Lessons from a war-zone coffee shop

Deborah Rodriguez
Author Deborah Rodriguez ran a beauty school a hair salon and a coffee shop in Kabul Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Having written a bestselling memoir "Kabul Beauty School" she is now telling the story in a different way with her debut novel "A Cup of Kindness."
Image courtesy Ballentine Books (Photo by Suzanne Becker Bronk)

Deborah Rodriguez says in addition to skills with scissors, combs and driers, it helps if a hairdresser tells stories well.

She knows from personal experience, after dealing with patrons of all kinds when she ran a hair salon in Afghanistan. She wrote a memoir of that time called "Kabul Beauty School." Now she's turned to fiction with her first novel "A Cup For Friendship," which is also set in that country.

Rodriguez will read from the book at the Barnes and Noble in Edina at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

Rodriguez had two businesses in Afghanistan: her salon, and a coffee shop. She said she loved the coffee shop because it was a place to escape the tensions of living in a war zone. It was also a crossroads which drew people from all walks of Afghan life.

"There would be, you know, your missionaries, there would be guys with guns and U.N. personnel, just everything. And they all had stories," she said. "And I really thought, 'What a great venue to have this safe haven of a coffeehouse, but yet be able to tell some of the stories of the combination of the Afghans and the foreigners, the people who are working there."

"A Cup for Friendship" is the story of Sunny, an American woman running her Kabul coffee shop some time after the U.S.-led invasion. It's also the story of her friends, Afghans, Americans and Europeans whose paths intersect there. Rodriguez herself went to Afghanistan as part of a humanitarian team in 2002, and ended up staying for five years. She said everyone faced challenges in Kabul, but she particularly wanted to tell the stories of the women.

"I would tell people some stories about Afghanistan and I would see them glaze over ... And so this book entertains and educates."

"It was harder for women there because it's such a man's place," she said.

And particularly difficult for local women living under the remnants of the extreme expectations left by the Taliban.

The novel opens with Yazmina, a young pregnant woman whose husband has been killed in the fighting. She's taken from her uncle by a drug lord in settlement for a debt. She escapes, and ends up working at the coffee shop. Yet even then Yazmina has to hid her pregnancy for fear of being denounced, and maybe even killed, for immorality.

Rodriguez said this, as with other plot lines in the book, is based on what she saw.

"Everybody had a housekeeper working for them, or a female on their compound that had harsh stories," Rodriguez said. "It was so important that everything that happened in the book could truly have happened in the book in real life in Afghanistan."

Rodriguez's novel also involves women working for international aid agencies, and journalists. They intermingle with locals and foreigners involved on all sides of the conflict. Rodriguez said many outsiders simply said they were working for security companies, but that could mean many things including being mercenaries or spies.

"There was a lot of money to be made, you know, supply and demand," she said. "You have people that would be going off on their missions and coming back, and you just never quite knew what they were really doing."

Usually, she said, it was just smarter not to ask.

Hanging over it all is the ever present threat of sudden death. Rodriguez said that's a great leveler.

"A bomb is a bomb, whether you are an Afghan, whether you are making a katrillion dollars a day, or whether you are volunteering for an organization," Rodriguez said. "So that would bond people. The friendships came fast and strong."

"A Cup of Friendship" is a real page-turner, laced with intrigue, tangled relationships, human trafficking, forbidden love, and cultural conflict. She said it was a deliberate attempt to draw readers in after noticing how friends reacted to her after her return from Kabul.

"I would sit at dinner and I would tell people some stories about Afghanistan and I would see them glaze over," she said. "It's like you can't tell them about some of the bad things without entertaining them first. And so this book entertains and educates at the same time."

Rodriguez is now living in Mexico, mulling over what to do next. So perhaps there's a book to be done on where she lives now? Maybe, she said. She is taking notes.

"I mean there's as many drive-bys here as there were in Afghanistan," she laughed.

And if nothing else, that makes for more good stories at dinner, the hair salon, or in the coffee shop.

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