The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

3.3 124
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
     
 

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"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 demand our respect…" 

Former ABC journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the riveting true story of Kamila Sidiqi and other women of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s

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Overview

"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 demand our respect…" 

Former ABC journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the riveting true story of Kamila Sidiqi and other women of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s fearful rise to power. In what Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, calls “one of the most inspiring books I have ever read,” Lemmon recounts with novelistic vividness the true story of a fearless young woman who not only reinvented herself as an entrepreneur to save her family but, in the face of ferocious opposition, brought hope to the lives of dozens of women in war-torn Kabul.

Editorial Reviews

The Oprah Magazine O
“A courageous Afghan woman and her sisters success as unlikely entrepreneurs in this inspiring true story.”
Angelina Jolie
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana gives voice to many of our world’s unsung heroines. Against all odds, these young women created hope and community, and they never gave up. This book is guaranteed to move you—and to show you a side of Afghanistan few ever see.”
Tina Brown
“Gayle Lemmon’s riveting portrait of Kamila, told with grace, elegance and passion, captures the extraordinary tenacity and ingenuity of one woman. A powerful read that serves as a reminder that Afghanistan can never thrive until it embraces the active involvement of women in its leadership and future.”
Mohamed El-Erian
“Rarely has an author been so successful in turning on-the-ground reportage into a dramatic and yet deeply informative story. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads like great fiction and yet it is all true. It is a must read.”
People
“[A] transporting, enlightening book. . . The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a fascinating window on Afghan life under the Taliban and a celebration of women the world over who support their loved ones with tenacity, inventiveness and sheer guts.”
Parade
“An Afghan family finds a way to survive in Kabul under Taliban rule in this awe-inspiring true story. Fans of Three Cups of Tea are sure to embrace this powerful and humbling book.”
New York Post
“[Kamila Sidiqi] picked up a needle and thread, a whole lot of courage and became an entrepreneur with her own dressmaking business. She offered work to 100 other local women, forging bonds among oppressed women and creating a real community in very trying times.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Lemmon’s reporting is superb. . . . The Dressmaker of Khair Khana verges on required reading.”
Huffington Post
“A truly uplifting and very true story of how one woman set out to start a business and ended up preserving the dignity of so many women; opened up possibilities for hundreds more; and inspired thousands.”
Los Angeles Times
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is pure inspiration. . . it reveals in acute detail the anxiety of ordinary people trying to fold their lives around the whims and laws of abusive regimes.”
Fast Company
“A riveting and important book.”
Booklist
“An inspiring, uplifting story about one woman’s extraordinary courage and ingenuity in the face of adversity.”
Vanity Fair
“Gayle Tzemach Lemmon embroiders the life of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, the remarkable story of an ingenious young Afghan woman who, under the Taliban’s rule, created jobs for 100 women.”
Business Insider
“Lemmon tells the riveting true story of Kamila Sidiqi and other women of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s rise to power.”
TheStreet.com
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana shows us a side of Afghanistan that is so different from what we have seen so far. I recommend this book to anyone who has ever had an idea or a business plan. Kamila’s story is engrossing, and her courage truly inspiring.”
BookDragon
“By sharing these women’s courageously tenacious stories, Lemmon provides readers convincing proof to believe, as well.”
Muslim Media Watch Blog
“Lemmon’s storytelling is her strength–the way the book is organized is captivating. Make no mistake that The Dressmaker of Khair Khana has solid journalistic chops and remains based in fact. It is a feel-good, pleasurable read at the crossroads between journalism and novel.”
BurdaStyle
“Kamia’s story is a truly inspiring one and a testament to the ingenuity and resiliency of the human spirit.”
Acton Institute
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a captivating war-time adventure story, but it is also a lesson in tenacity and courage.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a most remarkable tale.”
Washington Times
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a heart-wrenching, heartwarming story about the courageous women of war-ravaged Afghanistan.”
New Yorker
“Remarkable.”
MSN Glo
“Nothing short of amazing . . . definitely a must-read!”
Blogcritics.org
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is one of those books you pick up to read and never forget: an emotional event and a reading experience about a dynamic woman of courage. Lemmon captivates readers with wonder as she relates how one woman refuses to be a victim.”
Harper's Bazaar
“Rebel Chic: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s real-life tale of a seamstress under the Taliban.”
HeadButler.com
“Expect to see Dressmaker on beaches everywhere this summer. And on smart summer reading lists, right next to Three Cups of Tea. In a time when women’s freedom is challenged and threatened—and not just in Kabul—Kamila’s fist-pump of victory is as necessary as it is inspiring.”
People Magazine
"[A] transporting, enlightening book. . . The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a fascinating window on Afghan life under the Taliban and a celebration of women the world over who support their loved ones with tenacity, inventiveness and sheer guts."
Library Journal
Journalist Lemmon (deputy director, Women & Foreign Policy Prog., Council on Foreign Relations) tells the moving story of Kamila Sidiqi, a young woman in Kabul, Afghanistan, who, out of desperation, started a successful dressmaking business to support her family and other destitute women during the repressive Taliban regime. Lemmon encountered Kamila in 2005 when Lemmon was on assignment for the Financial Times. Through Kamila's story, Lemmon captures the lives of women after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996. She rejects characterizing Afghan women as victims of war and instead demonstrates how women, particularly entrepreneurial women, actively resisted gender oppression. Kamila's story ends on a positive note with the fall of the Taliban regime after the American presence in Afghanistan; her impressive yet furtive enterprise later received recognition from such figures as Condoleezza Rice. Given the continued conflict in Afghanistan under foreign occupation, curious readers may want to know more about the current struggles of Afghan women. VERDICT A revealing work that contributes to the literature on women under Afghanistan's Taliban regime.—Karen Okamoto, John Jay Coll. Lib., New York
Kirkus Reviews

