I have always loved Kristin Ohlson’s essays and writings, so I was very excited when the book she co-authored on Debbie Rodriguez’s experiences in Kabul setting up a beauty school for the enchanting beauties of Afghanistan came out. You should really read Kabul Beauty School to find out if Debbie succeeds in setting up the school so I won’t give it all away here. (PS – She also has a great essay in Gourmet on Kabul this month).
I chatted with Kristin about her experience in Kabul and in writing this book.
How did you feel the first time you landed in Kabul? What the best thing about the city?
I was excited plus a little shaky when I first arrived. I had flown from Dubai and the last part of the flight took us low over some really threatening mountains– I’m not usually a chicken in flight, but it was daunting to look down. Plus, I was one of only three women on the plane– that itself was daunting.
Once we landed–and Debbie had convinced all the guys with machine guns to let her through to claim me in the chaos near the luggage carousel– I was overwhelmed by the sights of the city on the way to her house. By the men in various tribal outfits streaming down the streets. By the demolition-derby traffic. By the monotony of the gray, dust covered streets and the gray mud-brick buildings and the gray/brown/black clothes of the men, brightly punctuated by the beautifully painted signs in Farsi above each tiny little store. By the shops selling food everywhere: piles of melons, heaps of spices, newly killed goats bleeding all over the street.
Best about the city? I still can’t say after three trips that I know the city well. I guess it always comes down to the people. They look rather grim from a car window– all those men with their beards and turbans, the few women speeding along the sidewalks in burkas or scarves, everyone squinting against the dust. But unfailingly, when I was face to face with someone, I was always warmed by their charm and courtesy and friendliness.
One thing I did come to appreciate about Kabul was how vigorously its people are working at having normal lives in spite of great challenges. Even though much of the city was damaged the first time I visited in 2005, I saw people everywhere turning empty shipping containers into stores, putting lovely gardens outside crumbling mud brick homes, and so on. It seemed that every time I drove down a street, I saw new businesses bustling with activity. I was so impressed by the people’s energy and fortitude and hope.
Tell me about your experience interviewing the women.. were they shy? Did they want to share? How did you capture their essence so well?
Some of them were shy and some would talk for hours. Most didn’t speak English well enough to tell their stories in detail so I was working with a translator, and that’s always a challenge. You ask a question, the translator offers it to the woman, she talks for five minutes, then the translator tells me, "She was very unhappy back then." So it would take a while to work out a rhythm in which the translator stopped to tell me the story sentence by sentence. Often the translators’ English (I worked with two different women) wasn’t great, either, so she and I had to work hard to figure out the English words for the story.
But once we worked out all that stuff and the stories flowed, it was often a very emotional experience. These women have led tough lives and it was emotional for them to relive some of this. They’d cry, the translator would cry, I’d cry– we’d drink tea and talk and cry and then laugh. Debbie was usually working in the salon when I interviewed the women, but she’d come in and cry with us every now and then, too.
What touched you most about the women there? How
o they thrive in such a harsh environment?
The women who were working with Debbie in the beauty school and her salon were thriving–they had some of the best jobs in the city for women and a higher income than most professionals–but many of the rest of Afghanistan’s women aren’t thriving! It’s still so hard to be a woman there. Most are cloistered, stuck inside houses because their fathers/husbands/brothers won’t let them go out and get jobs or because there are so few jobs open to women. There are so few ways for Afghan women to socialize outside the home, period. All the things women here take for granted–movies, restaurants, coffee shops, parties, book clubs, Tupperware (or whatever) parties, shopping centers, even going to the grocery store– are not open to most women there. They can go to wedding parties–each marriage involves two or three parties– which are pretty much the core of Afghan women’s social life. And they can go to beauty salons, which are nice little oases for women– and the reason Debbie’s work there fit the culture so well.
I was touched by how lovely the women looked when they did go out. I couldn’t imagine how they managed to be so immaculately coiffed, made-up and dressed when they were often coming from houses that didn’t have running water or electricity. And when I talked to them, I was touched by their eagerness for education– their faces lit up when they talked about their own school days or about their daughters going to school. Most of the women I talked to had educations that were interrupted either by war or Taliban edict, and they were very sorrowful about this. Almost every one told me she had wanted to be a doctor! Not sure why.
What was your biggest learning as a writer after writing this book?
Hmm, I’ve never thought about it– hard to pick out one thing when I learned so much. When the writing of this book changed my life so completely.
This is not terribly insightful, but it’s one of the first things that comes to mind: I learned that I could write very very fast when I have to. Once I had all my "research" compiled–this was a bunch of stuff Debbie had written plus hours and hours and hours of interviews with her and the women– I had a fairly short period of time in which to write the book. It seemed impossible, as if I were agreeing with Random House to catch a wild unicorn. But it was possible.