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The women arrive at the salon just before eight in the morning. If it were any other day, I’d still be in bed, trying to sink into a few more minutes of sleep. I’d probably still be cursing the neighbor’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 neighborhood mullah, who warbles out his long, mournful call to prayer at four-thirty. But this is the day of Roshanna’s engagement party, so I’m dressed and ready for work. I’ve 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’ve 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 Taliban days again,” she cries, because she hasn’t 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 behavior 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 America, 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 don’t understand, this look conveys the mystique of the virgin.
The cook arrives just behind the women, whispering that she’ll make the tea, and Topekai, Baseera, and Bahar, the other beauticians, rush into the salon and take off their head scarves. Then we begin the joyful, gossipy, daylong ordeal of transforming twenty-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’m more than twenty 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 pubic 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. Besides, it’s hard to achieve the full Brazilian—every pubic hair plucked, front and back— when you do it on your own, even if you’re one of the few women in this country to own a large mirror, as Roshanna does.
“At least you know your husband is somewhere doing this, too,” Topekai says with a leer. My girls giggle at this reference to the groom’s attention to his own naked body today. He also must remove all of his body hair.
“But he only has to shave it off!” Roshanna wails, then blushes and looks down. I know she doesn’t want to appear critical of her new husband, whom she hasn’t yet met, in front of her mother-in-law. She doesn’t want to give the older woman any reason to find fault with her, and when Roshanna looks back up again, she smiles at me anxiously.
But the mother-in-law seems not to have heard her. She has been whispering outside the door with one of her daughters. When she turns her attention back to the waxing room, she looks at Roshanna with a proud, proprietary air.
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.
Roshanna’s father had been a doctor, and the family had led a privileged life until they fled to Pakistan in 1998. There, he was not allowed to practice medicine—a typical refugee story—and had to work as a lowly shoeshine man. By the time they returned to Kabul, he was in such ill health that he couldn’t practice medicine. Still,
he staunchly carried out his fatherly duties by accompanying Roshanna everywhere to watch over her. The mother-in-law had detected no whiff of scandal about Roshanna, except perhaps her friendship with me. Even that didn’t put her off, since foreign women are not held to the same rigorous standards as Afghan women. We are like another gender entirely, able to wander back and forth between the two otherwise separate worlds of men and women; when we do something outrageous, like reach out to shake a man’s hand, it’s usually a forgivable and expected outrage. The mother-in-law may even have regarded me as an asset, a connection to the wealth and power of America, as nearly all Afghans assume Americans are rich. And we are, all of us, at least in a material sense. Anyway, the mother-in-law was determined to secure Roshanna as the first wife for her elder son, an engineer living in Amsterdam. There was nothing unusual about this. Nearly all first marriages in Afghanistan are arranged, and it usually falls to the man’s mother to select the right girl for him. He may take on a second or even third wife later on, but that first virginal lamb is almost as much his mother’s as his.
I see that Roshanna is faltering under her mother-in-law’s gaze, and I pull all the other women away from the waxing room. “How about highlights today?” I ask the mother-in-law. “My girls do foiling better than anyone between here and New York City.”
“Better than in Dubai?” the mother-in-law asks.
“Better than in Dubai,” I say. “And a lot cheaper.”
Back in the main room of the salon, I make sure the curtains are pulled tight so that no passing male can peek in to see the women bareheaded. That’s the kind of thing that could get my salon and the Kabul Beauty School itself closed down. I light candles so that we can turn the overhead lights off. With all the power needed for the machine that melts the wax, the facial lamps, the blow dryers, and the other salon appliances, I don’t want to blow a fuse. I put on a CD of Christmas carols. It’s the only one I can find, and they won’t know the difference anyway. Then I settle the mother-in-law and the members of the bridal party into their respective places, one for a manicure, one for a pedicure, one to get her hair washed. I make sure they all have tea and the latest outdated fashion magazines from the States, then excuse myself with a cigarette. I usually just go ahead and smoke in the salon, but the look on Roshanna’s face just before I shut the door to the waxing room has my heart racing. Because she has a terrible secret, and I’m the only one who knows it—for now.
