Review

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul

by Deborah Rodriguez

Deborah Rodriguez's follow-up to KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL showcases her experiences in Kabul, Afghanistan, as owner of that city's first modern beauty academy and the Kabul Coffee House. Unlike her debut, in A CUP OF FRIENDSHIP she explores the complicated lives of everyday Afghan people. Her insight gives her work an edge over books written by cursory observers in the country.

We first meet Yazmina, a country girl from a remote village in the Afghan mountains, far from Kabul, a large bustling city where locals and foreigners both meet and share their various religious and secular beliefs. The 15-year-old girl, widowed several months earlier, resides with her uncle, along with her younger sister, Layla. Today, when she comes home from an errand, she sees a shiny black SUV parked in front of the compound. She knows that no good comes when visitors from the outside enter a local house. Owing duty to the warlords, her uncle is forced to barter his niece for the payment. Yazmina is roughly taken by the strangers, and showing no resistance because she fears for Layla. Offering his goats and foodstuffs, her uncle's pleas are ignored. Instead, the men tell him that they will return for Layla when the snows melt if his debts are not paid.

Yazmina has been sold to a new husband whose surly advances in the car terrify her. Her secret --- that she is pregnant --- is discovered when he tries to molest her. Instead, the man hits her, throwing her from the slowly moving vehicle as they arrive in Kabul. Bleeding and dirty, she makes her way to the Women's Ministry.

There, Yazmina meets Sunny, owner of the Kabul Coffee House. In friendship, Sunny has brought a bouquet of flowers to the director of the Ministry. She overhears Yazmina's plight and the offer of two nights sleep at their dormitory, with the possibility that she can find work as a maid. The young girl's deep green eyes haunt Sunny far into the night. The following day, Sunny returns to the Ministry and offers Yazmina a place to stay and work in the coffee house. A friendship is born that will affect all those in Sunny's employ and friends she holds dear. Yazmina's single-minded thought is to rescue Layla before the warlord will come for her in the spring. Sunny's coffee house has been open for six years. Now, she works to bring the building up to United Nations' standards, to attract journalists and wealthy foreigners who thus far have not stormed her doors.

But the venture comes at a cost. Her loyal Afghan employees stand willing to help her increase business and profits to make the necessary improvements. Ahmet, Sunny's coffee house gatekeeper, is young and follows the Islamic practices that local clerics proclaim. But he's conflicted when the shy, green-eyed mountain girl arouses in him strange new feelings. His widowed mother, Halajan, hides a deep secret of her own, in conflict for him with the old religious ways.

For the Christmas season, Sunny decorates her coffee house with bright lights and festive décor, and hosts a party for all her guests. She misses her sometime lover, Tommy, who has ventured into far-off regions on one of his secret missions. Sunny never knows when to expect his return but fills her days with new acquaintances. She's amused when Jack, a customer she admires, jokes and makes her smile. He's a married consultant for rural development who travels for jobs, often for a month. Returning to Kabul, Jack is a coffee house regular. Sunny's motto is "Life happens….You adapt or you're lost."

At Christmas, Candace, a wealthy American with multiple connections, and Isabel, a journalist who dogs her story until she's satisfied with its outcome, become involved in Sunny's life. The three dissimilar women form a bond of understanding when Yazmina's pregnancy and Halajan's secret admirer threaten the neutrality that they have enjoyed. The Kabul Coffee House is the central meeting place when Sunny realizes that Afghanistan is becoming a more dangerous place to call home.

Deborah Rodriguez develops her characters with the skill that only one who has witnessed firsthand the changes in a country that will threaten their very lives can bring forth.  She artfully writes about city versus country life, old versus new Islamic religion, female slavery in a regressive society and education versus illiteracy. The growing realization that each of the quite different women have talents that can be used for good is a strength of her book. I was teary by the time I turned the last page. For insight into a country filled with turmoil for centuries, A CUP OF FRIENDSHIP is a must-read.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on March 28, 2011

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul
by Deborah Rodriguez

  • Publication Date: March 20, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345514769
  • ISBN-13: 9780345514769