In war, women and children suffer the most while men, well, they play a game called head on a skewer with each other. In tandem, economic activities grind to a halt and black market economy takes shape. This trait of war is universal. Be it a country in the middle east or an African country. Because anyway, in these two geographical locations, conflict seems synonymous.
The author of the dressmaker of khair khana however, decides to pursue a different kind of a story. A story unlike death or blood, a narrative that speaks of hope and resilience in the belly of a warzone. She searches for women entrepreneurs who work in war torn countries.
In the prologue, she describes her journey to Rwanda and the genocide aftermath, interestingly, she discovers that women are the ones who rise to build the country, men had long exterminated each other generously. Because she was working for the financial times, I guess most of the Rwandan stories found home in the newspaper.
It is the story of Kamila which found favour to feature in this book. A young graduate living with her parents and siblings in Kabul. In a suburb called Khair Kana.
Gayle Tzemach (the author), had promised Harvard business school a case study which the professors would teach the following year. I found this bit interesting because of all places in the world, HBS chose to get a case study from the most dangerous country in the world. This speaks of the kind of revolutionary learning that goes on at HBS. (Bless you if you manage enrolment).
Before Taliban, there were Russians who had been fighting in Afghanistan since 1979. After they left, a motley of sects, fanatics and the legitimate government rose to fill the void.
---Extract_ (Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, was an occupation that gave rise to a decade-long battle of Afghan resistance waged by Mujahedeen …. Nearly two decades after the first Russian tank rolled into Afghanistan, Kamila and her friends had yet to experience peace).
Mujahedeen would succeed in pushing the Russians out of Afghanistan, but instead of peace, Mujahedeen begun fighting within themselves.
Gradually the Taliban was born, a group intent on ruling Afghanistan “in the right Islamic laws”. The war had now Metamorphosed to a battle to the death between Taliban and Mujahedeen. Taliban was winning.
With urgency and haste, the Taliban begun capturing cities and villages enroute to Kabul (the capital city), a sign that Mujahedeen was weakening and with every capture they recruited more men to fight for the cause.
Taliban’s original plan, was to overthrow the incumbent government and take over ruling of Afghanistan. But no country in the world was willing to recognize the group as legitimate. Out of frustration they bombed everything that posed, or purported to pose any resistance until they captured Kabul.
Within minutes of Kabul’s capture from the government (Mujahedeen), every Kabul resident realised the kind of Islamic doctrine to be used in governance by Taliban was borrowed straight from the 14th century practice.
Women, unless related to a man by blood were forbidden to speak to other men. They could not walk or shop without a mahram (A male companion related by blood or marriage), and all women were to cease going to school and those with jobs were required to resign immediately and retreat into their homes.
_Extract_ The newly issued edicts commanded
Women will stay at home.
Women are not permitted to work.
Women must wear the chadri in public.
Circumstances are ripe for the closure of industries and small businesses, and that is what happens, Afghani currency comes tumbling down to uncompetitive levels.
For Kamila’s, theirs was called the sidiqi family, and the dad was a respected ex-army official. It was evident the Taliban would become problematic to him and his family so he opts to protect them by fleeing to the country side.
Kamila takes note of the developing events and her math doesn’t add up. Her dad was no longer able to provide for his family and their cash reserves were running dangerously low, she had to come up with a plan quickly or else the family would starve.
At this point she concludes that Kabul ladies need to dress up, and they need new clothes seeing that Taliban has outlawed most flashy colours and elegant dress designs. Also, imported dresses were becoming exorbitant and people did not have jobs to afford such luxuries as imported dresses.
With the help of Malika, her elder sister, who is adroit on dress making, she gets to learn on how to cut fabric, how to emblazon designs and how to stitch together a full dress. Excited about the prospects of this idea, she approaches, albeit secretly, some dress sellers in Kabul, of course she was in the company of a mahram, her young brother, Rahim, and luckily, they get their first order.
This book is fast paced and chilling. It is like a game of evading Taliban and the feared unit called Amr bil – Maroof who are “Chief enforcers of moral purity” All punishment mostly started and ended with whipping and clobbering of women. Rarely men.
_Extract_ They patrolled the streets day and night looking for the rule-breakers, especially women …. If a woman dared to pull back her chadri to steal a look at something she wanted to buy at the market…. Amr bil-Maroof would appear from nowhere to apply swift and brutal “justice” …Rarely did a man come to the rescue of a woman who was being beaten; everyone knew he would be next if he tried to help.
The pervasive effort in kabul of playing smart to avoid bumping into Maroof, loads the book with some heart pounding moments. As a reader, you keep walking dangerously close to the edge of a cliff _will she get caught? Will she not!
Soon enough, their mother also leaves the city for upcountry to join her husband, leaving Kamila and her siblings behind to survive in the city.
