Friday, December 18, 2009

The Kabul Beauty School

The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

After languishing on the back burner for the better part of eight years, Afghanistan is once again the focus of the global war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks on the United States, is still at large, Iran is building nuclear weapons, and the threat-level in the United States remains a steady Code Orange. Ten months into his first term, President Obama, under the advice of military leaders and global security experts, plans to send 30,000 troops to this war-torn, God-forsaken place in an attempt to create a governable nation. For the sake of our national security and that of the rest of the civilized world, we must hope he succeeds. Meanwhile, if Deborah Rodriguez has her way, Afghani women will be making the country a more beautiful and economically independent place by using American hairstyling techniques. On the surface, this may seem like a silly idea; it is, however, anything but.

Afghanistan has a long history of occupation by foreigners beginning with Alexander the Great in 330 BC, who wrested the territory from the existing ancient civilization. This nation is located at the intersection of the great trade routes which linked Europe, China, Russia, India, and Africa for thousands of years. Across millennia, each cultural influence left its mark on Afghanistan, but the Persian and other Arabic invasions had the defining impact. Archaeological evidence suggests that the nation we now call Afghanistan has been occupied by humans for 50,000 years. During that entire time, the area has been at the epicenter of local and global power struggles, and so it remains. In the decades spanning the early 19th and 20th centuries, the expanding empires of Great Britain and Russia threatened to collide but were confronted by Persian armies once more seeking control of Afghanistan. The British and the Russians defeated the Persian forces and, as the turn of the century approached, negotiated a settlement which defined the boundaries of modern Afghanistan. Great Britain retained a high degree of control over Afghanistan until 1919, when the British, worn out from fighting wars on many fronts, ceded control to the Afghan king, Amanullah Khan.

Amanullah Khan reigned for ten years and sought many reforms, including compulsory elementary education. He began establishing diplomatic relationships with other nations and abolished the Muslim veil. The latter angered religious fundamentalists and Amanullah was forced to abdicate. From 1929 until 1973, the royal family retained power, but corruption plagued the monarchy. Meanwhile, economic hardship created social turmoil which the dysfunctional government could not control. In 1973 the Prime Minister, Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, staged a military coup d’├ętat and ousted the monarchy. He established a Republican form of government and installed himself as Prime Minister and President. Unfortunately, President Khan’s government retained many of the totalitarian practices of the monarchy, leading to yet another revolution in 1978.

The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan lasted one year. President Nur Mohammad Taraki and his government moved quickly to modernize and solicited help from the Soviet Union for the building of infrastructure, in the amount of roughly $1.3 billion. The secular nature of the government reforms, including the banning of womens’ burquas and mens’ long beards, led to the rise of Muslim holy warriors, the Mujahidin. Growing instability in the region created an opportunity for the Soviet Union to take a strategic position and as a pre-emptive measure, President Jimmy Carter arranged for the covert funding and training of the Mujahidin through the Pakistan secret service organization. By 1979, the Afghani government was unable to maintain order causing the Soviet Union to invade Kabul in order to protect its interests. For the next nine years, the United States under the cover of the Mujahidin did battle with the Soviet Union-backed government. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia assisted in funding the resistance as a means of stemming the flow of communism. Osama bin Laden, himself, was one of the Saudis involved in supporting the Mujahidin. He quickly severed ties with that effort and went on to found Al-Qaida, a global Islamic effort to fight the Soviets. In other words, at that time Osama bin Laden was on our team. In 1989, the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, however they continued to fund the government while the United States and Saudi Arabia funded the Mujahidin.

In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union fractured, leaving Afghanistan without the support of a super-power. The Soviet-backed president, Mohammed Najibullah, remained in power until 1992, when he was overthrown by Mujahidin-backed political leaders. With the Soviets out of the way, long-simmering tribal tensions heated up and the nation was thrown into a state of civil war. A group of fundamentalist Muslim scholars and former Mujahidin fighters amassed sufficient power to gain control of most of Afghanistan, and so the Taliban was born. Only a small portion of the country, in a remote northeastern pocket, retained diplomatic recognition as the government of Afghanistan. The de facto Taliban government, remains in power to this day. 

