Review: ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana’ by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

by Kim on March 15, 2011 · 23 comments

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Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed. I wanted to pull the curtain back for readers on a place foreigners know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is one of these stories, a story about how one woman fought back against one of the most repressive regimes in the world in order to save herself, her family, and her community.

When the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1996, life for the residents of the city, especially the women, changed dramatically. Women like Kamela Sediqi, a young, educated teacher, were suddenly forced to stay in their homes, restricted from even the most basic activities. At the same time, the men of Kabul were either conscripted or forced to flee, leaving a city of women that needed to work to survive but were forbidden from doing so. Out of these difficult circumstances, Kamela mobilized her sisters and started a dressmaking business to support her family through the occupation.

Lemmon, a former reporter for ABC News, came across Kamela’s story while doing research about women entrepreneurs in a time of war. As she explains in the introduction of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana:

Most stories about war and its aftermath inevitably focus on men: the soldiers, the returning veterans, the statesmen. I wanted to know what war was like for those who had been left behind: the women who managed to keep going even as their world fell apart. War reshapes women’s lives and often unexpectedly forces them — unprepared — in to the role of breadwinner. Charged with their family’s survival, they invent ways to provide for their children and communities. But their stories are rarely told. We’ve far more accustomed to — and comfortable with — seeing women portrayed as victims of war who deserve our sympathy rather than as resilient survivors who demand our respect.

I sat down to start this book on Sunday morning, and before I knew it I was done. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is the best sort of narrative nonfiction — engaging, smart, well-written, and covering a socially important story that needs to be told. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

One of the things I appreciated most about the book was what a great job the Lemmon does explaining the war in Afghanistan and the context for Kamela’s story. The chapter on how the Taliban came to power and started enforcing a warped interpretation of Islam was clear and succinct. Politics in the Middle East is complicated, and I always admire authors who can write about it well.

Equally important, the story of Kamela and her sisters is an amazing one. After Kamela’s father had to leave the city, Kamela came up with the idea to make and sell dresses to shops in town. Although neither she nor her sisters could sew, Kamela found a teacher and worked hard to improve their skills. Combining hard work with a strong sense of business, she grew the tailoring service to support her family and her community. It’s impressive, and even more so because she did it while living under the rule of a regime that hardly recognized her as a person.

I’m having a hard time not being gushy because I really just loved this book. If I had one critique, it would be that I wanted to read more — more about Kamela, about Afghanistan, and about women entrepreneurs in war zones. In some ways, it reminded me of Barbara Demick’s equally amazing Nothing to Envy in that both books pull back a curtain and let readers see live we rarely get an honest look at. For that, both authors deserve to be commended.

This is a book I’ll be recommending to many, many people, even readers cautious about their nonfiction choices. I’m confident anyone who picks up this book will be glad they read it.

Rating: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review.

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