Almost every other day, Kamila gets stories of boys who are disappearing never to be seen again, and she is worried sick of her brother Najeeb. The second brother Rahim was very young and he was not in danger of being picked by Taliban recruiters, Najeeb was. so, the family had no choice but to send Najeeb to exile in Pakistan.
A reader is taken through the art of hard choices, and such decisions need to be made for survival. Kamila resilience and courage to make the tough decisions is astounding, and she trusts the young boy, Rahim, will help the family in acquiring supplies, as either a mahram or him running the errands.
Eventually, Kamila’s business picks because Kabuli Ladies must dress anyway. Remember, weddings are mostly an elaborate affair in the Arab world, and despite the drastic toning down of elegance at the time, new dresses were regularly bought for these occasions and Kamila was in hand to meet the demand _ in a war zone.
With her entrepreneurial antennae at top gear, she is not the least indifferent to community woes and sufferings. Most families in Khair kana, were going hungry, and it was getting harder especially for widowed women with children and without a mahram. They could not work to save their lives neither could they walk the streets in search of basically anything.
Kamila decides to empower neighbourhood girls by teaching them on the art of dress making for free so that they may use the skill to also make money and support their families. This results to a school of sorts that has shifts in the morning and afternoon.  
The idea also allows her to expand her business tenfold because she is now able to honour big orders, this also means she is now able to pay all the girls working and training under her.
The entire operation Is run ever carefully not to attract the attention of Taliban. Women laughing is forbidden, and listening to music for everyone, men alike, was also forbidden, so is a group of women walking together.  You would think this is a scene from a movie but NO! This is a true story.
There is a terrifying close brush with the Taliban, when one day four women, a mother and her three daughters visit Kamila’s home and order wedding dresses urgently, to be ready in two days. At collection time, two big cars pull over to bring these unfamiliar women back, and it is only then that the family realises that Taliban knew about the dress making operation but chose to ignore. One of the woman was being married off to a Taliban general.
As the book progresses, America is bombed and the world trade centre tumbles down. Americans believed that Osama Bin Laden had orchestrated the attack, and also, they believed he was with the Taliban.
Extract: The city’s most seasoned observers believed the Military attack by the Americans against the Taliban government was imminent.
Within a few weeks, USA attacks Afghanistan with a show of might that shock Taliban agents, Commanders and supporters to freeing Kabul.
The events that follow, see United Nation at hand trying to help Kabulis recover, and Kamila is recruited in a UN agency where she leads in efforts of skills development among Kabul women.
Later, Kamila would get invited to Washington to address US. Global Leadership Campaigns 10th Anniversary Gala Dinner for her role as an entrepreneur and a community leader.
The author travels to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009 to collect stories of resilience and she chronicled Kamila’s family and Journey entire time. Mr Sadiqi, Kamila’s dad, was an enlightened man and he insisted that all his children should pursue education to the highest levels.
Gayle brings out the need of education to all, especially in repressed societies that do not believe in girl education. Kamila’s family only survived due to their education. None of her family members died and her siblings managed to complete education years later including Najeeb who moved back to Afghanistan from exile in Pakistan.
You would imagine that a true story can be a bit slow, but I must credit the dress maker of Khair Khana, it is an exhilarating read.
Kamila’s story is a challenge to the youth in relatively peaceful countries like Kenya. If Kamila could set up a credible business in the core of a war zone and thrive, what possibilities are there in a peaceful nation. What possibilities are there when courage is at hand?
Maybe even with war, critics might argue that circumstances favoured her, but I doubt they would say the same about her Courage. She was simply courageous beyond comprehension. I wouldn’t imagine how it was for her, delivering neatly wrapped dresses, to the shopkeepers and believing she would get back home safe.
I recommend the book for no other reason, but for lessons on how to grow some courage. For lessons on how to go above obstacles. For realisation on what happens when we push our limits. And also, for us to understand the war in Afghanistan better.
Most importantly, we need to be reminded that in war, women and children rarely fight. Fighters create an impossible environment which women through sheer courage and resilience try to make survival possible.
Survival in such an environment of course is a game of luck or karma. There are better environments to calculate survival rate, but not in a city that is actively raining bullets, bombs and blunt objects that stifle the cries of hungry children and wailing mothers.
Finally, In my opinion, the Author is accusatory about the wearing of the Chadri, but then again, even in peaceful countries, the chadri is worn by Muslim women voluntarily, I do not consider it a matter of women struggles, I consider it a culture doctrine, which may or may not be subscribed to my Muslim women. We may however, argue on whether the Taliban degraded women in Kabul by forcing them all to wear a Chadri! …Your Thoughts are welcome!
Special thanks to Parrot eyes; Salma Kauthar Jan, for lending me this book, maybe one day, I’ll just buy you a Parrot Kauthar Jan.