September 11, 2001. The United States experienced the first attack on the mainland since the Japanese submarine attacks of World War II. The person responsible for the 2001 plot, Osama bin Laden, easily identified by intelligence, went into hiding somewhere in Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban refused to hand him over to the United States for prosecution, and our nation rallied behind the second President Bush’s decision to go to war in retaliation.

Meanwhile, on the banks of the river of history, life went on in embattled Afghanistan. Aid agencies and charitable organizations, hoping to provide relief to innocent and long-suffering Afghani citizens recruited hundreds of volunteers, one of whom was a hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez, who all but abandoned her children in her search for meaning in her own life. After a few months of wondering what she was doing there, given that she had no relevant skills or training, Ms. Rodriguez started cutting hair for other volunteers, and an idea took hold. What Afghani women needed, imagined Ms. Rodriguez, was a beauty school, giving them marketable skills and a measure of independence. The Kabul Beauty School is the first-person account of how Ms. Rodriguez defied the odds and the Taliban’s strangle-hold on social life in Afghanistan and created a school of, by, and for women.

While qualitatively different, this book reminded me of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson’s memoir of his efforts to build schools for girls in Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan. Both Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Mortenson understood that teaching valuable skills was much more helpful than providing handouts. They also understood that overt opposition to the Taliban would only hurt those they wished to help, and that was their critical key to success.

Afghani women currently must be covered from head to toe when in public or in the presence of men, or risk a violent attack. The beauty school became a refuge for these women; a place where they could shed their veils and have some fun. In the course of setting up the school and teaching the basics of hair cutting and coloring, Ms. Rodriguez learned some very sad facts about her new friends. Many were in abusive marriages and were subject to the will of their cruel husbands and capricious mothers-in-law. If not for rampant unemployment on the part of their men, the students in the Kabul Beauty School would never have graced its doors. Just the same, the women resorted to slipping money into their husbands pockets in order to maintain the pretence that the men were the breadwinners.

The Kabul Beauty School is an imperfect book, written by a tremendously flawed and complicated person. In spite of this, it is an important book for Americans to read. Many of us assume that under every burqua is several thousand dollars worth of designer clothing and accessories. In the oil-rich nations on the Arabian peninsula, that may be true for women of privileged circumstances. Afghanistan, however, is a wasteland, economic and otherwise. Food is scarce and luxuries are scarcer. Even the Taliban rulers live more like nomads than princes. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are far more important than any notion of democracy, the rule of law, or amassing wealth; and religious fundamentalism is a way of life. Just the same, like most women, Afghani women cherish their femininity and express it to the greatest extent possible, even if hidden behind impenetrable veils. Another assumption I have heard about Muslim women is that they choose the veil and submit to the wearing of it freely. I wonder. If wearing a veil is a mark of decency in your culture, and failure to wear one brands you as a “woman of a certain profession” who wouldn’t wear a veil? On the other hand, I do not doubt that there are women who, if given the choice free of consequence, would continue to cover up, in the same way that some American women decline to wear revealing clothes even though many around them do.

Of all the problems plaguing Afghanistan, the burqua seems more symbolic than substantive. It would be nice if that country could come out of this current military incursion with a government which met the needs of the people and afforded women the choice of whether or not to cover up. Given its history, however, Afghanistan will have a hard time balancing the competing interests of the various cultures and religious factions which endlessly fight to defend the honor of their ancestors and belief systems. Deborah Rodriguez and Greg Mortenson understood, intuitively, that economic independence on an individual level was far more likely to spread peace than any large-scale program, military or otherwise.

