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

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061732478
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/20/2012
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 241,988
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.75(d)
Lexile: 1090L (what's this?)

About the Author

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributor to Atlantic Media’s Defense One, writing on national security and foreign policy issues. She is the bestselling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and has written for Newsweek, the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, CNN.com, and the Daily Beast, as well as for the World Bank and Harvard Business School.

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.

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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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 146 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book simplistic. I thought it was a true account of women suffefring under the Taliban, but not so sure. I hate books where everything a character does is perfect and on the first try. Subject character in this book learns how to be an excellent tailor in one afternoon of lessons! And then proceeds to just as quickly teach her sisters who become expert also. Amazing. I have done my share of sewing and it isn't that easy.
Marlo Catroppa More than 1 year ago
The characters were underdeveloped. The storyline was boring. There was nothing that happened in the book that kept you wondering. how does someone become an expert at sewing wedding dresses with two hours of training...are they serious?! If you want an amazing book about Afghanistan during Taliban rule about women survivors read A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Aggiejan More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because of the hype. It was OK but I didn't think that it was all that well written. It left at lot out about the family and how they survived until the main character figured out how to make a living. I felt like there were large gaps in time that were unaccounted for. Nothing about the tedium the women must have felt since they couldn't go any further than the walls of their home except that they read books over and over. It seemed so easy that the materials were obtained--no suspense, no hiding, no close calls. The actual story of a woman who succeeded under the Taliban is incredible and this book publicized that, but the book itself was just OK.
wrryntx More than 1 year ago
This is the worst told good story I've read in a long time. My wife puts it well: I want an author to show me, not tell me. This author fails almost completely to show anything. She tells us how people felt, she tells us what people thought, and frankly she doesn't do that very well. There were so very many opportunities to bring the characters alive, to make them real, to let them speak for themselves about why they did what they did and how they had the courage to do so. Opportunities missed. It is a testament to the importance of these women's stories that I finished this book. The writing made me want to quit, but the underlying story made me persist. In the end I am left wanting to know more and to understand more clearly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story itself is very interesting, but the authors writing style was very elementary and I wasn't able to enjoy reading the book. I didn't feel as if the author felt anything when telling this story and didn't take the time to help the reader get close to the people the story is written about.
bobbin70 More than 1 year ago
Well written and interesting. There was never an explanation of how there were customers. It sounded like everyone was struggling to survive so how could they buy so many dresses?
Di27 More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best books I have read since "Three cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson. It really helps me to appreciate how lucky I am to live in the Country I do.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As the professional critics would say, "A must read." I could not put this book down & now want more from Gayle Lemmon - soon, please?
IMNSHO More than 1 year ago
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a compelling, excellent read that will transport you to a time, a place, and a culture that will keep you riveted to its conclusion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While this is informative regarding a woman's place in Taliban occupied Afghanistan, I feel this book couldn't decide whether to be a documentary or a fact based novel. The characters were not developed enough to have us care, and the information stopped short of being fully explained/revealed. However, it did contain some information I was not aware of, and I did have admiration for the determination of the main character. If you have some extra time, this book is an okay read.
ReadsalotNK More than 1 year ago
Don't bother. Interesting subject but reads as though written by an 11 year old. The dialogue is shallow and contrived. If this is supposed to be a children's book it should be marketed as such.
