HERE'S the thing about Deborah Rodriguez: she is nice. And one tends to be suspicious of nice, blonde women. Are they airheads, is the nagging question in the back of one's mind.
Rodriguez's five-year stay in Afghanistan was the inspiration for Farewell to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul and its predecessors, Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul and The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. She went there as a volunteer to assist with disaster relief, but in her opinion she was of little use since at the time she was primarily a hairdresser.
She fell in love with the country and married General Samer Mohammad Abdul Khan, and it changed her life. Once vivacious, she was now in the background. Out of frustration, she started the small coffee shop that would be the inspiration for the series of books.
Farewell to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is set in 2021. The shop's former owner, Sunny Tedder, returns to the Afghan capital. She is on a mission: she wants to convince her friends to flee. The US is on the verge of withdrawing its soldiers from the country, and Sunny fears the Taliban will take over as they did in 1996. However, she faces opposition from the family she wants to save.
Unlike Sunny, the family believes the Taliban will not return to power. Ahmet and his wife Yazmina use the old coffee shop as office space. They run a handful of shelters for women from it. The matriarch Halajan rules over everyone, including the men. She smokes Marlboro cigarettes and writes poems that she sometimes carries with her in a gym bag. The cousins Layla and Kat represent the younger generation of Afghan women. Layla is an activist who uses Instagram to spread her message, and she receives death threats. Her great pleasure is hanging out with other young people in coffee shops. Kat struggles with her mother's self-immolation. Did she commit suicide, or did Kat's rigid father kill her?
The family are close-knit but they are normal, and they undermine each other at times. When Yazmina looks for someone to accompany her to a shelter, everyone makes excuses. Halajan pretends to be sick because she wants to go to her group of women poets, and Layla pretends to study because she wants to go to a coffee shop.
The women are the book's most interesting characters. They outshine the men with their aspirations, intrigues and resilience. One of Halajan's fellow poets, a teenager, writes the following couplet: “You won’t allow me to become a doctor. / Remember this: one day you will be sick." Another writes, “When sisters sit together, they’re always praising their brothers. / When brothers sit together, they’re selling their sisters to others."
The family's trials and tribulations are intertwined with female victims — Yazmina was once one of them. Now she is strong. However, she has her hands full coping with a broken young woman who arrives at the shelter.
Ahmet sees the writing on the wall as one village after another falls to the Taliban. He buys a bunch of burqas that make his female relatives recoil. He prepares a hiding place for the women. Then the Taliban come knocking on the coffee shop's door, and they assault him. It's the beginning of dark days for the family. It's also the start of the most powerful episodes in the book.
The assault does what all of Sunny's pleading couldn't do. The family are now willing to flee, but nearly everything goes wrong. Kat is kidnapped on the way to the airport. Her father is behind it. He wants to sell her to a member of the Taliban. It's a horrifying episode that reminds me of the humiliation of women in Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.
When the rest of the family arrive at the airport, all hell breaks loose. There's a huge crowd, and at one point it is hit with tear gas by the American soldiers, and shots are fired. There's a stampede during which Ahmet and Yazmina lose the two younger women. It's truly a heart-wrenching moment, and Rodriguez keeps ramping up the stress levels. Ultimately, Layla has to turn back to give the others a chance to escape. As we know, she will be in danger if she stays behind, as she has already received death threats for her outspokenness on social media.
The book ends on a positive note despite all the sorrow. It's not necessary for everything to end in snot and tears. Rodriguez has been accused in the past of writing sugary prose, but there's hardly a grain of sugar in this book — well, until the last few paragraphs. And who can blame a writer with a big heart for a hopeful conclusion?
Besides being a writer and a hairdresser, Rodriguez is the founder of Oasis Rescue, which assists women in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan and Mexico. She lives in Mexico, where she owns the Tippy Toes salon and spa, and has a new husband. Despite my preconceived and somewhat silly thoughts on what a writer should look like, she is fully immersed in writing.
And here I am; I miss the characters I got to know, especially Halajan with her gym bag full of poems, and the American Sunny who is so determined to save the stubborn family. That's what happens when a book grabs you — when it ends, you experience a great sense of loss.
Who, what, where and how much?
Farewell to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez was published by Little, Brown Group and costs R396 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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