both engagement parties and weddings are lavish events in Afghanistan. Families save money for years and even take on huge debt to make these events as festive as possible, sparing no expense. After all, this is a country with virtually no public party life. There are no nightclubs, no concerts, only a few restaurants—and the ones that have opened since the Taliban left are frequented mostly by Westerners. There are a few movie theaters, but it’s primarily men who go to them. If a woman happens to show up, as I once did when I insisted that a male friend take me, then she becomes the show, with every turban in the room turned her way so that the men can gawk at her. There are just about no venues where Afghan men and women dress up and mingle. They don’t exactly mingle at engagement parties and weddings, either. At big gatherings, the hundreds of men and women are segregated on two different floors of the hall with two different bands; at smaller gatherings, they are on one floor but separated by a curtain. In both cases, they dress to the nines. When I first came to Kabul, I was amazed by all the stores that sell wedding gowns. There are probably two on every block. Full-size mannequins are lined up in the windows of these stores, heads tilted at a haughty angle, overlooking the street in their colorful dresses spangled with rhinestones and swathed in tulle. They look like giant Barbie dolls— all very tall and Caucasian-looking—and when I was first here, I memorized the dolls in the windows so I could find my way back to my guesthouse. I pretended that they were guiding me home.
Roshanna’s parents shook their heads and declined when the groom’s mother first came calling with cakes and imported candies and other gifts to ask for her hand, but they were pleased with the offer. Saying no was only part of the ritual, a way of signaling that their daughter was so precious and beloved that they hated to let her leave the family home. It was also the first step in a bargaining process. For the next few months, the fathers haggled over the size of her cash dowry, over the number of dresses the groom’s family would have their tailor make for her and the amount of fabric they’d give her family so they could make their own new clothes, over the value of the gold jewelry the groom’s family would give Roshanna. Her father had negotiated all this well. The cash dowry that would be paid to her family was ten thousand dollars, and she would receive five thousand dollars in gold as well as many other accoutrements of an upper-class wedding. Roshanna was not consulted about any of this. As with all first marriages in Afghanistan, it was strictly business, a transaction enacted between fathers. But she was eager to be married. In fact, she’s one of the only brides I’ve ever met in Kabul who actually wanted to get married.
from the moment that I met Roshanna during my first visit to Kabul in the spring of 2002, the first spring after the rout of the Taliban, I puzzled over the sadness in her. Why did I respond so strongly to her sadness when there are millions of sad stories in Kabul? It’s a city that’s dense with sadness. There are so many people who lost loved ones in the twenty-seven years of war in Afghanistan, who have lost homes and livelihoods, who have lost entire towns and families, who have lost every dream they ever had. And there is still the occasional bombing or surprise mine explosion that rips away the happiness people finally think might be theirs. So why did Roshanna stand out amid all that sadness? I think it was her gaiety, her warmth and exuberance, her colorful clothes and bright smile. She was trying so hard to be happy that it hurt me when her sadness showed.
It had taken a few weeks for her to tell me her story. I had noticed that she seemed to light up when a certain young man came into the building where she was a secretary and I was a volunteer with a nonprofit organization. At first, I thought she might be sad because he wasn’t interested in her, but then I thought I saw the same light in his face when he caught sight of her from across the room. I started to tease her about it.
“Got a boyfriend?” I’d whisper, and she’d blush and turn away.
“We don’t marry for love here,” she told me after I had teased her a few times. “I have to marry the man my parents pick.”
I knew that Roshanna and the boy couldn’t admit their feelings or be obvious about them—they couldn’t do a damn thing about them, in fact, because there isn’t any dating in Kabul. But I thought that maybe his mother could talk to her mother and a match could be made that began with love. My mind started to race ahead with the possibilities. Which I mentioned to her one day, but she pulled me into a dark hallway.
“It can’t happen, Debbie,” she said, her eyes glistening in the faint light. “I was engaged once to someone else. This boy’s parents would never let him marry me.”
I slumped against the wall. “Why is it a problem if you were engaged before? Aren’t you allowed to change your mind?”
“You don’t understand,” she insisted. “We signed the nika-khat at the engagement party.”
This other, almost-marriage had taken place when the Taliban were still in power. Her family was living the miserable life of refugees in a camp just over the border in Pakistan. Roshanna was then sixteen years old and so bright that she’d actually found opportunities to get ahead in the camp. She learned English and some computer skills, and then found a job as a secretary with an international aid agency. She often had to cross back into Afghanistan—accompanied by her father, of course—to do some work for the agency.