The story of a young Afghan woman who outwitted the Taliban to become a successful entrepreneur.

At age 19, Kamela Sediqi started a tailoring business in Kabul that saved her family and possibly hundreds of women from starvation. In 1996, the Taliban seized control of the Afghan government and "began reshaping the cosmopolitan capital according to their utopian vision of seventh-century Islam." Radical separation of the sexes became the norm, with public lives and spaces reserved for men only. All women—including educated professionals—were forced into home sequestration. The new order wreaked economic havoc and forced political dissidents, including Kamela's father, to flee for their lives. Desperate to support her family, Kamela, who had trained to become a teacher, took advantage of a loophole in Taliban rules that permitted women to work at home and began sewing clothes for local stores. Though she endured threats of harassment, beating and imprisonment by armed guards, Kamela's business thrived, to the point where the unlikely entrepreneur was able to employ her five sisters. As word of her work spread, so did her client list. Soon, "the dressmaker of Khair Khana" was offering both jobs and training to neighborhood women in dire circumstances. Hardship derailed Kamela's plans to teach high school but allowed her to discover her true calling—helping her people help themselves. Former ABC News producer Lemmon's account is the product of several years of in-depth interviewing, and the author convincingly evokes the atmosphere of Taliban-era Kabul. The author also pays scrupulous attention to the details of character development and narrative momentum. Both are well-delineated, though Kamela and her family members (especially the female ones) at times seem drawn to fit more of a heroic—rather than human—mold. However, the moving story will allow readers to overlook such a minor flaw. As Lemmon writes, women in war zones like Afghanistan are more often depicted as "victims of war who deserve our sympathy rather than as resilient survivors who demand our respect. I was determined to change this." Mission accomplished.

A memorable, inspiring story of courageous community-building.

