Deborah Rodriguez left two sons and a failed marriage behind in Holland, Michigan, when she headed to war-shattered Afghanistan in 2002 with a few weeks of disaster-relief training and a suitcase full of moist towelettes. "I imagined I would spend the month there bandaging wounds, splinting broken limbs, clambering over the rubble, and helping people who were still hiding from the Taliban," she writes. "I didn't have any idea that I'd still be here five years later doing spiral perms and introducing the art of pubic waxing."
Rodriguez was a disaster at disaster relief, but she brought along some tools that proved providential. "I never travel without my scissors," she says in The Kabul Beauty School, her amusing, inspiring account of good intentions gone platinum, with streaks. Rodriguez had worked as a beautician in Michigan, and when word of her skills got out, fellow aid workers besieged her for haircuts. Before long, she realized her real destiny was training Afghanistan's oppressed, burqa-encased women to support themselves as hairdressers.
With funds from a local NGO, Rodriguez helped open the Kabul Beauty School on the grounds of the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Applicants thronged the gates, and soon the first class of 24 women some hadn't left their homes in months were learning the finer points of highlighting, manicuring and waxing. For supplies, Rodriguez called the U.S. toll-free number on a jar of Paul Mitchell styling gel, got through to owner John Paul DeJoria, and before long a truckload of shampoos, gels, sprays and other essentials turned up at her door. Estée Lauder and Vogue sent more help, and hairdressers from around the world showed up to volunteer their services.
But Rodriguez and her school also encountered hair-raising setbacks. Though the Taliban had fled, fundamentalists threatened to destroy what they viewed as a school for scandal. Some of her students were beaten by their husbands. Water and electricity were elusive. Money dwindled. The Afghan government finally evicted the school, socked it with punitive taxes and seized its equipment. Meanwhile, bombs exploded on the street outside and neighbors were kidnapped. The book ends with the school shuttered, the students dispersed and Rodriguez unsure of ever reopening.
What propels The Kabul Beauty School are the stories of its students. One of them faces shame and possible death because her husband-to-be is about to discover, on their wedding night, that she's not a virgin. (Rodriguez helps out with blood from her own finger, cleverly repackaged.) A young woman's husband insists she show her obedience by sleeping with other men; it turns out he's a pimp, and she narrowly avoids a lifetime of prostitution. Indeed, hardly a page goes by without somebody collapsing in sobs. Male readers especially will find the book sodden with tears, hugs and declarations of sisterhood. But then the author's own life gets interesting. Yearning for someone to watch over her, she plays along when friends jovially offer to arrange a marriage and suddenly finds herself wed to Samer Khan, a moody former mujahedin fighter with whom she has virtually nothing in common, including a language. The union heads for the rocks when Rodriguez learns he has a wife, newly pregnant, in Pakistan. Yet Khan rises to the challenge, facing down murderous husbands, malignant bureaucrats and other perils to keep Rodriguez sane and the school running, at least for a while.
"I wrote this book because I didn't want to forget these women's stories," says Rodriguez from Dubai, en route to promotion tours in the U.S. and Britain. She's kept in touch with many of them and says 90% of her 185 former students have found jobs in the beauty business. On average, she estimates, they have raised their family incomes by 400%. And the school? "We just reopened," she says. "A new class started two days ago." Rodriguez now holds lessons in a rented mansion, using proceeds from her adjacent spa, coffeehouse and guesthouse. Though women still apply in the hundreds, this class has only 10. "There's no funding," she says. "You can get $1 million for a road easier than $10,000 for training. But this is one of the few industries where women can work, be sole owners of a business and control the money themselves."
Her book tour will no doubt help, and Rodriguez is a made-for-TV charmer. "My hair was spiked and blonde when I arrived, then red, then bright red, then bright blond, then black, then maroon," she says. "I just got it done in Dubai, and now it's long and red." Rodriguez is counting on a new website (www.kabulbeautyschool.com) to bring in donations, as well as on "cutathons" at a handful of Paul Mitchell salons, which will offer $5 haircuts with proceeds going to the Kabul Beauty School. It should also help that Columbia Pictures just bought movie rights to her story. She notes modestly, "Sandra Bullock would be perfect to play me."
The film could even have a happy ending of sorts. "I'm still married to my crazy husband [and he to his first wife]," says Rodriguez. "That's a miracle of God in itself. I don't know what I'd do without him. He's like Fred Flintstone with a rocket launcher. We'll get the money. Dammit, money or no, I'm going to do this." Never get in the way of a woman who travels with scissors.