Coffee and friendship in Kabul

This book was a delight to listen to on CD, except for one thing – the primary setting is a coffeehouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, and I kept craving a really good cup of coffee whenever driving and “reading.”

So far, I listen to audio books only when driving by myself. I know some people listen to books when doing chores at home, much like having the TV or radio on, I suppose. But I find that I want to concentrate on books more closely than I can when I am distracted by other things going on in the house. (I am not sure what this says about my driving, although I do switch from audio book to radio when in heavy traffic or unsure of my route.) And if I’m sitting down and have my hands free, I’d usually rather just read the book myself. (That could change; more and more, I appreciate the value of hearing the accents and tones of voice when books are read by a good actor.)

By Linda Brinson

A CUP OF FRIENDSHIP. By Deborah Rodriguez. Random House Audio. 9 ½ hours on 8 compact discs. Read by Mozhan Marno. $35. Also available from Ballantine Books. 286 pages. $25, hardback.

If we must categorize books, this one could be an outstanding example of the genre loosely known as “women’s” novels.  Most of those who read it will probably be females. Set in a coffeehouse in Kabul, it tells the stories of the American expatriate who runs the shop, an older Afghan woman who owns the building and works in the shop, a young Afghan woman who takes refuge there after she escapes from kidnapers, and two women who wander into the shop as customers and join its unlikely circle of friendship.

There are men here, too, and their characters are well developed, but this is above all a story about women in Afghanistan, a country where a woman’s lot is more difficult than it should be. It’s a story about how strong seemingly vulnerable women can be, and about how the bonds of friendship can make women even stronger. It’s also a story about motherhood in all its manifestations, challenges and complexities.

But, partly because it is set in Afghanistan, where America is still at war, this book is also much, much more. I found it fascinating because it offers a compelling human story about what I had only partly understood in an intellectual way: the unfair, crushing reality of life for women in a repressive society. The time is now, and the Taliban, though supposedly toppled by the American invasion, still wield considerable influence.  A woman who dares to dress the wrong way, talk to a man the wrong way, or otherwise violate the strict laws that control her can be thrown into prison indefinitely. If that woman has children, they may languish in a crowded cell with her for years. As if all that were not problem enough, women are treated as possessions, and can be forced into prostitution to settle a man’s debt to a drug lord or warlord.

Deborah Rodriguez, who wrote the best-selling memoir Kabul Beauty School about her years in Afghanistan, knows her subject matter. In addition to teaching at and directing the beauty school, she co-owned a coffeehouse in Kabul.

Though there is much that is disturbing in this novel, it is ultimately a life-affirming, sometimes joyous and even humorous story.

Sunny is the irreverent, brassy 38-year-old American who, after some mistakes and some bad luck, finds an unlikely home in Kabul. She came to Afghanistan with a boyfriend from back home who’s there for the big bucks that are to be had by civilians who don’t mind dangerous jobs. The Coffee Shop is her home and her business.  As time goes by and the boyfriend, Tommy, is gone more and more, the shop also becomes her family. She grows closer to some of the people who work in the shop or frequent it than she has ever been to anyone.

The plot has a lot of action, some intrigue and several good servings of romance. Bombs go off, people die and others are born, and there are mysteries to be explained and relationships to be sorted out.

Although this is undeniably a woman’s book, one of the most important and compelling characters is a young man who embodies the conflict between the traditional and the modern in Afghan life.

Mazhon Marno, an Iranian-American actress, does an excellent job of reading the book. Her accents and tones enrich the story and bring the characters wonderfully to life.

Listen to A Cup of Friendship, and you will be enlightened as well as entertained. Just remember to have a cup of good coffee at the ready when you do.

Linda C. Brinson is available for writing and editing projects. You can reach her at lindacbrinson@gmail.com

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