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061732478
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
03/20/2012
Series:
P.S. Series
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
111,523
Product dimensions:
5.34(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.75(d)
Lexile:
1090L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

One Remarkable Family and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe
By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

HarperCollins

Copyright © 2011 Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-173237-9


Chapter One

Kamila. Jan, I'm honored to present you with your certificate."
The small man with graying hair and deeply
set wrinkles spoke with pride as he handed the young
woman an official-looking document. Kamila took the
paper and read:
This is to certify that Kamila Sidiqi has successfully
completed her studies at Sayed Jamaluddin Teacher
Training Institute.
"Thank you, Agha," Kamila said. A snow-melting smile
broke out across her face. She was the second woman in
her family to finish Sayed Jamaluddin's two-year course;
her older sister Malika had graduated a few years earlier
and was now teaching high school in Kabul. Malika,
however, had not had the constant shellings and rocket
fire of the civil war to contend with as she traveled back
and forth to class.
Kamila clasped the treasured document. Her head-
scarf hung casually and occasionally slipped backward
to reveal a few strands of her shoulder-length wavy
brown hair. Wide-legged black pants and dark, pointy
low heels peeked out from under the hem of her floor-
length coat. Kabul's women were known for stretching
the sartorial limits of their traditional country, and
Kamila was no exception. Until the leaders of the anti-
Soviet resistance, the Mujahideen ("holy warriors"), un-
seated the Moscow-backed government of Dr. Najibullah
in 1992, many Kabuli women traveled the cosmopolitan
capital in Western clothing, their heads uncovered. But
now, only four years later, the Mujahideen defined women's
public space and attire far more narrowly, mandating
offices separate from men, headscarves, and baggy,
modest clothing. Kabul's women, young and old, dressed
accordingly, though many—like Kamila—enlivened the
rules by tucking a smart pair of shoes under their shape-
less black jackets.

