Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book Review: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them SafeThe Dressmaker of Khair Khana. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Harper (2011). 258 pages. Genre:  Non-fiction, Biography.

First Line: "'Kamila Jan, I'm honored to present you with your certificate.'"

Summary:  Kamila Sadiqi has just received her teaching certificate.  The year is 1996.  The place is Khair Khana, Afghanistan.  Kamila is the second of eleven children, nine girls and two boys.  Her country has always been at war, but woman have been free to become educated.  Mr. Sadiqi has instilled in his children the importance of obtaining an education.  

The very day Kamila receives her certificate, there are rumors that the Taliban is taking over.  Within 24 hours, Kamila's life completely changes.  Yesterday she was able to travel freely around her city wearing only a headscarf.  Today, she can leave her house only for necessities and then she must wear a full burqa and be accompanied by a chaperone or risk being beaten or killed. 

As the Taliban continues to take over, Mr. Sadiqi's life is endangered.  He retired from the Army, but he is seen as a threat to the Taliban because he served the enemies of the Taliban.  It becomes necessary for him to leave the country.  Within a few weeks his wife joins him, leaving their children in Khair Khana where it is safest for them.  Kamila is the oldest child still living at home and feels it is her duty to somehow bring in some money to help the family.  Women are not allowed to leave the house to work.  But, Kamila's older sister has a tailoring business.  While Kamila never learned to sew like her sister, she is determined to learn so that she might make suits and dresses for local shops. 

My thoughts:  The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a riveting story.  It is told by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a reporter who met Kamila while doing research for her graduate's degree.  Her topic was women who work in war zones. She had been an ABC News Political reporter for ten years before deciding to return to school to obtain a graduate's degree.  She was adept at uncovering stories that mattered.  As she conducted her research she spent a lot of time with Kamila and would consider her a friend.  This gave her some superb insight as she wrote the story.

The first thing that struck me about Kamila was that she came from a wonderful, loving family.  With a mother and father who loved one another and their children and were very involved in one another's lives.  Her father felt strongly that all of his children should become educated and successful.  The family felt like a cohesive unit, all working together for the good of the family.  There was no hint of rivalry or teen angst of any kind.  But rather, each child was eager to help out however they could. 

When the Taliban first took over and the girls were no longer able to attend school, they spent most of the day reading books owned by their family.  The girls were voracious readers and soon read all they could from their own library.  Kamila suggested that they contact some of their friends in the neighborhood and exchange books with them.

"'She reads a lot, though I am not sure what kinds of books she likes.  We have the poetry covered; maybe she can bring some of those great Persian detective stories - I think she is addicted to them.'"

It was amazing to me that Kamila could learn to sew a dress so quickly.  Maybe this was a liberty taken by the author to move the story along, but maybe when one focuses only on that and is not distracted by television, movies and social media the learning curve is much smaller. 

Before reading this book I knew very little about the history of Afghanistan.  The author includes bits of history along with the story she is telling, which is also history, but it is history that has happened during my lifetime.  It was fascinating to hear about events, such as 9/11, from another part of the world and gain another perspective. 

Some of the themes I appreciated were family, hard work, perseverance, kindness, and following rules.

I recommend this book if you like biographies of people from other countries, if you are interested in learning what it is like to live under Taliban rule, or if you like stories about strong families.