The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The Weird Sisters
With a start Malika realized that the figure huddled in front of them was a woman. She lay in the middle of the street, crouched in a ball, and was trying to fend off the blows. But the men would not stop. Malika heard the dreadful slapping sound of the wooden batons as they hit the helpless woman -- on her back, her legs, over and over again.

The author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, was an MBA student at Harvard Business School, when she yearned to do some research in a subject that mattered but which no one cared for much. That brought her to the topic of women entrepreneurship in war-torn Rwanda, and then to Afghanistan. Her initial search efforts in Kabul raised no potential candidates. It was after a long hunt that she found the protagonist of this biography and this book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is her attempt to tell the story of that woman entrepreneur.

Kamila Sadiqi was just returning home after receiving her diploma when she overheard many rumors about the Taliban's arrival at the outskirts of the city, fully intending to take control. The past four years wasn't the safest period for Kamila and her sisters, but their father was every bit insistent that the girls be educated. "The pen is stronger than the sword" - he loved to say. He had grown up watching European women work side-by-side with men, and he wanted his girls (and two boys) to be educated and capable of looking after themselves and their family in any dire situation.

But with the Taliban's arrival, a lot of avenues close up. Girls and women were forced to wear the chadri (the full-length burkha with just a tiny latticed slit for them to see through); they couldn't step out of their homes without a mahram, a male familial companion, and they weren't allowed to converse with any man who is not family. That figuratively shut them in their own homes. Those who didn't follow the rules were beaten ruthlessly. Kamila's parents were originally from the north and her father had worked for the previous government. This made their lives even less safe, prompting her father, her mother, and finally one of her brothers to leave to the north. Only Kamila, her youngest brother and her sisters were left behind.

Perhaps the only aspect that I didn't understand was how these girls - of whom only one was married and living separately with her husband and children, and also happened to be pregnant with twins, and Kamila, the elder of the rest was herself just seventeen - were left behind by their family. It was not safe outside, the author has reiterated time and again. Kamila's father has also explained that the girls were safer at home, but the menfolk weren't, because they were either put in prisoner camps (esp if they were found to have had worked for the previous government), or sent to the front lines to battle. And it was dangerous to move the whole family together. But I felt it was even riskier to leave the girls home alone, since they could barely get out of the home at risk of being beaten or taken to jail, and their only mahram was a thirteen-year old boy, too young to take responsibility (though Rahim proves to be so much more dependable, to be honest).

Since their funds are running real low now, Kamila comes up with a really risky idea to start a tailoring business. If she is caught, it can mean a lot of danger for herself, her mahram (Rahim), the shopkeepers who place orders, and her sisters. But Kamila being as stubborn as she is, she goes ahead with her plan. After a few initial misgivings, her sisters, who have been feeling lacklustre from nothing to do, jump into the opportunity. But everyone was having the same thought - how long will this continue?

Kamila is clearly a really strong woman, endowed with not just determination, but also a strong set of business skills that come in real handy and are even necessary. Gayle writes a really inspiring account of this young woman's life and those of her hard-working sisters, especially her older sister - Malika. I spent page after page rooting for the girls, hoping that none of the terrible danger befalls them. I'm not going to spoil it for you by saying what happens - you should find it out.

While not one of the best biographies I've lately read on this topic, the story is no less inspirational. This is a fast and short read - only occasionally the writing disappointed me. One really sad consequence of the war in Afghanistan is the warped perspective that we have all developed as outsiders. Most of our opinions have been shaped by the statements of the warring governments, the media, the Taliban, the soldiers/fighters. Amidst all this din, the voices of the civilians actually stuck in the war have been very subdued. I've always wondered - how did the women feel about wearing the burkha? How did they accept the no-education-only-housework role? Didn't they yearn for freedom, to be heard, accepted for who they were, loved? How did they settle into this kind of life? Probably the most revealing fact was that these women had never seen or even owned a burkha until the Taliban came by. Until then, they were quite adventurous women - who partied in stylish western wear, educated themselves to be doctors, teachers, etc, and were very very respected by men.

I received an ebook version of this title for free for review from the publishing imprint, Harper, via NetGalley. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will be released next week on March 15th. Check it out on the publisher's page, Goodreads, Amazon (also featuring an interview with Greg Mortenson) and Barnes and Noble. To visit the author's website, click here.

18 comments:

Katy said...

I've seen this a few times, but hadn't really looked into what it was about. Great review--I think I need to read this one.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Awesome review.!

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

So, this is a true story? I really want to read more about that part of the world, so I think I'll give this one a try even if the writing was a little disappointing at times.

J H Ravey said...

Ok, I need this one. I've been on a nonfiction kick lately, and this one sounds really great. You're so right about the traumatic reversal for these countries who undergo such overhauls. Incredible. Great review. Thanks for introducing me to this one.

hcmurdoch said...

I've got this one reserved at my local indie bookstore and I think it's coming in next week. I agree that most Americans have no idea that Afghanistan was a bustling, modern country where people "dressed like us" until the Taliban came along!

Nina Happyendings said...

Great review. This book is now on my wishlist. When I started to read the description about this book I was hooked. Really interesting.

Kalpana said...

Woman entrepreneur and the civilians affected by Taliban are topics that interest me.. I think I will add this to my TBR list.

Bibliophilebythesea said...

Thanks for the well done and honest review. I do want to read this one.

Athira / Aths said...

Thank you! I really loved the title of this book - I think that's what first made me look at this book. I loved that it was about women, about Afghanistan, and a wonderful success story. I hope you get to check it out!

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks, Juju!

Athira / Aths said...

Yep, this is a true story! I'm glad I came across this book and I think you should definitely try this. The writing was good, it just bothered me once in a while, but most of the time, I was lost in the story.

Athira / Aths said...

The author gives a really good history of the country. How Afghanistan was as modern as any western country, how the women had the same rights as the men, and then the Soviets came, then some foreign interference and the the Taliban. I could see how history was changing in this country. It was really well-written. Hope you get to read it!

Athira / Aths said...

Helen, I can't wait to hear your thoughts! I loved how revealing this book was, and not written from an "American" perspective. We rarely get an insight into countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc, other than articles about how hard life is. It's nice to see books like these.

Athira / Aths said...

Hope you get to read it, Kalpana! It really has all the elements that I think you will enjoy reading about!

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to read this one, Nina! It is a really well-written book about a society I know so little about!

Athira / Aths said...

I can't wait to hear your thoughts! I hope you enjoy it!

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I really enjoyed it - inspirational.

Athira / Aths said...

It sure was! Glad you liked it too!