It was a far cry from the 1950s and '60s, when fashionable
Afghan women glided through the urbane capital
in European-style skirt suits and smart matching head-
scarves. By the 1970s, Kabul University students shocked
their more conservative rural countrymen with knee-
skimming miniskirts and stylish pumps. Campus protests
and political turmoil marked those years of upheaval. But
that was all well before Kamila's time: she had been born
only two years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
in 1979, an occupation that gave rise to a decade-long
battle of Afghan resistance waged by the Mujahideen,
whose forces ultimately bled the Russians dry. Nearly two
decades after the first Russian tank rolled into Afghanistan,
Kamila and her friends had yet to experience peace.
After the defeated Soviets withdrew the last of their support
for the country in 1992, the triumphant Mujahideen
commanders began fighting among themselves for control
of Kabul. The brutality of the civil war shocked the people
of Kabul. Overnight, neighborhood streets turned into
frontline positions between competing factions who shot
at one another from close range.
Despite the civil war, Kamila's family and tens of thousands
of other Kabulis went to school and work as often as
they could, even while most of their friends and family fled
to safety in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. With her new
teaching certificate in hand, Kamila would soon begin her
studies at Kabul Pedagogical Institute, a coed university
founded in the early 1980s during the Soviet years of educational
reform, which saw the expansion of state institutions.
After two years, she would earn a bachelor's degree
and begin her teaching career there in Kabul. She hoped
to become a professor of Dari or perhaps even literature
one day.
Yet despite the years of hard work and her optimistic
plans for the future, no joyful commencement ceremony
would honor Kamila's great achievement. The civil war
had disemboweled the capital's stately architecture and
middle-class neighborhoods, transforming the city into
a collapsed mess of gutted roads, broken water systems,
and crumbling buildings. Rockets launched by warring
commanders regularly arced across Kabul's horizon, falling
onto the capital's streets and killing its residents
indiscriminately. Everyday events like graduations had become
too dangerous to even contemplate, let alone attend.
Kamila placed the neatly printed certificate into a
sturdy brown folder and stepped out of the administrator's
office, leaving behind a line of young women who
were waiting to receive their diplomas. Walking through a
narrow corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows that over-
looked Sayed Jamaluddin's main entrance, she passed
two women who were absorbed in conversation in the
crowded hallway. She couldn't help overhearing them,
"I hear they are coming today," the first woman said to
her friend.
"My cousin told me they are just outside Kabul," the
other answered in a whisper.
Kamila immediately knew who "they" were: the Taliban,
whose arrival now felt utterly inevitable. News in
the capital traveled at an astoundingly rapid pace via a
far-reaching network of extended families that connected
the provinces across Afghanistan. Rumors of the arriving
regime were rampant, and the word was out that women
were in the crosshairs. The harder-to-control, more remote
rural regions could sometimes carve out exceptions for
their young women, but the Taliban moved quickly to
consolidate power in the urban areas. So far they had won
every battle.
Kamila stood quietly in the hallway of the school she
had fought so hard to attend, despite all the dangers,
and listened to her classmates with a feeling of growing
unease. She moved closer so she could hear the girls'
conversation more clearly.
"You know they shut the schools for girls in Herat,"
the sharp-nosed brunette said. Her voice was heavy with
worry. The Taliban had captured the western city a year
earlier. "My sister heard that women can't even leave the
house once they take over. And here we thought we had
lived through the worst."
"Come, it might not be so bad," answered her friend,
taking her hand. "They might actually bring some peace
with them, God willing."
Holding her folder tightly with both hands, Kamila
hurried downstairs for the long bus ride that would take
her to her family's home in the neighborhood of Khair
Khana. Only a few months ago she had walked the seven
miles after a rocket had landed along the road in Karteh
Char, the neighborhood where her school was located,
damaging the roof of a hospital for government security
forces and knocking out the city's bus ser vice for the
entire evening.