juJH More than 1 year ago
this is a story of very strong women and how they find a way to survive
Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
The Dress­maker of Khair Khana: Five Sis­ters, One Remark­able Fam­ily, and the Woman Who Risked Every­thing to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lem­mon is a non-fiction book which tells the story of a woman who started a suc­cess­ful dress mak­ing busi­ness under the Tal­iban in Afghanistan. Not only did Kamila Sadiqi pro­vide hon­or­able employ­ment to her fam­ily and female com­mu­nity, but also a ray of hope in an oth­er­wise bleak existence. Kamila Sadiqi is an enter­pris­ing young woman. Fear­less, inde­pen­dent and with a sharp mind, Kamila has to find a way to feed her fam­ily under Tal­iban ruled Afghanistan. All the males in Kamila’s fam­ily have either fled, died or too young to be of any con­cern to the Tal­iban she has to find a way to feed her six siblings. Kamila starts her own stitch­ing busi­ness, hir­ing local women who are not allowed to work unless they are under the strin­gent reg­u­la­tions which the Tal­iban bru­tally enforces how and where women should work. Using her nat­u­rally given tal­ents Kamila doesn’t only sup­ply work and income for her fam­ily, but for the neigh­bor­hood grow­ing her busi­ness and inspir­ing others. The Dress­maker of Khair Khana: Five Sis­ters, One Remark­able Fam­ily, and the Woman Who Risked Every­thing to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lem­mon is a quick read, inter­est­ing and heart­warm­ing book. While short, the book pack­ages a strong story of per­se­ver­ance, fight­ing against the odds, help­ing the com­mu­nity and entre­pre­neur­ship combined. This is an inspir­ing story of coura­geous women who are in a dan­ger­ous zone with­out men. The males either had to go away, were impris­oned or died while women were forced to be con­fined to their homes, wear a chadri and had to have a male chap­eron escort them around. As some­one who pays atten­tion to the world around him and beyond the two oceans sur­round­ing these United States, I knew about the oppress­ing sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan pre-9/11, but one aspect that escaped me was the one the author depicted very were. Besides the daily ter­ror of not hav­ing any con­trol over the small aspects of one’s life (like going to the mar­ket or leav­ing your yard), the sheer bore­dom and depres­sion these women felt jumped off the pages. The more I read the book, the more admi­ra­tion I felt towards Ms. Sadiqi. Not only because of her busi­ness prowess, but also because she cared about her com­mu­nity and cus­tomers – some­thing I feel we have lost on the US. Ms. Sadiqi pro­vided hon­or­able employ­ment, qual­ity prod­ucts and most impor­tantly, a ray of hope in an oth­er­wise unfor­giv­ing world to many women. The Tal­ibs knew about her busi­ness but turned an eye from it due to her qual­ity, work­ing within the guide­lines and con­tri­bu­tion to Afghan society.
PrairieStarUU-Minnesota More than 1 year ago
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is an absorbing story of a young woman who creatively finds a new career when the Taliban occupy her neighborhood in Kabul, Afganistan. This book is enjoyable & easy to read. The Sidiqi family comes to life on the pages by the author's use of incidents in everyday life-for example a parent's visit to a clinic with a sick child, the challenge of shopping, or taking a bus. Too often we do not hear the stories of the women and how they fared during this time. Lemmon skillfully details the life of women and how they provided for their families. The hardships and trials the people endured under the thumb of the extremist & religious Taliban rule are a testament to the courage of the human spirit and strength of family ties. If you liked Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools) you'll enjoy this book too. This is a great read and absouletly an outstanding book !
BONS on LibraryThing 23 days ago
Non-Fiction 1996 Afghanistan-The Taliban Era-BiographyAn amazing story of true life heroism from a brave young woman in Afghanistan. Kamila has finished her schooling and a two year course. The Taliban are in control of her homeland causing great fear among all. Due to strict Taliban rules women do not work out of the home, are not allowed to speak to any male outside of their family and are to remain entirely covered from hear to toe. Most males in Kabul are not present due to previous uprisings of have needed to flee to find work elsewhere to support their families. Kamila has strong family ethics and an unstoppable determination. She knows she must do something to support her family so she learns to sew and starts the most amazing business in the harshest of environments. Kamila's story caused me to think! Could I have that same drive to force myself to learn something. Then could I face my fear and go out in public in to the Taliban ruled streets to sell my wares to the local markets? I thought about life under such rule where women were nothing. The lack of food and any security. Then the US sttacks to fight against the Taliban and the locals suffer the ongoing bombing from a country that is not their enemy. The epilogue tells of the rewards from Kamila's faithfulness. Such an enlightening read of courage that leaves one just grateful.
BrokenTeepee on LibraryThing 30 days ago
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a story of hope. It chronicles the lives of a family of daughters left in Afghanistan with their young brother when the Taliban take over Kabul. Their father had been a supporter of the previous regime and was therefore a target. So were their older brothers. It was felt that they were safer staying in the city rather than trying to get them over the border.When money starts running low and womens' freedoms become more and more restricted the second daughter Kamila knows she needs to do something not only for her family but for the women of her neighborhood. But what can she do? Despite the Sharia laws that require women to wear a chadri (or burqua) they still have a fashion sense and want to wear pretty clothes underneath so Kamila decides to learn to sew. And learn she does. Her sister was already a rather well known seamstress so she had a good teacher. Kamila learns quickly and soon has a beautiful sample to take to the shops.But as a woman she cannot go out alone - her younger brother acts as her escort and despite laws forbidding it Kamila manages to negotiate with several shopkeepers for commissions. She slowly but surely builds a tailoring business that keeps her family going and employs a number of women in the neighborhood.The book is a very emotional read as you understand just how difficult it is for women of intelligence trying to live such a restrictive life. The women of Afghanistan had been allowed to go to school and to work before the Taliban came in and made them nothing more than afterthoughts. That did not stop them from using their brains and their skills to keep their families going.After the Taliban were forced out some rights were returned and Kamila went on to even bigger and better projects to help the women of her country. She is truly a woman to be applauded.
