Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, by Deborah Rodriguez

Several years ago, I read Kabul Beauty School and somehow had it in my head that this book was a follow-up story of Deborah Rodriquez's life after the end of that one. Instead, it is a novel, which combines many of the observations and experiences of the author into a story that revolves around five women (primarily), from varied backgrounds, who find a common point in the little coffee shop one of them started in Kabul.

While reading this, there were reports almost daily of bombings and violence in and near Kabul. It brought the conflict and war conditions in Afghanistan so clearly into the picture. I'd fall asleep after reading of Sunny's worries of how to protect the cafe from suicide bombings, or of how Ahmet guarded the front gates, relying not on a metal detector to help weed out dangers, instead looking into the eyes of a person to see their character, and then wake to hear that a remote-controlled bomb struck a bus travelling northwest of Kabul, killing at least nine passengers. Or that three foreign soldiers were shot dead at a police station in southern Afghan province of Helmand when a 13-year-old student who also worked for police opened fire at the foreign soldiers.

We have terrible, unexpected violence here (indeed, this summer brought the murders at the movie theater in Colorado and the slayings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin), which shocked our nation into stunned horror.  But for parts of the world, this inhumanity to other people has become a way of life, both for the perpetrators and the victims. Day to day routines include ways to stay safe, stay alive.

This, perhaps, was the lesson of The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul for me. I might have a bad day because traffic was heavy and I was late for my dance class, or the grocery store was out of all my favorite brands, or even that I fell and broke my foot.  But I didn't have to worry, really, about my survival -- about being gunned down, blown up, arrested, or beaten. And though my family has experienced awful violence, we are generally all safe. We do not live in a war zone, or in religious strife (despite what some politicos say.) In the world of this book, people face the unimaginable and do not let it defeat them. The characters of this story are all so very different, but they all hunker down, and find their inner strength.  It may not lead them to the outcome the hope, but not for lack of determination. And though I said it's a book about five women, the men in this story are equally compelling, especially given their different approaches to life.

Two things disappointed me about the book. One is that our household is fascinated by coffee and coffee preparation. I would have liked more of a sense of the coffee house as a coffee house.  But that's just me being silly. The other point is one I struggle with in my own fiction: moving from telling the story to letting the story tell itself. The first keeps the reader at a passive distance; the second invites the reader in as an active participant. And really, since this story had so much to share with readers, maybe a little telling is okay.

In the story, Sunny (the American owner of the cafe) goes to Mazar-e-Sharif, where the famous Blue Mosque is. There she learns the legend which says every seventh dove at the shrine of Sher Ali Khan contains a spirit. It is said that the  place is so holy that if a grey pigeon flies there it turns white within 40 days.  This bit of lore captured something inside my own soul. If I could travel, I would love to go there to see those doves flying. Luckily, I was allowed a brief and safe trip there through this book.

I received this book courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program and the kindness of Ballentine Books. Thank you very much. Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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