Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Nonfiction, Harper, 2011
Paperback, 243 pages
Khair Khana is in Afghanistan, a country known to me as war-torn and the place where Osama Bin Laden was killed. That is the macro picture. But this book gave me a micro shot of Afghanistan through the story of Kamil and her sisters.
Fresh from reading a memoir called Reading Lolita in Tehran, I still have the full grasp on how women were treated when the Mujahideen (holy warriors) are running the Muslim country. Both events narrated in Reading Lolita and the times when the Dressmaker of Khair Khana was established happened in the 1990s and both stories were born out of the fact that women in these two Muslim country were suddenly limited in their clothing and space.
This book chronicles the triumph of the human spirit in times of adversity, specifically that of a woman during the precarious times.
When suddenly the times changed in Afhganistan, Kamila saw herself alone to feed and fend her sisters and a brother when her parents went away to avoid political troubles because of her father's retired status in the military and her older brother has to leave also, otherwise, he will just be randomly picked and tortured for whatever possible false charges there can be. The girls and her younger brother whose age is considered “safe” were thought better to be left at their property in Khair Khana inorder to preserve the same, otherwise, if good times resume the property would go to the government who would surely have taken over the property while they were all away.
Kamila and her sisters are all set to become professionals before the times changed because their father believed in education for all of his children, males and females. This is quite radical because most Afghan families finance the schooling of the sons only and leave the women at home. Kamila's father understood that women can contribute to family income if they were also educated, this he observed in a foreign company he once worked for.
When the times in Afghanistan changed, suddenly the sisters became homebound. At first, they read books and got the idea of swapping books with their neigbors. With depleting resource and provisions, Kamila thought hard and well as to how to generate income to maintain the family. She had herself taught as a tailor through her elder sister Malika. After hitting orders from local stall owners in a mall and risking being caught for doing this, Kamila was able to mobilize her sisters to fulfill the first orders. Eventually, she had some trusted neighbors join her when the orders became large. As soon as the news of her business spread, neighbors and common friends came to ask for work, and she did not refuse anyone. Instead, she looked for more stall owners who would like to order from her. The in their humble house, the women have the liberty to chitchat and listen to some forbidden music. It was not only work which made women earn an income, but also an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. Kamila and her sisters were able to manage many orders and many women in the years that they operated. They even put up apprenticeship.
When the Taliban was defeated, times changed. However, Kamila, at this time, joined foreign NGO which if she is caught, she will be put to jail indefinitely. She had opportunity to work outside Afgahistan but she chose to remain in her country in order to teach entrepreneurship among her fellow women.
How the journey of Kamila and her sisters were narrated by the author gives us the feel of how women are endangered at those times and how these women survived is admirable. It took education, fortitude, faith, resilience, love for family, and devotion to one's community to survive all these.
The author aimed to showcase entrepreneurial spirit of women in times of war, and this she did successfully, interestingly and heartfully. My praise to her effort.