Mel's Online Book Club: Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul: A Debut Novel By Deborah Rodriguez

Posted at 10:01am on 29th April 2014

 FRIENDSHIP: One of the joys of a good book club has to be in the friendship that develops between members, and the freedom that this gives them to speak their minds.  And so it was that our discussion, yesterday evening, spiralled off in all directions, covering politics, faith v religion, plus personal anecdote.  Without exception, we enjoyed the book and, without doubt, the sharing, outrage and laughter that accompanied our analysis of it.


Essentially a story of friendships, the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul follows the lives of three women and the men who befriend, support, use and abuse them.  In the way of all evolving friendships, secrets are gradually revealed, and this provides the essential page-turning quality.  Drawing on the experience of the author, who lived for some years in Kabul, the book is multi-faceted. 


DRESS CODE: One of the points of discussion was about dress code.  I voiced a concern - shared by others - about the concept of the burqa.  Used to hide women from the eyes of men, it seems to imply that a woman’s natural allure is heinous, and that imprisoning her in a weighty, uniform shroud is her just desert.  As Rashif, one of the book’s male character’s points out: (p81) We, who are old enough to have lived through one regime after another, know the burqa is about a man’s fear, not about a woman’s malice.


Equally monstrous is the idea that the mini skirt - as has been cited by some - is responsible for rape; as women ‘asking for it’.   It seemed to us that the problem was one of attitude (in both genders) and that adherence to modern fashion should not be seen to spell availability.  As one of the men pointed out, humorously, attractive clothing - like a good speech - should be short but cover all important aspects.


LOVE, LEGALISM, FAITH & GRACE: Having recently been studying the book of Galatians (which deals with legalism), one of the things that struck me in Rodriguez’ book was the frequent mention of the supremacy of love in Muhammad’s teaching.  (p224) He (Ahmed) knew the Koran to be a book of patience and wisdom, of love and kindness, and not the book of violence and retribution that some had attributed to it.  (p243) Rashif spoke. ‘A thought occurs to me.  Love makes all things possible.’  (p 270) It turned a serious boy into a generous man.  This was the real Islam, the Islam of love, not hate.


I have no way of verifying the truth of these statements.  (And, as one of the book club members pointed out, there was nothing of grace - the free-gift of God which means that believers need never attempt to earn their way to salvation.)  But set against the fundamentalist brutality witnessed by one of the characters, a British journalist called Isabel, who saw women imprisoned, sold for prostitution, starved, and even stoned to death, love would seem to have made little impression the men of Kabul.  The babies who screamed with hunger, were silenced by the opium smoke blown in their faces by their mothers.  Baby boys born out of wedlock (even to widows) were often stolen, and baby girls killed. 


Nevertheless, in a somewhat clichéd fashion, love triumphed in the end, with the closed minds of some characters opened to new truths, and a traditional ‘happy ever after’ denouement.  As Sunny, the owner of the coffee shop realised: (p130) some women… are meant for greatness while some, like her, were meant for providing a place to spread that greatness around a little.


TRUTH:  What made our discussion particularly interesting was that one of the book club members had served in Kabul as a missionary for some years.   She spoke of the need to honour the traditions of the country in which you live, and covered her hair and arms at all times in public.


Asked to give her opinion on the authenticity of the book, her conclusion was that an outsider could never fully comprehend the quintessential hierarchy and importance of family or tradition in Muslim circles.  I’m sure she’s right.


But when she suggested that a ‘truer’ version of life in Afghanistan might be found in the work of Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-born American author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I couldn’t entirely agree.  ‘There is no truth; there is only perception,’ said French novelist Gustave Flaubert.


As we saw in the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, one character’s perception of truth differed vastly from another’s reality.  Can we ever truly say that we know a person, a way of life, a nation?   This was a book, I told my husband, that made you realise that however much you thought you knew about Afghanistan, you didn’t know nuffin.



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