macart3 on LibraryThing 30 days ago
Nice premise: what happens to an Afghani family of 9 females as they are forced from their jobs and pursuing an education to indoors and making a highly successful business venture "hidden" from the Taliban from sewing. Very poor writing. Author is former journalist whose tendancy to write factually and concisely is very much evident and leaves much to be desired for a better emotional portryal amongst family members. Furthermore, Ms. Lemmon's writing is very confusing. She sometimes doesn't mention a person for a long while and then 30-40 pages later they make a random appearance or people disappear without a reason.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing 30 days ago
By now we are all quite familiar with the strictures placed on women by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The news has bombarded us with images of the burqua-clad women trailing their male chaperones, women who had no choice but to follow the rules of one of the most repressive and highly moralistic regimes around. But what happened to the women who no longer had the protection of a male family member or of only a young boy? How on earth were they to survive in the unbending and dangerous to women world of the Taliban?Kamila Sidiqi is one of five sisters who were still at home when the Taliban took over Kabul. She had just received her teaching degree despite the dangers posed by the civil war raging through the country when the Taliban took Kabul, trapping women in their homes and rendering Sidiqi's valuable degree useless. Worse yet for her family, her father had served under several previous governments, putting him at extreme risk and he eventually fled to some semblence of safety, leaving his family behind. Sidiqi's older brother also leaves Afghanistan for Iran in hopes of being able to find work and to avoid any reprisals against his family for his father's prior loyalties. This leaves the women of the family with only their young, school-aged brother as a chaperone and no visible means of support.But Kamila Sidiqi is an incredibly driven and resourceful woman and she hatches the idea of creating a dressmaking business that will stave off their impending poverty. Learning to sew from an older sister, she and her sisters carefully created a viable home industry right under the noses of the Taliban. And not only did their business provide the support of their own family, but they also taught other women from the neighborhood to sew as well in order to support their families as well. Over the five year span of the Taliban's oppressive rule, Sidiqi, with only her young brother to chaperone her as she negotiated with the male shopkeepers at their local market, created a grass roots business that saved many families from starvation, especially those like her own where the older men had had no choice but to flee the country leaving their wives and daughters unprotected and without a male presence.Lemmon traveled to and from Afghanistan for many years, through the escalating tensions, war in the street, and US bombings in order to chronicle the perseverence, determination, and entreprenurial spirit in women like Kamila Sidiqi that the Taliban had been unable to contain. Lemmon tells the story as if it was a novel, creating dialogue for her subjects despite clearly writing this years after the events she's chronicling. Lemmon's background as a journalist is very evident here as well with the writing coming across as very journalistic, simplistic, and oddly enough, given the content of the story, emotionally distant. She also periodically thrusts herself and the present day into the story she's reporting which comes off as mildly distracting. What must have been the overwhelming tension of day to day living interpsersed with moments of heart pounding terror is not all that well conveyed; instead it is reported but muffled, muted. And there seem to be some rather big omissions in Lemmon's writing about these brave Sidiqi girls. Why did the girls' mother stay in the north of Afghanistan after her husband left for Iran instead of going back to Kabul to help her daughters? How did the young women learn to sew so well so quickly that they could create a thriving cottage industry? Why was there still a market for clothing when people couldn't even find enough to eat? How did the economics of this venture work out? Why did these shopkeepers, who were also acting contrary to the Taliban's restrictions and therefore in danger, cooperate with Kamila Sidiqi and her incredibly young mahram (chaperone)?The story itself is impressive and inspiring, putting a face on the suffering and devastation first of a militant, oppressive, and misogynistic regi
bunny0055 on LibraryThing 30 days ago
Nice book on life in Afganistan from the view of women who suffer through all the mess and horror of war.
