Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Cup of Friendship

This week as bombs have blasted the U. S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, I was finishing Deborah Rodriguez's novel A Cup of Friendship. I haven't yet read her first book, The Kabul Beauty School, a memoir which, I learned, came under some criticism and claims of exaggeration. I'll leave that kind of controversy to Oprah. This book introduced me to some aspects of life in Afghanistan, not only for the locals, but for expats and for Americans and Brits working there.

Sunny, the protagonist of the novel, who has come to the country with a boyfriend who spends much of his time away on furtive missions, runs an American-style coffee house. This setting is a perfect backdrop for a variety of employees and patrons whose lives intertwine. They all have back stories: most sympathetic is Yazmina, recently widowed and pregnant, who manages to escape from drug lords to take her as payment for debts her uncle owes.

An older uneducated widow and her son also work for Sunny, and they are at odds over the old and new ways. She hides a secret romance with a tailor she loved before her marriage, a man who has been writing her letters for years, letters she can't read and has to hide from her son, now the man in the family, in control of her life. A female journalist from Britain and a recently divorced wife of a diplomat from Beacon Hill by way of Missouri grow into an unusual friendship and partnership with Sunny as they see egregious injustices toward women.

Throughout the novel, bombs go off, affecting the characters directly or indirectly, and I'm reminded of the lesson I learned when I read Reading Lolita in Teheran: The citizens are victims of politics and religious extremism. Though lighter reading than A Thousand Splendid Suns, this novel touched on similar issues, particularly related to human rights of women and to some of the destruction wrought by the Taliban in the country.

Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." As travel becomes at times more dangerous, vicarious travel through the pages of a books--novel or memoir--can perhaps provide the kind of fatalities the world needs right now.


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