Book review: ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,’ by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Special to the Daily
There is no doubt that war shatters people’s lives and day-to-day struggles become overwhelming as violence forces the focus onto basic survival. Afghanistan has suffered through its share of turmoil and unrest and has long been seen as one of the poorest countries in the world. Entire generations have grown up knowing nothing but hostilities and fear, with only the faces of the perpetrators changing.
The strict edicts of the Taliban during its emergence at the end of the 20th century forms the backdrop for journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s fascinating book “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” When Lemmon set out for Kabul in 2005, she was eager to paint a picture of the war-torn country from the perspective of the women who had struggled to keep their families alive in the uniquely challenging situation during the restrictive rules violently enforced by the Taliban fighters.
Upon her arrival, she describes Kabul as “an urban Wild West,” where traveling as a woman is an unnerving experience. After feeling the unease, firsthand, she knew that the brave women of Afghanistan who had struggled to adapt and adjust throughout the years of the Taliban, becoming entrepreneurs just to survive, were worthy of having their stories told. “We’re far more accustomed to — and comfortable with — seeing women portrayed as victims of war who deserve our sympathy, rather than as resilient survivors who deserve our respect.”
As Lemmon sought out the one woman who would become the focus of her remarkable book, she realized that her account would be, at its heart, about a sisterhood of many women, females of all ages who took care of one another, protected one another and worked together, silently and in secret, to make the lives of their families and communities better in the face of the desperate conditions plaguing their country.
Kamila Sadiqi, the “dressmaker” of Lemmon’s book, was a confident, educated young woman, having just received her teaching certificate, though her diploma came to her without pomp and circumstance, for the war made public events dangerous and a challenge to hold with the crumbling infrastructure. Rumors were swirling about the coming Taliban and what it would mean for the very Western-minded women of Kabul.
Kamila was one of nine sisters, living in a family with a father who believed in education for his daughters. But all his plans for their future collapsed when Sharia law became the template of the Taliban’s ambitions for Afghanistan. Not only was it dangerous for the women of the country, but men like Kamila’s father were not safe, for the Taliban blacklisted supporters of the former regime, and they were in real danger.
With the men of Afghanistan either killed in the fighting or fleeing to neighboring Pakistan, the women of Kabul were left vulnerable and struggling to survive behind the cloistered walls of their homes. These were not unsophisticated women, who found the changes easy; they were forward-thinking and educated and watched, with hearts breaking, as their worlds were dismantled, with many families forced to be headed up by widows and girls barely out of puberty.
Such was the case in Kamila’s household in the Kabul neighborhood of Khair Khana. The women were stuck between a rock and a hard place, mandated by the new rules to stay within their homes. But with no men to bring home food and supplies, they had no choice but to venture out, enveloped in the awkward, uncomfortable and dehumanizing chadri scarves. In the early days, the novelty and the fear of restrictions kept the girls indoors, as they told themselves that the Taliban would surely be gone within a month.
But as time stretched on, the vibrancy of the city and its culture began to fade, and the women grew restless with boredom and with worry about their long-term survival, as their cupboards emptied and their savings dwindled.
Kamila, though only a teenager, became the head of the household, and she had the burden of figuring out how to provide for her family, all while risking her life by simply stepping out her door. On the streets were representatives of the “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice,” whose members were little more than zealots eager to find a reason to be violent. Women, especially, were targeted, brutally beaten and often jailed.
In spite of the risks, Kamila knew she had to figure out a way to help her siblings, all while not attracting the attention of the Taliban. She decided sewing would be the safest, and her sisters could help, which would benefit them all, at the very least keeping idle fingers and minds active. First, though, she had to learn how to sew, soliciting her married older sister for some very hasty lessons.
Thus began the business that grew one garment at a time. It was vital to keep their endeavors under wraps and quiet, for the dangers could not be overestimated. The sewing took place in their home, but Kamila had to brave the walk to the market with her young brother along as protection, for no woman was allowed out without a male member of her family.
The sisters worked hard, and orders poured in, even in the collapsed economy. But Kamila’s plans did not stop there. She saw there was a need in her community, as other isolated women were struggling to survive without men to support them. Kamila was determined to find work for all who came asking, and she landed on the solution of opening an in-home sewing school.
As her plans expanded, so did the dangers, for more women were coming and going from the house, so it was decided that very strict rules had to be in place, and all the sewing students complied, well aware of the risk they were all taking. Even with the cloak of secrecy, word spread, and Kamila’s brave activities came to the attention of some representatives of UN Habitat, an organization promoting the notion that Afghanistan’s healing had to include women.
Lemmon paints a captivating picture of the journey of this remarkable girl who was forced to grow up quickly in the face of a life-altering moment in her country’s history. The book is a testament to Kamila’s silent courage and her rich vein of selflessness that helped so many other women in the city survive the difficult months of the Taliban’s dominance. Written in a lyrical style, “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” reads like a novel at times, leaving the reader with a richer understanding of what life was like for the most vulnerable during a most trying time.
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