Periodista on LibraryThing 30 days ago
God in heaven. What a slog. Sometimes I think that if a terrible writer applies herself, she can at least improve enough to produce readable report or something. Then I come across a book like this and I decisively change my mind. This book got published because the woman is well connected and it's a good cause. She probably worked for years on this, had the text cut in half, etc. But the facts are plain: she has neither a news sense nor a storytelling fiber in her body. OK, so you want to know something about women in Afghanistan? Stick with A Bookseller in Kabul by a real journalist. True, it takes place after the Taliban has been ousted and a family that has been living in Pakistan returns home. The daughters are educated, some having learned English in Pakistan, the father is liberal by any Afghan standard and yet ...Afghanistan is not an easy country for even these women. Dressmaker, however, has some recommended reading in the back which might be interesting, notably voices of Afghan women by NGOs during the Taliban period, probably based on refugee reports.This book (retrospectively) covers the Taliban period and a houseful of educated sisters. Sounds promising but Lemmon doesn't have the ability to put anything in context--to explain the absence of the parents, to describe the rules of living with the Taliban, to delve into others' life stories (the male dress buyers, for example), to establish social and economic levels, to sketch the nature of the family's Islamic faith and practices, set the conditions (battles and sectors in Kabul?) right before the Taliban arrived, etc. What were the perceptions of the Taliban before they swept the country and then Kabul? Lemmon is also too timid to ask for for money details: how much are these women earning? What does it cost to feed this household? What's the profit margin? The costs of materials? Trust me, the poor farmers and seamstresses in the least developed countries in the world love to talk about this stuff.Oh and I didn't understand how the UN agency was operating in Afghanistan under the Taliban. What were the rules? How many other foreign NGOs?Yes, Lemmon formerly worked for a TV network but not as a journalist. It must have been in administration, ad sales, something like that. I could tell it was going to be bad from the moment she got to the Kabul airport, sans afghanis (duh, how could you miss Afghans in Dubai?) without a clue how to phone the interpreter. Had this woman ever traveled to a foreign country before? Better stick to group tours. She speaks several languages but she couldn't have worked as a translator or interpreter. If she had, she would have picked up some sense of how to tell a story, right?
lahochstetler on LibraryThing 30 days ago
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan made educated and independent women prisoners in their own households. Aside from grave human rights abuses, the Taliban also created an immediate practical problem for thousands of women who could no longer work to support their families. One Kabul woman, Kamela Sediqui, tacked the problem by creating her own sewing business. When the Taliban came to power Kamela Sediqui was a student who traveled independently around Kabul and who was looking forward to a career. But Taliban occupation led Kamela's parents to flee to the countryside, and left the Sediqui sisters to try and support the family from the confines of their home. Kamela lacked sewing skills, but she saw a need for stylish women's clothes that fit within Taliban restrictions. This small enterprise grew into a veritable workshop that employed numerous girls in the neighborhood. This is certainly an inspiring story. Kamela's business was fraught with danger. She and her employees constantly risked being caught by the Taliban. I learned quite a bit about Kabul before the rise of the Taliban, and it made the regime's corruption all the more striking.
mojomomma on LibraryThing 30 days ago
This large family of sisters outsmarts the Taliban by sewing clothes in their home and then marketing to the local shops in Kabul. They reach out to the other women in the community and teach them to sew to earn a little money and to pass the time doing something constructive while the Taliban is in power.
gypsysmom on LibraryThing 30 days ago
This book is an account of a young woman living in Kabul during the Taliban regime who started a dressmaking business. It was interesting that this young girl who received her teaching certificate just before the Taliban took over the city was able to work, sell her products and hire other women while women were banned from going to school or to work outside the home. They couldn't even go to market unless a man accompanied them and they had to be completely covered the whole time. And yet I had some questions that were never completely resolved such as: Who was buying the dresses and clothing the seamstresses were making since supposedly money was very scarce? I also did not really understand why her mother went to the north of the country, leaving the young daughters with a 19 year old to look after them.The book does give a glimpse behind the chador into the lives of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule.
