Lemmon, Gayle Tzemach. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe. 288p. HarperCollins. 2011. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-0-06-173237-9.
Book review by Heather Hollands
What would you do if you were banned from public places, including schools? Could you spend years hiding at home while your country is at war? This happens to Kamila Sadiqi, a teenager in Afghanistan when the Taliban takes control. She had studied to become a teacher, even earning a prestigious teaching certificate after completing a two-year program. She had planned to go to a coed university for two more years to receive her bachelor’s degree, and hoped to become a professor, perhaps even teaching literature some day. Then her world changes. She adapts her skills to survive and, despite the oppression, Kamila learns how to find glimpses of happiness for herself and others.
When the Taliban takes control of Kabul, women are commanded to stay home. They can no longer work or attend school. They cannot talk to men who aren’t relatives. Furthermore, they have to be covered in public, wearing full chadri’s and peeking through webbed eye slits.
This halts Kamila’s plans for further education. Seven of her parents’ 11 children still live at home in Khair Khana, including five girls, ages 6 to 17. After her parents and a brother flee the city, Kamila learns how to sew to support her family. She and her sisters start a dressmaking business that supports not only their family, but also the families of 100 neighborhood women who join their workforce.
Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon beads together an inspiring true story which shows that these women are not victims, but heroines who hold their country together, like the stitches that hold together their beautiful handiwork. The former ABC news reporter made her first of several trips to Afghanistan in 2005.
“What I found in Kabul,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “was a sisterhood unlike any I had ever seen before, marked by empathy, laughter, courage, curiosity about the world, and above all a passion for work.” Lemmon earned an MBA at Harvard, where she wrote about women entrepreneurs in war zones including Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda. She continues to speak regularly on women’s economic issues.
It is easy to identify with Kamila and her sisters, who never give up hope for a brighter future for Afghanistan. At one point, Kabulis get Titanic fever. They smuggle VCR tapes into their homes and pass them from relative to relative. The girls love the song “My Heart Will Go On,” and get caught up in the romance of Rose and Jack, whose happiness is impossible. The boys relate, too, and get floppy-in-the-front “Leo looks.” Soldiers shave the boys’ heads and arrest barbers who give these haircuts, but the Titanic craze continues, as does the sewing enterprise in the Sadiqi home.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reminds me how precious is our freedom to learn and to teach. Students complain about the drudgery of schoolwork, and teachers alike look forward to spring breaks and summer vacations. Perhaps we all need to reconsider how blessed we are to have these freedoms, and the ability to make a difference. Kamila’s freedom ends in an unexpected moment and this thrusts her into a situation where she draws on every ounce of resiliency and courage to survive and even thrive. Could I do the same? Could my daughters, or my students? How about you? I wonder whose light could shine as brightly as Kamila’s as she inspires the women around her in war-torn Afghanistan to believe that a better future is possible.
Algerian Women’s Rights Activist Shares Her Story with a Young Reporter
The same year that Kamila earned her teacher’s certificate and the Taliban seized Kabul — 1996 — I got married and was hired as a young reporter for The Daily News in Iron Mountain. I met and interviewed a beautiful woman, Halima Addou, who had escaped terrorists in her homeland, Algeria. She was searching for work in the United States, without success. Halima taught me that freedom is important; however, to gain true happiness, we can’t be complacent. We need to find a way to better ourselves and the lives of people around us. I believe that is why Kamila Sadiqi’s story resonates — even without her freedom, she found a way to touch so many lives. Kamila’s desire to help others reminds me in some ways of Halima’s quest, as written 15 years ago:
Halima fled her native country Algeria almost a year ago because she was targeted by Islamic militants who tried to silence her through assassination. She chose the Iron Mountain area as her place of refuge because she has a friend here. Since arriving, Halima has formed a network of new friends. People who meet Halima are drawn to her genuineness and determination.
Halima has attained political asylum in the United States and has been given a Social Security number so she can work. She’s looking for a job, every day sending out stacks of resumes and character references, hoping she can soon make a difference in people’s lives through her employment.
“I am a strong woman,” Halima said. “I am not depressed because I long for my country, my family. I pulled all this feeling aside. I want to do something here. Even if it has not been for terrorism in my country, it could be an opportunity for me to do something else in the United States.”
Halima is an intelligent woman. Already fluent in Arabic and French, she picked up English when she came to the Unites States. In Algeria she was an outspoken community leader, working for justice and peace. She was a successful lawyer, representing women in civil rights cases. As a consulting attorney, she also hosted a popular television program dealing with social themes.
“I did not want to leave my country because I was useful to people,” she said. “A lot of times I managed to patch families together and make them aware of the importance of family and the importance of children.”
But Halima did not have much choice. If she had stayed in Algeria, she probably wouldn’t have survived. In recent years, Islamic militants are trying to take over the Algerian government. The army-dominated government itself is corrupt, according to Halima and media reports published in the United States.
Halima said intellects in Algeria are victims of a genocide, especially attorneys, clergy members, journalists and professors. She knew she was in danger when a young client told her that her name was on the list of persons to be killed, posted at the entrances to mosques.
She closed her law office in fear that a terrorist might disguise himself as a client. Friends, relatives, and even police advised Halima to “disappear.” She moved from place to place so the terrorists wouldn’t find her. When she had to meet people, she did so clandestinely in the cemeteries.
“In Algeria people meet in the cemetery because every day they have to bury someone,” she explained. “They don’t live at home; they move around. The opportunity to meet is in the cemetery to bury somebody.”
Death — it’s pervasive in Algeria, population 27 million. The Associated Press reports violence there has claimed some 60,000 lives in the past four years. Militants have threatened to kill any foreigners who enter the country. In addition, the Algerian government hides the actual death count; no one can be sure how many have died.
“I was saved twice, only by chance,” said Halima. “On one occasion, while driving from one tribunal to another, my car was shot at.”
The remainder of her endurance, she said, was destroyed during another attempted attack.
“As I was parking my car, two young men came to distract me. I could see in the rearview mirror a third one pulling his gun. My car was still running and I was able to escape.”
While living in the United States, Halima has spent many hours studying our country’s culture and government. She educates herself by taking computer courses. She educates others by teaching French to area children and by giving lectures about Algeria’s political and social turmoil to students at Bay de Noc Community College.
Halima has been accepted as a substitute school teacher in a local district, but has not been called upon to teach. Although she has sent resumes across the Midwest, she has not had any calls from potential employers.
Halima uses the word “upright” to describe a person who is not making a meaningful contribution to society. That is the last thing she wants for herself.
“I prefer to be killed that to stay upright,” she said. “But if I stay upright, I prefer to live with the threat of terrorists. I prefer to take arms or to be killed than to be an upright in the United States and not be useful.”
She said that in foreign land, people think of the United States as the ultimate country for liberty and freedom. With this ideal in mind, she does not understand why the job market here does not accept her and allow her to put her skills to use. Her argument is that she is qualified, capable, and willing.
Halima believes the opportunity to play a positive, integral role in society is essential for people who want fulfillment in life, for those who seek happiness.
“Freedom is very important,” she said. “But it is not enough.”
**I have thought of Halima many times since that day I visited her in her apartment and she told me about her personal struggle. I often wonder what she has done with her life. Did she find happiness in this country? Did she return to Algeria? I looked her up online today and discovered that she passed the bar exam in 1999. She has toured the United States the past decade or so, lecturing on the horrors that she and others faced in her country. I also found the photo of her above. It’s exactly the way I remember her.