Excerpt of Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez, Kristin Ohlson
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The women arrive at the salon just before eight in the morning. If it were any other day, Id still be in bed, trying to sink into a few more minutes of sleep. Id probably still be cursing the neighbors rooster for waking me up again at dawn. I might even still be groaning about the vegetable dealers who come down the street at three in the morning with their noisy, horse-drawn wagons, or the neighborhood mullah, who warbles out his long, mournful call to prayer at four-thirty. But this is the day of Roshannas engagement party, so Im dressed and ready for work. Ive already had four cigarettes and two cups of instant coffee, which I had to make by myself because the cook has not yet arrived. This is more of a trial than you might think, since Ive barely learned how to boil water in Afghanistan. When I have to do it myself, I put a lit wooden match on each of the burners of the cranky old gas stove, turn one of the knobs, and back off to see which of the burners explodes into flame. Then I settle a pot of water there and pray that whatever bacteria are floating in the Kabul water today are killed by the boiling.
The mother-in-law comes into the salon first, and we exchange the traditional Afghan greeting: we clasp hands and kiss each others cheeks three times. Roshanna is behind her, a tiny, awkward, blue ghost wearing the traditional burqa that covers her, head to toe, with only a small piece of netting for her to see out the front. But the netting has been pulled crooked, across her nose, and she bumps into the doorway. She laughs and flutters her arms inside the billowing fabric, and two of her sisters-in-law help her navigate her way through the door. Once inside, Roshanna snatches the burqa off and drapes it over the top of one of the hair dryers.
This was like Taliban days again, she cries, because she hasnt worn the burqa since the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in the fall of 2001. Roshanna usually wears clothes that she sews herself brilliant shalwar kameezes or saris in shades of orchid and peach, lime green and peacock blue. Roshanna usually stands out like a butterfly against the gray dustiness of Kabul and even against the other women on the streets, in their mostly drab, dark clothing. But today she observes the traditional behavior of a bride on the day of her engagement party or wedding. She has left her parents house under cover of burqa and will emerge six hours later wearing her body weight in eye shadow, false eyelashes the size of sparrows, monumentally big hair, and clothes with more bling than a Ferris wheel. In America, most people would associate this look with drag queens sashaying off to a party with a 1950s prom theme. Here in Afghanistan, for reasons I still dont understand, this look conveys the mystique of the virgin.
The cook arrives just behind the women, whispering that shell make the tea, and Topekai, Baseera, and Bahar, the other beauticians, rush into the salon and take off their head scarves. Then we begin the joyful, gossipy, daylong ordeal of transforming twenty-year-old Roshanna into a traditional Afghan bride. Most salons would charge up to $250about half the annual income for a typical Afghanfor the brides services alone. But I am not only Roshannas former teacher but also her best friend, even though Im more than twenty years older. She is my first and best friend in Afghanistan. I love her dearly, so the salon services are just one of my gifts to her.
We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband. Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows. There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face, or privates. Her body must be as soft and hairless as that of a prepubescent girl. We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing roomthe only one in Afghanistan, I might addand she grimaces as she sits down on the bed.
Excerpted from Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson Copyright © 2007 by Deborah Rodriguez. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.