Everyone in Kabul had grown accustomed to seeking
safety between doorjambs or in basements once they
heard the now-familiar shriek of approaching rockets. A
year earlier the teacher training institute had moved its
classes from Karteh Char, which was regularly pummeled
by rocket attacks and mortar fire, to what its director
hoped was a safer location in a once-elegant French high
school downtown. Not long afterward yet another rocket,
this one targeting the nearby Ministry of Interior, landed
directly in front of the school's new home.
All these memories raced through Kamila's mind as
she boarded the rusty light blue "Millie" bus that was once
part of the government-run ser vice and settled into her
seat. She leaned against the large mud-flecked window
and listened to the women around her while the bus began
to maneuver bumpily through Karteh Char's torn-up
streets. Everyone had her version of what the new regime
would mean for Kabul's residents.
"Maybe they will bring security," said a girl who sat a
few rows behind Kamila.
"I don't think so," her friend answered. "I heard on the
radio that they don't allow school or anything once they
come. No jobs, either. We won't even be able to leave the
house unless they say so. Perhaps they will only be here
for a few months."
Kamila gazed through the window and tried to tune
out the conversations around her. She knew the girl was
probably right, but she couldn't bear to think about what
it would mean for her and her four younger sisters still
living at home. She watched as shopkeepers on the city's
dusty streets engaged in the daily routine of closing their
grocery stores, photo shops, and bakery stalls. Over the
past four years the entrances to Kabul's shops had become
a barometer of the day's violence: doors that were wide
open meant daily life pushed forward, even if occasionally
punctured by the ring of distant rocket fire. But when
they were shut in broad daylight, Kabulis knew danger
waited nearby and that they, too, would be best served by
remaining indoors.
The old bus lurched forward amid a belch of exhaust
and finally arrived at Kamila's stop. Khair Khana, a
northern suburb of Kabul, was home to a large community
of Tajiks, Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group.
Like most Tajik families, Kamila's parents came from the
north of the country. The south was traditionally Pashtun
terrain. Kamila's father had moved the family to Khair
Khana during his last tour of duty as a senior military
officer for the Afghan army, in which he had served his
country for more than three decades. Kabul, he thought
at the time, offered his nine girls the best chance of a good
education. And education, he believed, was critical to his
children's, his family's, and his country's future.
Kamila hurriedly made her way down the dusty street,
holding her scarf over her mouth to keep from inhaling
the city's gritty soot. She passed the narrow grocery store
fronts and wooden vegetable carts where peddlers sold
carrots and potatoes. Smiling, flower-laden brides and
grooms stared down at her from a series of wedding pictures
that hung from the wall of a photo shop. From the
bakery came the delicious smell of fresh naan bread, followed
by a butcher shop where large hunks of dark red
meat dangled from steel hooks. As she walked Kamila
overheard two shopkeepers trading stories of the day.
Like all Kabulis who remained in the capital, these men
had grown accustomed to watching regimes come and go,
and they were quick to sense an impending collapse. The
first, a short man with balding hair and deeply set wrinkles,
was saying that his cousin had told him Massoud's
forces were loading up their trucks and fleeing the capital.
The other man shook his head in disbelief.
"We will see what comes next," he said. "Maybe things
will get better, Inshallah. But I doubt it."
Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was the country's
defense minister and a Tajik military hero from the Panjshir
Valley, not far from Parwan, where Kamila's family
came from. During the years of resistance against the
Russians, Dr. Najibullah's forces had imprisoned Kamila's
father on suspicion of supporting Massoud, who was
known as the "Lion of Panjshir" and was among the most
famous of the Mujahideen fighters. After the Russians
withdrew in 1992, Mr. Sidiqi was freed by forces loyal to
Massoud, who was now serving in President Burhanuddin
Rabbani's new government. Mr. Sidiqi went to work
with Massoud's soldiers in the north for a while, eventually
deciding on retirement in Parwan, his boyhood home
and a place he loved more than any other in the world.
All through the preceding summer of 1996, Massoud
had vowed to stop the Taliban's offensive even as the
