Miss Debby's Afghan Experiment

She went to Kabul as a hairdresser and opened a school for aspiring beauticians. But her memoir of the experience reads like a well-written work of anthropology

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin OhlsonRandom House, 275 pages, $24.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper)(Hebrew edition translated by Carmit Guy. Keter, 303 pages, NIS 89)

There are subjects that are best left to the historians, because they understand them; to the anthropologists, because they have investigated them; to the statesmen, because they are responsible for them. Certainly not to the hairdresser, even if she does know how to do a manicure. Afghanistan, for example, which has returned to our consciousness, not in its own right, but because it spawned the terrorists who attacked the United States seven years ago. It's a nation that didn't interest too many people before its conquest by the Soviets at the end of the 1970s, something that turned it into a highly valuable tool in the domino game between the superpowers, or until Khaled Hosseini wrote "The Kite Runner."

If we have awareness of Afghanistan, it is Osama bin Laden who deserves the credit. Today, the anthropologists who investigate its tribes work for the American army, which has finally internalized the fact that without understanding the culture from which terror emerges, it is difficult if not impossible to fight it. This is the new market for President Bush's democracy export, a field of study that is part of political science. Certainly not a matter for a hairdresser.

But the voluble, redheaded Deborah Rodriguez, with the scents of perfume and hairspray she brought with her from Michigan, and the cartons of makeup that she managed to get American companies to contribute, so that she could teach the Afghan women how to be beautiful, is no hairdresser. That is to say -- she is a hairdresser by profession only. The beauty school she set up in Kabul, the Afghan capital, is an operating theater and her book is a precise description of a cultural colonoscopy for beginners. With her eagle eye, sharp and exact, she introduces a piercing camera into the murky guts of Afghan society, spraying their filthy contents onto the well-ordered reports of the State Department officials who are at pains to prove just how successful the experiment in democracy has been in Afghanistan.

Rodriguez, or "Miss Debby," as her Afghan friends called her, joined a group of volunteers organized by a Christian charity to come to Afghans' aid in 2002, a year after the American occupation. Since she understood that her learned and decent colleagues did not quite know how to swallow such a strange creature as herself, and in the end merely asked her to pray for their well-being, she decided to do something practical -- to get to know Afghan society from the bottom up. From the sewers and the alleys, via the intimate conversations of the rape and abuse victims -- of violent men and fathers and also tyrannical mothers -- but also through bosom friendships and human understanding that "the Afghans will never let you cry alone."

She cuts herself off from the activities of the charitable organization and develops a project of her own. First in the American way -- very professionally and well organized. She would begin by teaching the girls how to dye hair, by having them learn the various colors and the pigment that fits each one of them. "I talked about basic colors, secondary colors, and complementary colors. I explained that complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. I pointed to the colors I had painted on my easel -- red was opposite green, orange was opposite blue, and so on. They nodded," she writes, but did not understand.

And then she had a brainwave. Miss Debby decided to teach how to teach. She chose two of her best students to be instructors -- a magical move. They did the teaching and she supervised, with her ears constantly pricked up, until it seemed that all that was left of the project was for her to document it, and in fact she turned herself into something of a document, even to the extent of marrying an Afghan man. The man, Sam, was a fighter whom she enlisted to protect her pupils, only to find out that she herself was choking over her own family tragedy, because Sam had another wife, who lives in Saudi Arabia.

Carmit Guy's wonderful translation succeeds in shaking up the Hebrew text and revealing the highlights of what seems to be "a hairdresser's text." How easy it would have been to turn this book into something dreary, or into a "gender" book, to tag it as a work about the macho Afghan society, or to give it a title such as "Tribes and Women in the New Afghanistan," or "Changes and Reforms in Afghan Democracy." But when Rodriguez describes the fervent wedding dance of the men, who dance with other men, and the movement of the women's hips, the kind-heartedness and concern of some of the men for their wives and daughters, and the significance of friendship, it is impossible to decide which professional shelf the book belongs on.

The decisive assertions we constantly hear of a repressive Islam also have to be assessed in view of the "hairdresser's" diagnoses. Men are not permitted to enter her beauty parlor. The atmosphere there is that of a pleasant refuge. "There were women's voices, women's laughter -- and that feeling of women relaxing with one another, laying hands on one another, telling one another details of their lives and news of the lives around them. I wondered if this was the real reason the Taliban had been so opposed to beauty salons. Not because they made women look like whores or were fronts for brothels, as the Taliban claimed, but because they gave women their own space where they were free from the control of men." So who enlisted whom? Did the men enlist religion in the service of their control or did the religion enlist the men?

For Rodriguez, Islam (or religion in general) can be broken down into names and places, into types of behavior that were created over thousands of years and received the respected shroud of religiosity. Virginity is holy; to massage your mother-in-law's legs is a holy act, because after all you must follow the commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother"; to marry more than one woman is a holy act, because it was allowed by the Prophet. And why did he allow it?

Was it because it was an order from God, or was it because local practice would not have been able to tolerate a different kind of order? Even Miss Debby, the free and independent American woman who began to hate religion after her first husband, a Christian preacher, abused her, found herself trapped inside this local custom.

Rodriguez has written a romance with a country and a people. It does not have a plot, because its permanent backdrop serves as its plot.

The dust, the filth, the electrical blackouts, the evil, the corruption and the harshness, make up the scenery and the color.

Above all of these rise the wedding hairdos of the brides, the thick curls filled with hair gel, and the blue eye shadow, and the dance is the Statue of Liberty.Zvi Bar'el is the Middle East commentator of Haaretz.

Haaretz Books Supplement, August 2008