In his speech at West Point, President Obama appeared to struggle as he maintained his characteristic equilibrium: not revisiting the past even though it created the chaotic present; asking Americans to sacrifice more lives and treasure with no guarantee of success; maintaining America’s stature as a world power while battling crippling debt levels at home. I hope that Mrs. Obama reads The Kabul Beauty School and talks to her husband about it over dinner. As critical as military action is in that region, promoting economic independence on an individual level is what will usher in Afghanistan’s long-awaited and desperately needed golden age. All it will take is one person to give up Osama bin Laden.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Body & Soul

Body & Soul by Frank Conroy

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

For the coming season of gifts, I recommend this beautiful, uplifting, and moving novel about music, New York City, genius, and love. The preface to Body and Soul is a line from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.” Keep this quote in mind as you follow the life of Claude Rawlings from his humble and mysterious origins to celebrity concert pianist.

The story takes place in New York City in the 1940s – 1960s, and as Claude grows from a toddler to a child to an adolescent to an adult, the city changes profoundly as well. In an early chapter the author, Frank Conroy, pays homage to Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, giving us a time stamp for Claude’s childhood. The crowds of soldiers and sailors returning home to celebrate the end of the second world war reminded Claude to ask his mother about his father, who was, she said, a soldier. Claude sensed that his mother had a story she didn’t want to tell, because she refused to give him any information, other than to say he was probably dead. Unlike some fatherless sons, Claude was not ashamed of who he was or where he came from, but throughout his life he did wonder about his absent father.

Claude Rawlings’ mother was a troubled alcoholic, often too drunk to care for him properly, so Claude became self-sufficient at a very young age. When sober, Emma Rawlings drove a taxi cab and occasionally made Claude ride along with her during the earliest hours of morning when she would take mysterious passengers to shady destinations. By having Claude in the cab, Emma could keep her meter running and refuse passengers while she waited for her clandestine clients to return. This plot line explores how easily innocent people became entangled in the culture of suspicion and fear that threatened the American way of life in the era following the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, Claude discovered music in the form of a small, sixty-six key piano stuffed into a corner of the storage room where he slept. With nothing to do and no one to talk to, Claude became fascinated with the white and black keys and how each was a precise half-tone different from the ones next to it. While his mother drove her taxi, Claude had nothing but time and soon discovered that he had a gift for music. That discovery also led him into a deep and abiding friendship with Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store on 3rd Avenue, hidden under the shadow of an elevated train track, in New York’s upper east side.

Mr. Conroy, in describing Claude’s discovery of the piano and his intuitive understanding of musical sound, provides a concise tutorial on the Western twelve-tone chromatic scale. If you remember “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do” from The Sound of Music then you know what a musical scale in a major key sounds like. On a piano, the C-major and A-minor scales use only white keys. All the other major and minor scales – D, E, F, G, A, and B – use one or more black keys. Within an octave, moving left to right, there are twelve tones: c, c-sharp, d, d-sharp, e, f , f-sharp, g, g-sharp, a, a-sharp, and b. Moving right to left, the tones are called c, b, b-flat, a, a-flat, g, g-flat, f, e, e-flat, d, d-flat. Each key has a discrete sound wave frequency which pleases the human ear and can be identified by those rare people with perfect pitch, of whom Claude was one. Claude, a young child, figured all of this out without the benefit of knowing what any of the keys were called, to the amazement of Mr. Weisfeld.

The story of Claude’s musical education is a fascinating glimpse into the rarified world of a child prodigy. Some critics of this book feel that Claude’s character is too one-dimensional. I disagree. Gifted people are often clumsy in social situations and many have difficulty with intimacy. Even as a tiny child, Claude was unusual and moved through life as if he were an omniscient observer. As he began exploring the world around the small apartment he shared with his mother, Claude made friends with a maintenance man at a large and beautiful apartment building. This man, Al, put the boy in a potentially threatening position but ultimately redeemed himself by becoming an important figure in Claude’s life. It was Mr. Weisfeld, however, who served to guide Claude through life both as a prodigy and as a boy growing up in the Jazz Age. When Claude shows Mr. Weisfeld, at the music store, where he would begin his musical education, how well he completed his first lesson in the beginner piano book it is, to borrow a phrase from “Casablanca,” the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And yet, as close as Claude and Mr. Weisfeld become across the years, while the boy grows into an adult, there is much about himself that the older man never shares. It is only at the end of the book that Claude discovers the truth about his best friend, mentor, and surrogate father.

