Beauty in secret


PURPLE PATCH: Beauty in secret —Deborah Rodriguez

The women arrive at the salon just before eight in the morning. If it were any other day, I would still be in bed, trying to sink into a few more minutes of sleep. I would probably still be cursing the neighbour’s rooster for waking me up again at dawn. I might even still be groaning about the vegetable dealers who come down the street at three in the morning with their noisy, horse-drawn wagons, or the neighbourhood mullah, who warbles out his long, mournful call to prayer at 4:30. But this is the day of Roshanna’s engagement party, so I am dressed and ready for work. I have already had four cigarettes and two cups of instant coffee, which I had to make by myself because the cook has not yet arrived. This is more of a trial than you might think, since I have barely learned how to boil water in Afghanistan. When I have to do it myself, I put a lit wooden match on each of the burners of the cranky old gas stove, turn one of the knobs, and back off to see which of the burners explodes into flame. Then I settle a pot of water there and pray that whatever bacteria are floating in the Kabul water today are killed by the boiling.

The mother-in-law comes into the salon first, and we exchange the traditional Afghan greeting: we clasp hands and kiss each other’s cheeks three times. Roshanna is behind her, a tiny, awkward, blue ghost wearing the traditional burqa that covers her, head to toe, with only a small piece of netting for her to see out the front. But the netting has been pulled crooked, across her nose, and she bumps into the doorway. She laughs and flutters her arms inside the billowing fabric, and two of her sisters-in-law help her navigate her way through the door. Once inside, Roshanna snatches the burqa off and drapes it over the top of one of the hair dryers.

“This was like the Taliban days again,” she cries, because she has not worn the burqa since the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in the fall of 2001. Roshanna usually wears clothes that she sews herself — brilliant shalwar kameezes or saris in shades of orchid and peach, lime green and peacock blue. Roshanna usually stands out like a butterfly against the gray dustiness of Kabul and even against the other women on the streets, in their mostly drab, dark clothing. But today she observes the traditional behaviour of a bride on the day of her engagement party or wedding. She has left her parents’ house under cover of burqa and will emerge six hours later wearing her body weight in eye shadow, false eyelashes the size of sparrows, monumentally big hair, and clothes with more bling than a Ferris wheel. In the US, most people would associate this look with drag queens sashaying off to a party with a 1950s prom theme. Here in Afghanistan, for reasons I still do not understand, this look conveys the mystique of the virgin.

The cook arrives just behind the women, whispering that she will make the tea, and Topekai, Baseera, and Bahar, the other beauticians, rush into the salon and take off their headscarves. Then we begin the joyful, gossipy, daylong ordeal of transforming 20-year-old Roshanna into a traditional Afghan bride. Most salons would charge up to $ 250 — about half the annual income for a typical Afghan — for the bride’s services alone. But I am not only Roshanna’s former teacher but also her best friend, even though I am more than 20 years older. She is my first and best friend in Afghanistan. I love her dearly, so the salon services are just one of my gifts to her.

We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband. Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows. There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face, or privates. Her body must be as soft and hairless as that of a prepubescent girl. We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing room — the only one in Afghanistan, I might add — and she grimaces as she sits down on the bed.

“You could have done it yourself at home,” I tease her, and the others laugh. Many brides are either too modest or too fearful to have their hair removed by others in a salon, so they do it at home — they either pull it out by hand or rip it out with chewing gum. Either way, the process is brutally painful.

The mother-in-law had picked Roshanna out for her son a little more than a year after Roshanna graduated from the first class at the Kabul Beauty School, in the fall of 2003, and opened her own salon. The woman was a distant cousin who came in for a perm. She admired this pretty, plucky, resourceful girl who had been supporting her parents and the rest of her family ever since they fled into Pakistan to escape the Taliban. After she left Roshanna’s salon, she started asking around for further details about the girl. She liked what she heard.

(This extract is taken from Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez)

Deborah Rodriguez is an American author and hairdresser who went to Afghanistan to set up a beauty school training programme to certify Afghan women to work in and set up their own beauty parlours

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