relentless bombardment of the capital continued and
Taliban forces took one city after another. If the government
soldiers were really packing up and heading out of Kabul,
Kamila thought, the Taliban could not be far behind. She
picked up her pace and kept her eyes on the ground. No
need to look for trouble. As she approached her green
metal gate on the corner of Khair Khana's well-trafficked
main road, she sighed in relief. She had never been more
grateful to live so close to the bus stop.
The wide green door clanged shut behind Kamila, and
her mother, Ruhasva, rushed out into the small courtyard
to embrace her daughter. She was a tiny woman with
wisps of white hair that framed a kindly, round face. She
kissed Kamila on both cheeks and pressed her close. Mrs.
Sidiqi had heard the rumors of the Taliban's arrival all
morning long, and had been pacing her living room floor
for two hours, anxious for her daughter's safety.
Finally home, with her family close and darkness falling,
Kamila settled down on a velvety pillow in her living
room. She picked up one of her favorite books, a frayed
collection of poems, and lit a hurricane lamp with one
of the small red and white matchboxes the family kept
all over the house for just such a purpose. Power was a
luxury; it arrived unpredictably and for only an hour or
two a day, if at all, and everyone had learned to adjust to
life in the dark. A long night lay before them, and they
waited anxiously to see what would happen next. Mr.
Sidiqi said little as he joined his daughter on the floor next
to the radio to listen to the news from the BBC in London.
Just four miles away, Kamila's older sister Malika was
finally winding down a far more eventful day.
"Mommy, I don't feel well," said Hossein.
Four years old, he was Malika's second child and a
favorite of his aunt Kamila. She would play with him in the
family's parched yard in Khair Khana and together they
would count the goats and sheep that sometimes passed
by. Today his small body was seized by stomach pain and
diarrhea, which had worsened as the afternoon passed.
He lay on the living room floor on a bed of pillows that
Malika had made in the center of the large red carpet.
Hossein breathed heavily as he fell in and out of a fitful
sleep.
Malika studied Hossein and wondered how she would
manage. She was several months pregnant with her third
child and had spent the day inside, heeding a neighbor's
early morning warning to stay home from work because
the Taliban were coming. Distractedly she sewed pieces of
a rayon suit she was making for a neighbor, and watched
with growing concern as Hossein's condition worsened.
Beads of sweat now covered his forehead, and his arms
and legs were clammy. He needed a doctor.
From her closet Malika selected the largest chador,
or headscarf, she owned. She took care to cover not just
her head but the lower half of her face as well. Like most
educated women in Kabul, she usually wore her scarf
draped casually over her hair and across her shoulders.Kamila. Jan, I'm honored to present you with your certificate."
The small man with graying hair and deeply
set wrinkles spoke with pride as he handed the young
woman an official-looking document. Kamila took the
paper and read:
This is to certify that Kamila Sidiqi has successfully
completed her studies at Sayed Jamaluddin Teacher
Training Institute.
"Thank you, Agha," Kamila said. A snow-melting smile
broke out across her face. She was the second woman in
her family to finish Sayed Jamaluddin's two-year course;
her older sister Malika had graduated a few years earlier
and was now teaching high school in Kabul. Malika,
however, had not had the constant shellings and rocket
fire of the civil war to contend with as she traveled back
and forth to class.
Kamila clasped the treasured document. Her head-
scarf hung casually and occasionally slipped backward
to reveal a few strands of her shoulder-length wavy
brown hair. Wide-legged black pants and dark, pointy
low heels peeked out from under the hem of her floor-
length coat. Kabul's women were known for stretching
the sartorial limits of their traditional country, and
Kamila was no exception. Until the leaders of the anti-
Soviet resistance, the Mujahideen ("holy warriors"), un-
seated the Moscow-backed government of Dr. Najibullah
in 1992, many Kabuli women traveled the cosmopolitan
capital in Western clothing, their heads uncovered. But
now, only four years later, the Mujahideen defined women's
public space and attire far more narrowly, mandating
offices separate from men, headscarves, and baggy,
modest clothing. Kabul's women, young and old, dressed
accordingly, though many—like Kamila—enlivened the
rules by tucking a smart pair of shoes under their shape-
less black jackets.