Fatherhood is an important theme in Body & Soul. The mystery of Claude’s biological father slowly reveals itself, as Emma Rawlings learns to live without alcohol, and is a surprising and poignant coda to the book. Mr. Weisfeld, Al, and a series of music maestros who help shape Claude into a man as well as a great artist, serve as father figures. Claude tries and fails to father a child, himself, and this failure breaks the heart of his wife and college sweetheart. It is through his father-in-law that Claude learns another side of fatherhood: that fathers have the power to destroy their children through cruelty, abuse, and humiliation. Claude’s birth father, unable to have a role in his son’s life, does no harm, in the Hippocratic sense. When they finally meet for the first and only time, it is as if they had always been together; and in a way, they had.

Meanwhile, in the economic boom following the Great Depression, New York City changes from a place built and populated by immigrants into an economic Mecca. Skyscrapers replace three and four-storey walk-ups, tenement houses give way to high-rise apartment towers, and unsightly elevated train tracks yield to construction cranes. Developers and speculators ride the irresistible force that changes the face of Manhattan and eventually meets with the immovable object that is Mr. Weisfeld and his music store. It is an ancient story of how greed and corruption run rampant while taking advantage of free markets, of how easily the powerless are swept aside, and of how difficult it is to resist the powerful forces of progress.

Today, the population of Manhattan houses roughly 71,000 people per square mile. On New York’s Upper East Side, the median income approaches $100,000. In contrast, residents of crowded and decaying housing projects and slums barely get by and live in constant fear of criminals. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times, depending on your address.

If Claude were born today to a single mother in a rough inner-city neighborhood, would he ever venture beyond his door? Would he transcend his circumstances or join a gang and cycle in and out of prison? Would he survive into adulthood? It makes me wonder how many tremendously gifted children, geniuses, or potentially great leaders are hidden away, too afraid to leave home, numbed by hours of mindless television, and nourished by cheese puffs and soda. I also wonder whether there is a goldmine of human potential rotting in the juvenile justice system, children who will never have the opportunity to realize their potential, or even to live without fear of being caught by a stray bullet. Mr. Conroy’s novel is not meant to be a social commentary, but these are some of the questions that occurred to me after reading Body & Soul.

Body & Soul is a celebration of music, the universal language. It is also a rich, many-layered and very American story about uniquely American music. To some listeners, jazz is a formless mish-mash of musicians playing whatever they want with no coherence. Mr. Conroy’s book explains that jazz is a very complex musical form which builds on chord structures from classical music while borrowing rhythms from other cultures. Jazz musicians don’t work off of sheet music, for the most part; each ensemble functions as a team, improvising around a particular key and rhythm. Jazz and blues use selected notes from a given key rather than the entire octave which gives these genres their unique tonal qualities. Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and the other great composers of western music gave the world a body of work which reveal the beauty of the human soul at a time when humanity was actively reaching for divinity through great art and architecture. Beethoven, Italian architect Brunelleschi, and artist Michelangelo came very close. Classical music provided a foundation and a rich trove a material for future musicians to mine in the creation of new musical forms. While much of today’s popular music is cranked out of digital studios, there remain great musicians creating pieces which we will listen to for the next one hundred years. Mr. Conroy, in Body & Soul, provides a basic understanding of how symphonic music continues to evolve in its complexity and its ability to describe, musically, our collective psyche.

Read Body & Soul and end 2009 on a high note.