Book #7 – The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (Deborah Rodriguez)

I actually bought this book by complete accident. There were a few books that Amazon had been recommending to me for the past few months based on my previous purchases, and one of them was called The Colour of Tea. As much as I love tea, I felt too guilty to spend $30 on an eBook, so I had resisted. A few days ago I saw The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul was on special for $10 and got it mixed up with The Colour of Tea (tea, coffee… easy mistake, right?) I excitedly clicked the button to purchase and by the time I realised it was the wrong book, it was too late. But it turned out to be a pretty brilliant mistake!

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is a book that is written with the power to completely transport you to another world, one that if you have never travelled to you cannot possibly imagine without the powerful descriptions Rodriguez provides.

It removes me from my comfortable living room in small town Australia, where singlet-tops and skirts are the dress code, a big screen television is mandatory, and having a job, an education, and opinions are taken for granted… to a world where a mother and her baby disappear after a British journalist witnesses a man hitting the mother, where a pregnant woman is at risk of being killed and her baby sold into the sex industry because her husband was murdered by the Taliban and his absence brings doubt to the paternity… Without The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, I could not possibly have imagined a world like this in such detail and have been brought into a place of deeply caring about a country that has been painted as the enemy for so long.

Rodrigeuz uses her experience as an American woman married to an Afghan, and living in Afghanistan to create a beautiful novel with characters so real that they simply must be based on people she met while running the Kabul Beauty School. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I discovered Rodriguez had lived in Afghanistan, but there was a sense while reading it that she must have lived this – no one could just imagine something so detailed.

The book opens from the perspective of Yazmina, who makes an astounding first impression. Intelligent, strong, and beautiful, Yazmina carries a secret that will almost certainly cost her life if it is discovered. Even within the relative safety of her own home she is in danger, but this danger increases dramatically when she is taken by drug lords to be sold as a prostitute in the city. And yet, she goes. She does not resist. She knows the danger, but she also knows that if she doesn’t go, they will take her younger sister, Layla, in her place.

Layla ran away, back to the cooking room. “Wait, wait for me!” she called. Yazmina knew she was getting water to throw at the car, a tradition to ensure that the person leaving would return one day. But Yazmina knew she would never be back… The SUV pulled away in a cloud of dust. By the time Layla got back with the water to throw at the car, it was already gone, a black speck on the road leading far down the hill.”

Sunny is a stark contrast to Yazmina: an American living in Kabul, running a successful and yet struggling coffeehouse, respectful of the local traditions and customs, but still stubborn enough to go into the city alone. Sunny meets Yazmina briefly, but that is all it takes. She realises her secret immediately and, despite knowing the risk she brings on her entire household, she brings Yazmina back to the coffee house and provides her with a job and a home.

From here the book centres around the coffee house and its inhabitants. The building is owned by Halajan, an older Afghan woman who remembers the days when there was greater freedom and finds ways to quietly rebel against the increased control the Taliban are exerting over the Afghan people. Her son, Ahmet, works as a security guard to protect his mother and the coffee house and is very traditional. He slowly becomes aware of a relationship between his mother and an older man in the community, and plans to murder the man to protect his mothers’ honour.

I am afraid for us and for our beloved country. How recently did we walk around in jeans and sweaters? I still have my Nike shoes, but now I wear them only inside my home. Silly I know… And I am so angry that we cannot be together because of foolish rules. My wife is dead, your husband is dead, and yet – if the wrong man were to read this letter, you would be stoned to death.”

Isabel is a BBC journalist, working on a story about the government’s plan to spray the poppy fields to control the drug trafficking. It is a dangerous story, but she doesn’t seem to care about the danger since experiencing a traumatic event that changed the way she felt about herself and her life, perhaps forever.

Candace is a headstrong, American woman who has left her husband behind for a relationship with an influential Afghan man who inspires her to raise money to help his charity. But as he becomes more distant, Candace begins to suspect that his interest in her may be purely financial. After a visit to the school with Isabel, something doesn’t add up and Candace is forced to deal with the possibility that the charity may actually be a front for something more corrupt.

Bashir Hadi is the constant, reliable manager of the coffee shop. In the moments when everyone else is panicking or breaking down, he is there with a wise word and a plan.

Bombings increase, the walls that are built around the coffee house literally collapse, there is a secret birth, hidden letters and at least one death…

Overall, this is the kind of book that makes everything seem bleak in the face of the depths of tragic reality that it contains. Watching television seems empty after reading this book. A normal job seems fruitless. It is the kind of book that inspires action, the kind of book that reminds one of the misery of life in many other countries around the world. The richness of the Westerners, compared to the dreadful poverty of the Afghan people is a screaming reminder, “What are you doing? How can you ignore this?” It is a powerful reminder to do something.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to open up their world. Four stars.

★★★★☆☆

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