It was a far cry from the 1950s and '60s, when fashionable
Afghan women glided through the urbane capital
in European-style skirt suits and smart matching head-
scarves. By the 1970s, Kabul University students shocked
their more conservative rural countrymen with knee-
skimming miniskirts and stylish pumps. Campus protests
and political turmoil marked those years of upheaval. But
that was all well before Kamila's time: she had been born
only two years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
in 1979, an occupation that gave rise to a decade-long
battle of Afghan resistance waged by the Mujahideen,
whose forces ultimately bled the Russians dry. Nearly two
decades after the first Russian tank rolled into Afghanistan,
Kamila and her friends had yet to experience peace.
After the defeated Soviets withdrew the last of their support
for the country in 1992, the triumphant Mujahideen
commanders began fighting among themselves for control
of Kabul. The brutality of the civil war shocked the people
of Kabul. Overnight, neighborhood streets turned into
frontline positions between competing factions who shot
at one another from close range.
Despite the civil war, Kamila's family and tens of thousands
of other Kabulis went to school and work as often as
they could, even while most of their friends and family fled
to safety in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. With her new
teaching certificate in hand, Kamila would soon begin her
studies at Kabul Pedagogical Institute, a coed university
founded in the early 1980s during the Soviet years of educational
reform, which saw the expansion of state institutions.
After two years, she would earn a bachelor's degree
and begin her teaching career there in Kabul. She hoped
to become a professor of Dari or perhaps even literature
one day.
Yet despite the years of hard work and her optimistic
plans for the future, no joyful commencement ceremony
would honor Kamila's great achievement. The civil war
had disemboweled the capital's stately architecture and
middle-class neighborhoods, transforming the city into
a collapsed mess of gutted roads, broken water systems,
and crumbling buildings. Rockets launched by warring
commanders regularly arced across Kabul's horizon, falling
onto the capital's streets and killing its residents
indiscriminately. Everyday events like graduations had become
too dangerous to even contemplate, let alone attend.
Kamila placed the neatly printed certificate into a
sturdy brown folder and stepped out of the administrator's
office, leaving behind a line of young women who
were waiting to receive their diplomas. Walking through a
narrow corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows that over-
looked Sayed Jamaluddin's main entrance, she passed
two women who were absorbed in conversation in the
crowded hallway. She couldn't help overhearing them,
"I hear they are coming today," the first woman said to
her friend.
"My cousin told me they are just outside Kabul," the
other answered in a whisper.
Kamila immediately knew who "they" were: the Taliban,
whose arrival now felt utterly inevitable. News in
the capital traveled at an astoundingly rapid pace via a
far-reaching network of extended families that connected
the provinces across Afghanistan. Rumors of the arriving
regime were rampant, and the word was out that women
were in the crosshairs. The harder-to-control, more remote
rural regions could sometimes carve out exceptions for
their young women, but the Taliban moved quickly to
consolidate power in the urban areas. So far they had won
every battle.
Kamila stood quietly in the hallway of the school she
had fought so hard to attend, despite all the dangers,
and listened to her classmates with a feeling of growing
unease. She moved closer so she could hear the girls'
conversation more clearly.
"You know they shut the schools for girls in Herat,"
the sharp-nosed brunette said. Her voice was heavy with
worry. The Taliban had captured the western city a year
earlier. "My sister heard that women can't even leave the
house once they take over. And here we thought we had
lived through the worst."
"Come, it might not be so bad," answered her friend,
taking her hand. "They might actually bring some peace
with them, God willing."
Holding her folder tightly with both hands, Kamila
hurried downstairs for the long bus ride that would take
her to her family's home in the neighborhood of Khair
Khana. Only a few months ago she had walked the seven
miles after a rocket had landed along the road in Karteh
Char, the neighborhood where her school was located,
damaging the roof of a hospital for government security
forces and knocking out the city's bus ser vice for the
entire evening.
Everyone in Kabul had grown accustomed to seeking
safety between doorjambs or in basements once they
heard the now-familiar shriek of approaching rockets. A
year earlier the teacher training institute had moved its
classes from Karteh Char, which was regularly pummeled
by rocket attacks and mortar fire, to what its director
hoped was a safer location in a once-elegant French high
school downtown. Not long afterward yet another rocket,
this one targeting the nearby Ministry of Interior, landed
directly in front of the school's new home.
All these memories raced through Kamila's mind as
she boarded the rusty light blue "Millie" bus that was once
part of the government-run ser vice and settled into her
seat. She leaned against the large mud-flecked window
and listened to the women around her while the bus began
to maneuver bumpily through Karteh Char's torn-up
streets. Everyone had her version of what the new regime
would mean for Kabul's residents.
"Maybe they will bring security," said a girl who sat a
few rows behind Kamila.
"I don't think so," her friend answered. "I heard on the
radio that they don't allow school or anything once they
come. No jobs, either. We won't even be able to leave the
house unless they say so. Perhaps they will only be here
for a few months."
Kamila gazed through the window and tried to tune
out the conversations around her. She knew the girl was
probably right, but she couldn't bear to think about what
it would mean for her and her four younger sisters still
living at home. She watched as shopkeepers on the city's
dusty streets engaged in the daily routine of closing their
grocery stores, photo shops, and bakery stalls. Over the
past four years the entrances to Kabul's shops had become
a barometer of the day's violence: doors that were wide
open meant daily life pushed forward, even if occasionally
punctured by the ring of distant rocket fire. But when
they were shut in broad daylight, Kabulis knew danger
waited nearby and that they, too, would be best served by
remaining indoors.
