Stylists, the people behind the hottest looks and the most smoldering personas, seem to be all the rage these days --- on reality series, news programs, fashion-makeover shows. It appears that the behind-the-scenes aspect of a stylist's job is now very much an in-front-of-the-scene position. Of course, regardless of their heightened place in the stratosphere of glamour, stylists also do things for men and women in difficult straights --- cancer victims who need good wigs, prosthetics for patients with facial deformities.
Deborah Rodriguez became the Clara Barton of personal style in Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11. Armed with shipping crates filled with donated high-end styling aids, Rodriguez opened a beauty school for burqa-covered women and rebel men who found great comfort and control in the lessons she taught and the styles she helped them achieve while their homeland was being systematically destroyed and the very earth under their feet shook with the fervor of life during wartime.
Rodriguez tells her story in a frank and heartfelt way that strays away from the sentimentality that is built into her story --- the ravaged men and women, victims of torture and severe oppression from all sides, to whom getting a good haircut or tweezing returns them to a semblance of normalcy that they have no other way of finding. She sees in these women and men a desire to attend to their human needs as a way of regaining personal control in a world gone mad. Whether she is styling diplomats' spouses, those for whom Afghanistan was barely a choice, or preparing a young bride for an arranged marriage during which she reveals a secret that could ruin the entire thing, Rodriguez is a friendly and knowledgeable source, happily participating in the kind of gossiping and good-natured ribbing that occurs in salons all around the world.
There are a lot of stories in this book, and every one of them teeters precipitously on the tragic. But Rodriguez, the diplomatic storyteller, gives them all an aura of the everyday that informs us with details about a lifestyle most of us don't understand and with a common denominator that brings us close together with the protagonists of these emotional triumphs and tribulations.
The Kabul Beauty School is a success --- you might have guessed that by the mere presence of the book itself. Rodriguez's ability to bring people together without forming judgments seems to be facilitated by her own situation, escaping an oppressive relationship and finding a way to bring her own personal talents to change the world, quite literally. KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL is a wonderfully told story with an emotional resonance that lasts well beyond the final page.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 18, 2007