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

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

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helen Murdoch March 15, 2011, 6:33 am

    I have this one on my list to get and read soon, so thank you for a great review!

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:35 am

      Helen: I hope you enjoy it!

  • Bibliophilebythesea March 15, 2011, 7:14 am

    This does sound awesome. I have a copy that I need to get to soon:)

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:35 am

      Bibliophilebythesea: It was great, and a very quick read. Hope you enjoy it!

  • Jeanne March 15, 2011, 8:52 am

    I’m attracted and usually horrified by books like this, about women’s lives under the Taliban. Maybe I’ll give this one a try.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:37 am

      Jeanne: I feel the same way. I want to know more about what life under the Taliban was like, but it also horrifies me when I read it. But I also think it’s important to read, and this is a less graphic story than others I’ve looked at.

  • Kailana March 15, 2011, 9:02 am

    This is about the exact opposite of the other review I read today… hm…

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:38 am

      Kailana: I read a review by Jen (Devourer of Books) that wasn’t as effusive as I was. I suspect the “real” reaction to the book is somewhere in the middle 🙂

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 15, 2011, 11:56 am

    Wow, your enthusiasm for this book really makes me excited about it!

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:38 am

      Kathy: It’s fun to get excited about a book and recommend it to people without many reservations 🙂

  • Meghan March 15, 2011, 1:14 pm

    I also thought the substance of this book to be really fascinating and empowering. I’m so glad the author chose to tell Kamela’s story! I agree as well that the war and situation were explained simply and succinctly – I could have used a bit more descriptive and evocative writing in the rest of the book, but that was really done well. I know I could have ended up confused and I didn’t at all.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:41 am

      Meghan: Now that I think back on the book, I agree with you on the description and evocative writing. I think the sense of danger could have been higher, but that’s a small critique compared to all the things I liked about this book.

  • Trisha March 15, 2011, 5:18 pm

    I love books that you become so immersed in you end up finishing before you realize you are even reading. Awesome.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:41 am

      Trisha: I hadn’t done that with a book in such a long time, it was refreshing. I sometimes forget how much I need to read to feel content.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon March 15, 2011, 9:07 pm

    Thank you for your review of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” I am delighted you enjoyed this book which celebrate the unsung heroines and the unlikely entrepreneurs of the Taliban era. Readers like you will make the difference for this book, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk about what this story meant to you.
    Please send your comments and book club questions anytime at http://www.gaylelemmon.com
    Very best wishes,
    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:42 am

      Gayle: Thanks for stopping by, and congrats on an excellent book!

  • Aths March 16, 2011, 6:35 am

    I’m thrilled that you loved this book. I really enjoyed it too, though I had the occasional hiccup. It was great reading about the women in Afghanistan from a inside perspective and not the one we are so used to.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:44 am

      Aths: I think there were some bumps, but I was so engrossed when I sat down to read it that it’s hard to think back to them 🙂 I liked the way it presented Afghanistan in a new way, with women as empowered rather than just victims.

  • Mary March 17, 2011, 10:06 am

    I really liked this book. I thought it read like a novel and I found it inspiring. Just a wonderful story.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:44 am

      Mary: I felt the same way — glad you enjoyed it!