Bonds of sisterhood

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul
Deborah Rodriguez
2013, pp 408

This book is all about cross-cultural female bonding in the most unlikely of places — a coffee shop in Kabul, run by Sunny, who exchanges the comfort of her mundane existence in America for the excitement of living in Afghanistan, where people count their blessings from one day to another.

The others in the motley bunch are Yazmina, a young, pregnant mother, who is abandoned amidst the violence of Kabul; Halajan, the 60-year-old owner of the coffee-house premises; Isobel, a courageous British journalist; and Candace, a wealthy American socialite, who leaves her husband and country to follow Wakil, her Afghan lover. The male protagonists are also varied in their personalities and provide the balance to their female counterparts.

The cosy confines of the coffee-house provide a haven from the everyday violence of Kabul, the sounds of which even the increased height of the external walls cannot shut out. The criticism of this book could be that its simplistic approach does not do justice to the tragedy that is Afghanistan. And yet, the straight-forward attempt to understand the travails of the Afghans, especially their beleaguered women, makes the book a worthy read.

Right from the word go, the author makes no bones about the dangers that Sunny is exposed to, like when five men walk into the coffee-house with firearms and have to be divested of them, after being shown a sign that says, “PLEASE LEAVE YOUR WEAPONS AT THE DOOR”. As Sunny thinks to herself about Kabul: “Since nothing here was on solid ground, anything was possible, anything could happen.”

It does not take long to realise that despite everything, the author loves Afghanistan and respects it traditions. At the end of the book, there is an interview with Deborah Rodriguez, which helps to put the story in perspective and makes the reader realise that a lot of what appears in it, could be the real-life experiences of its feisty author. The way that Rodriguez, a hair-dresser, manages to pushes her way into a team of doctors that is sent to Afghanistan, after September 11, is indeed a tale to be told.

The clash of the old and the new is well-handled, as when the older people who have lived during freer pre-Taliban times, have to deal with the younger ones, fed on misleading notions of pride and honour. While some of the Afghan men portrayed are extreme traditionalists, it is interesting to find women questioning the status quo and the wrongs being perpetrated on them in the guise of religious precepts and public conformity.

The tragic lives of the Afghan women unfold across the book and can, on occasion, make for difficult reading. Yet, the Western women in the novel are fighters and do indeed succeed in making changes in the lives of some of the Afghan women, who live absolutely contrasting lives to those of their Occidental sisters.

What is also notable is that the author does not fight shy of political statements, like when she speaks of the harmful effects of the drug trade on ordinary Afghans, or critiques the actions of her county in Afghanistan, or reacts to violence by saying: “Animals, which were beneath the human being, without the capacity to talk, reason and think, weren’t low enough to compare to the uncivilised, ignorant, and hate-filled people who bomb busy streets.”

The book is part chick-lit when it comes to the many romances and the confusions resulting from misread romantic signals! Still, the author can and must be forgiven for the Mills & Boon kind of resolutions at the end, because by then the reader is anxiously hoping for them. But it is not all happy, as there are conflicts and tragedies to be overcome. There is also a bit of spirituality included in the guise of the legend of Mazar-e-Sharif, where all doves turn white after 40 days and nights and every seventh dove “is given a spirit, a path, to God.”

The language employed is simple with a lot of terms in Dari, the local dialect, bearing similarity to several Indian tongues. Despite the suppression of Afghan women, women power is certainly at the heart of this book, be it the gutsy Halajan, the bold Isabel, the determined Candace or the courageous Yazmina. But of course, the heroine is Sunny, who the author admits is closest to her persona.

The pages of the book are easily turned, as Rodriguez manages to sustain the reader’s interest. Though not profound, the book is eminently readable and enjoyable, as much for the insights into Afghan society, as for the compassionate approach adopted by Deborah towards a culture, far-removed from her own.

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