The old bus lurched forward amid a belch of exhaust
and finally arrived at Kamila's stop. Khair Khana, a
northern suburb of Kabul, was home to a large community
of Tajiks, Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group.
Like most Tajik families, Kamila's parents came from the
north of the country. The south was traditionally Pashtun
terrain. Kamila's father had moved the family to Khair
Khana during his last tour of duty as a senior military
officer for the Afghan army, in which he had served his
country for more than three decades. Kabul, he thought
at the time, offered his nine girls the best chance of a good
education. And education, he believed, was critical to his
children's, his family's, and his country's future.
Kamila hurriedly made her way down the dusty street,
holding her scarf over her mouth to keep from inhaling
the city's gritty soot. She passed the narrow grocery store
fronts and wooden vegetable carts where peddlers sold
carrots and potatoes. Smiling, flower-laden brides and
grooms stared down at her from a series of wedding pictures
that hung from the wall of a photo shop. From the
bakery came the delicious smell of fresh naan bread, followed
by a butcher shop where large hunks of dark red
meat dangled from steel hooks. As she walked Kamila
overheard two shopkeepers trading stories of the day.
Like all Kabulis who remained in the capital, these men
had grown accustomed to watching regimes come and go,
and they were quick to sense an impending collapse. The
first, a short man with balding hair and deeply set wrinkles,
was saying that his cousin had told him Massoud's
forces were loading up their trucks and fleeing the capital.
The other man shook his head in disbelief.
"We will see what comes next," he said. "Maybe things
will get better, Inshallah. But I doubt it."
Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was the country's
defense minister and a Tajik military hero from the Panjshir
Valley, not far from Parwan, where Kamila's family
came from. During the years of resistance against the
Russians, Dr. Najibullah's forces had imprisoned Kamila's
father on suspicion of supporting Massoud, who was
known as the "Lion of Panjshir" and was among the most
famous of the Mujahideen fighters. After the Russians
withdrew in 1992, Mr. Sidiqi was freed by forces loyal to
Massoud, who was now serving in President Burhanuddin
Rabbani's new government. Mr. Sidiqi went to work
with Massoud's soldiers in the north for a while, eventually
deciding on retirement in Parwan, his boyhood home
and a place he loved more than any other in the world.
All through the preceding summer of 1996, Massoud
had vowed to stop the Taliban's offensive even as the
relentless bombardment of the capital continued and
Taliban forces took one city after another. If the government
soldiers were really packing up and heading out of Kabul,
Kamila thought, the Taliban could not be far behind. She
picked up her pace and kept her eyes on the ground. No
need to look for trouble. As she approached her green
metal gate on the corner of Khair Khana's well-trafficked
main road, she sighed in relief. She had never been more
grateful to live so close to the bus stop.
The wide green door clanged shut behind Kamila, and
her mother, Ruhasva, rushed out into the small courtyard
to embrace her daughter. She was a tiny woman with
wisps of white hair that framed a kindly, round face. She
kissed Kamila on both cheeks and pressed her close. Mrs.
Sidiqi had heard the rumors of the Taliban's arrival all
morning long, and had been pacing her living room floor
for two hours, anxious for her daughter's safety.
Finally home, with her family close and darkness falling,
Kamila settled down on a velvety pillow in her living
room. She picked up one of her favorite books, a frayed
collection of poems, and lit a hurricane lamp with one
of the small red and white matchboxes the family kept
all over the house for just such a purpose. Power was a
luxury; it arrived unpredictably and for only an hour or
two a day, if at all, and everyone had learned to adjust to
life in the dark. A long night lay before them, and they
waited anxiously to see what would happen next. Mr.
Sidiqi said little as he joined his daughter on the floor next
to the radio to listen to the news from the BBC in London.
Just four miles away, Kamila's older sister Malika was
finally winding down a far more eventful day.
"Mommy, I don't feel well," said Hossein.
Four years old, he was Malika's second child and a
favorite of his aunt Kamila. She would play with him in the
family's parched yard in Khair Khana and together they
would count the goats and sheep that sometimes passed
by. Today his small body was seized by stomach pain and
diarrhea, which had worsened as the afternoon passed.
He lay on the living room floor on a bed of pillows that
Malika had made in the center of the large red carpet.
Hossein breathed heavily as he fell in and out of a fitful
sleep.
Malika studied Hossein and wondered how she would
manage. She was several months pregnant with her third
child and had spent the day inside, heeding a neighbor's
early morning warning to stay home from work because
the Taliban were coming. Distractedly she sewed pieces of
a rayon suit she was making for a neighbor, and watched
with growing concern as Hossein's condition worsened.
Beads of sweat now covered his forehead, and his arms
and legs were clammy. He needed a doctor.
From her closet Malika selected the largest chador,
or headscarf, she owned. She took care to cover not just
her head but the lower half of her face as well. Like most
educated women in Kabul, she usually wore her scarf
draped casually over her hair and across her shoulders.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon Copyright © 2011 by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Angelina Jolie
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana gives voice to many of our world’s unsung heroines. Against all odds, these young women created hope and community, and they never gave up. This book is guaranteed to move you—and to show you a side of Afghanistan few ever see.”
Mohamed El-Erian
“Rarely has an author been so successful in turning on-the-ground reportage into a dramatic and yet deeply informative story. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads like great fiction and yet it is all true. It is a must read.”
Tina Brown
“Gayle Lemmon’s riveting portrait of Kamila, told with grace, elegance and passion, captures the extraordinary tenacity and ingenuity of one woman. A powerful read that serves as a reminder that Afghanistan can never thrive until it embraces the active involvement of women in its leadership and future.”

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