The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.
Harper Perennial, Harper Collins, New York, 2012 (first published 2011).
Nonfiction, 270 pages including extras.
Lexile: 1090L .
AR Level: not leveled
The story of one young woman and her five sisters who stayed in Kabul and started a home dressmaking business under Taliban rule that not only provided for their family, but also allowed them to teach other women sewing and positioned them to be leaders in Afghanistan’s economy.
I’d been traveling and was hoping to visit a specialty gift shop to pick up some diverse books, only to find it closed, so I found a nearby library. The library wasn’t so diverse, but had extremely cheap books, so I purchased a bunch for under $1 total, including this one.
The blurb didn’t interest me. It seemed over dramatic and lacked some basic information – Khair Khana is a neighborhood of Kabul. Thankfully the book was cheap enough that I still bought it, because it was surprisingly good.
Kamila is the star, although her older married sister Malika is also a major character and her brothers, parents, friends, co-workers, and younger sisters have their roles as well. There are many strong and ingenious women in this book, including the story of a female doctor who found a way to practice medicine in an apartment.
There is considerable tension in the book as at any time any family member not in the home could be jailed, beaten, or even facing death. They go months at a time without hearing from their parents or the oldest brother, who had to leave. Even when all the younger children are at home, there’s always the risk of raids by the Taliban, and the ever-present struggle to have food and other basic necessities. While Lemmon never plays up the drama, and if anything, tries to turn down the tension, I definitely pushed to finish the book more quickly because I wanted to know who made it through the occupation, and then eventually the bombings.
The family’s dedication to education and their emphasis on learning and empowering all family members allowed the girls the freedom, creativity, and support to create their businesses. However, they also operated well within a very traditional and even stifling environment. I have so much respect for these girls and their parents. They chose to stay in their home and country at great danger to their lives and livelihoods. Hopefully the publication of this book didn’t endanger them too much!
Kamila’s faith, as well as her family’s, and that of several other characters, is very important. Without Lemmon harping on it, their religious practice and beliefs come up repeatedly as it is a part of their daily lives, as well as influencing the Taliban’s rules and decisions.
I found it particularly ironic that it is only through her faith and study of the Qu’ran that Kamila is able to find the strength to carry on under the harsh conditions of the Taliban’s ostensibly religious government. However, it was also refreshing to read about a close-knit and pious family who, once they were able to meet their own basic needs, felt it was their duty to assist others as much as possible. This was an inspiring read.
I enjoyed this book. It is a nuanced portrait of one family’s, and even more specifically, one young woman’s, experience of Kabul under the Taliban. Although this is written by an outsider, it doesn’t have the same patronizing tone that some other books set in the Middle East take. Recommended.
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