in a place like Afghanistan. I may never know what really happened that spring of 2007.
I would like to go back to Afghanistan but with the increased security threat there and the ever more unstable government, I feel it would be unwise to return. I still work in Afghanistan, though, at arm’s length – my organization Oasis Rescue has created a formula to help women in the art of hairdressing with our ‘beauty shop in a box’. We’ve partnered with an existing organization to distribute these boxes to women who are hairdressers but have no tools, or women who want to apprentice in a local salon. Our main focus has been on female refugees.
While you were teaching the women of Kabul about hairdressing and make-up, what did they teach you?
The Afghans taught me strength in adversity and to appreciate life no matter what is thrown your way. While I was in Kabul, my mother’s house burned down. I learned about it via email but didn’t know if anyone was hurt. My son had been staying at my mom’s house and I was in a panic trying to reach them on the phone. The room filled up with my Afghan friends; they were all worried about me, watching me cry like a baby. I eventually found out that everyone was .ne but the house was a total loss. I couldn’t stop weeping. All my childhood memories were in that house. The Afghans looked at me and said, ‘Did someone die?’ I said, ‘No, everyone is fine, but we lost the house and everything in it.’ They shook their heads at me and said, ‘You should stop crying now, no one died.’ One by one they each told of the great losses in their lives – not just their homes but their children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. This war had taken something from everyone. They said, ‘You may have lost most of your stuff but you still have your family.’ I will never forget those words.
From your own experience, what challenges will Sunny face when she adjusts to life back in the US?
Re-entry into a normal life is not always easy. Reverse culture shock is real. If Sunny is anything like me she will have a difficult time and feel so guilty for being sad when everything around her is perfect – a nice home, a wonderful man, a family that embraces her. Yet she will feel like a part of her has died, and she’ll grieve the loss of her friends and life in Afghanistan. She will be glued to the news and read everything she can about the country, trying to stay connected to a life that’s no longer hers. Sunny will miss the chaos and the ‘Wild West’ feeling she left behind. She will be happy one minute, and terribly bored the next. She will miss being needed and being able to make a difference. Her time in Afghanistan may have ruined her life in the ‘normal’ world. I know it changed my life forever.