mountie9 on LibraryThing 30 days ago
The Good Stuff * You can really feel the authors love and admiration for the subjects of her book * A hopeful and passionate real life story about resilience, perseverance, communities working together, faith and family * Excellent bibliography for further background information * Many stories of Afghanistan have so many negative male characters and it is nice to actually see stories of Afghan men who support and want more for their women. * Positively Inspiring and hopeful * Rich historical information that really helps you understand how much Afghanistan has gone through * The mention of what I believe to be very true that learning is the key to the future. Handouts don't work, you need to teach skills for those to help themselves * About incredibly strong real women surviving and thriving through extremely difficult timesThe Not so Good Stuff * Jumps around in a few spots and you feel temporarily lost * Would have liked the How you can help section in the ARC - but hey I think that might be me getting a little picky - they probably wanted to put up to date info for finished productFavorite Quotes/Passages"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.""As he often told the eleven of them, "I look on all of you with one eye." To him it was his highest obligation and a duty of his faith to educate his children so that they could share their knowledge and serve their communities. Now he watched with a sinking heart as the Taliban closed girls' schools and forced women inside.""The more time I spent in Kabul the more I saw what they saw and the more I understood their frustration. I also wondered if this latest international foray into Afghan nation-building would end well for anyone.""Brave young women complete heroic acts everyday, 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."What I Learned * Incredible amounts of historical information about the history of Afghanistan * That I know very little about the lives of the Afghan people * That I had some prejudices about Afghanistan and this book helped me to realize how wrong I was in thinking some of the things I did. I have a new-found respect for their resilience and their strugglesWho should/shouldn't read * I would recommend that everyone read this. Pretty much everyone could benefit from reading this * Thinking many of the strict Taliban wouldn't be into this * This is a must have for every library4.5 Dewey'sI received this from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review. Once again Harper you have introduced me to something that I probably never would have picked out myself
pinkcrayon99 on LibraryThing 30 days ago
When most of us hear ¿Afghanistan¿ what comes to mind are terms like war, Muslim, bombs, and Taliban. We rarely hear any personal stories from this area so when I was presented with the opportunity to read one, I agreed. In the midst of a war, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon uncovers a story of hope and perseverance. ¿War reshapes women¿s lives and often unexpectedly forces them-unprepared-into the role of breadwinner.¿ ¿Gayle Tzemach LemmonKamela Sediqi¿s life and dreams of becoming a teacher was thrown into disarray when the Taliban came to power in 1996. Kamela did not sulk and wallow in depression about the major changes imposed by the Taliban such as not laughing in public and wearing a full chadri (a veil where your entire head is cover with only a small screen for your eyes). When she and her sisters were about to suffocate from being homebound (another rule imposed by Taliban) and with money becoming scarce she had an idea. Kamela developed her sewing and marketing skills and started a small dressmaking business from her family home. This business blossomed into a school which taught women in their community a skill as well as gave them a sense of independence. Kamela truly possessed a servant¿s heart and a selfless attitude. She was always thinking of ways to help her family and empower other women in her community. All the sewing was performed and taught in the Sediqi home which came to be a place of refuge and peace for the women and girls that came. The Sediqi family was pretty close knit. The father played an integral part in the lives of the daughters as far as encouraging them to pursue education but their mother was somewhat disconnected from the story. The oldest sister, Malekheh, and her family moved in with her sisters when their parents and older brother moved away due to the recent Taliban takeover. Malekheh proved to be a big help and encourager to Kamela. One of my favorite characters was Rahim, Kamela¿s youngest brother. Rahim played a major role in building the business because he had to go to the market with Kamela and be her mahram (a male companion that no woman could be without while traveling outside of their home). He also learned how to do embroidery which was quite helpful to the dressmaking operation. During many close calls with the Taliban, one being when an AK-147 was put in her face, Kamela was determined to persevere. In the time Kamela was living in there was no place or time for fear. She was a strong willed young woman who remained focused and relied heavily on her faith. At the close of the book, we learn that Kamela started a construction business that was short lived due to heavy competition and that she was recognized on an international level by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I was also please that the author included follow ups to the characters we met at the close of the book. So many young women are overcoming and rising above unbelievable odds daily and they go unnoticed. I appreciate Gayle Lemmon going into a war zone to bring us this story of courage and hope. Overall I enjoyed this book but it dragged in the middle and was rushed towards the end. I wanted the story to have more depth it read more like an overview. The timeframe of when the events actually happened was somewhat confusing. The book is written in a way that a younger audience could follow along without getting bogged down. This book would be a good informative read for young adult/teenage readers.