Book of Marvels
Monday, April 30, 2007

A Letter to the New York Times Style Section,
in response to
Shades of Truth: An Account of a Kabul beauty school is challenged

Dear Style Editor,

When reporter Abby Ellin interviewed me for her article about Kabul Beauty School, she said that this was going to be a she said/she said, look-behind-the-book piece. However, she goes on to raise the much larger issue in her article about how truthful memoirs should be. I believe she does this inappropriately, as conflicts in perspective—not truthfulness—are at the heart of this disagreement.

First, the article did not fully identify Mary MacMakin, who is only described as an American who lived in Afghanistan for more than 25 years and who initially proposed the idea of a beauty school. Mary MacMakin not only lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than 25 years but also founded PARSA in 1996, a highly regarded nonprofit that works with Afghan widows, orphans and others. The Kabul Beauty School was one of PARSA's projects through the second class. MacMakin—PARSA's director until recently-- supports Debbie's Rodriguez's account of what happened with the beauty school's second class and, in fact, replaced Patricia O'Connor with Rodriguez as director of the school in March 2004. MacMakin's description of the contested events is online, in the June 2004 PARSA newsletter, for anyone to see. Style readers should know that MacMakin is not merely another American who supports Rodriguez's account but is a highly credible woman with arguably more experience and connections in Afghanistan than just about any other westerner.

It's unfortunate that the group who started the beauty school—and I believe they were all well-intentioned—have wound up fighting about it, but I can understand how this might come to pass. People who have spent more time in Afghanistan than I tell me that it's hard to know what's going on there, even when you're right there. So I find it plausible that the other women who organized and taught at that first class didn't understand what Rodriguez faced when she went back to start up the second class and that rumors and worst-scenario suppositions started to fly.

However, I cannot understand why Ms. Ellin aired these suppositions without question. Seriously, now: Is it reasonable to believe Rodriguez wanted to re-open the beauty school outside the women's ministry because she wanted to run it as a for-profit enterprise? This seems ludicrous, as the one point on which everyone agrees is that there wasn't any money for the school at that point. The students don't pay to attend the beauty school. Where would the profit be?

Finally, I believe Ellin—and the angry women she quoted in her article—don't fully understand what the repercussions can be for Afghan women who violate the country's rigid sexual mores. The story of Roshanna is true—horribly so—but the only moral way to include her story in the book was to change enough details so that no one would recognize her. Perhaps Ellin and the others don't understand that women still get sent to prison in Afghanistan for having boyfriends, for being rape victims, for disobeying their husbands, for fleeing them—this is why self-immolation is the choice of many miserable wives. The real Roshanna would face a hell that we can't even imagine here in the States if her plight were known. After we finished the manuscript, Rodriguez asked another Kabul friend who knew Roshanna to go through it and make sure there weren't any identifying details. That no one interviewed for Ellin's article recognized Roshanna is a triumph, in my opinion—not a scandal.

In her article, Ms. Ellin says that the six angry hairdressers question whether the "disturbing, heartbreaking tales of abuse" about the Afghan women Rodriguez has come to know are true. I told Ellin and she failed to report that I had interviewed the group of women who are still around the Kabul Beauty School and Oasis Salon myself, so I know their stories are true. What surprises me is that Ellin—and the other hairdressers quoted in her article—don't realize how tragically unremarkable these women's stories are in Afghanistan.

[photo is of a Kabul Beauty School graduation I attended in 2005)
"That no one interviewed for Ellin's article recognized Roshanna is a triumph, in my opinion—not a scandal."

Such an excellent point, Kristin.

I got my copy yesterday, and I can't wait to dig in!

Very well and temperately said.
Well said, Kristin!
did they publish this yet?

By the way, I'd like your readers to know that you cropped me out of of your charming blog photo (the nerve!)-- only some of my hair remains...
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