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Excerpt: 'The Dressmaker of Khair Khana'

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The News Arrives and Everything Changes

"Kamila Jan, I'm honored to present you with your certificate."

The small man with graying hair and deeply set wrinkles spoke with pride as he handed the young woman an official-looking document. Kamila took the paper and read:

This is to certify that Kamila Sidiqi has successfully completed her studies at Sayed Jamaluddin Teacher Training Institute.

"Thank you, Agha," Kamila said. A snow-melting smile broke out across her face. She was the second woman in her family to finish Sayed Jamaluddin's two-year course; her older sister Malika had graduated a few years earlier and was now teaching high school in Kabul. Malika, however, had not had the constant shellings and rocket fire of the civil war to contend with as she traveled back and forth to class.

Kamila clasped the treasured document. Her headscarf hung casually and occasionally slipped backward to reveal a few strands of her shoulder-length wavy brown hair. Wide-legged black pants and dark, pointy low heels peeked out from under the hem of her floorlength coat. Kabul's women were known for stretching the sartorial limits of their traditional country, and Kamila was no exception. Until the leaders of the anti- Soviet resistance, the Mujahideen ("holy warriors"), unseated the Moscow-backed government of Dr. Najibullah in 1992, many Kabuli women traveled the cosmopolitan capital in Western clothing, their heads uncovered. But now, only four years later, the Mujahideen defined women's public space and attire far more narrowly, mandating offices separate from men, headscarves, and baggy, modest clothing. Kabul's women, young and old, dressed accordingly, though many—like Kamila—enlivened the rules by tucking a smart pair of shoes under their shapeless black jackets.

It was a far cry from the 1950s and '60s, when fashionable Afghan women glided through the urbane capital in European-style skirt suits and smart matching headscarves.

By the 1970s, Kabul University students shocked their more conservative rural countrymen with kneeskimming miniskirts and stylish pumps. Campus protests and political turmoil marked those years of upheaval. But that was all well before Kamila's time: she had been born only two years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, an occupation that gave rise to a decade-long battle of Afghan resistance waged by the Mujahideen, whose forces ultimately bled the Russians dry. Nearly two decades after the first Russian tank rolled into Afghanistan, Kamila and her friends had yet to experience peace. After the defeated Soviets withdrew the last of their support for the country in 1992, the triumphant Mujahideen commanders began fighting among themselves for control of Kabul. The brutality of the civil war shocked the people of Kabul. Overnight, neighborhood streets turned into frontline positions between competing factions who shot at one another from close range.

Despite the civil war, Kamila's family and tens of thousands of other Kabulis went to school and work as often as they could, even while most of their friends and family fled to safety in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. With her new teaching certificate in hand, Kamila would soon begin her studies at Kabul Pedagogical Institute, a coed university founded in the early 1980s during the Soviet years of educational reform, which saw the expansion of state institutions.

After two years, she would earn a bachelor's degree and begin her teaching career there in Kabul. She hoped to become a professor of Dari or perhaps even literature one day.

Yet despite the years of hard work and her optimistic plans for the future, no joyful commencement ceremony would honor Kamila's great achievement. The civil war had disemboweled the capital's stately architecture and middle-class neighborhoods, transforming the city into a collapsed mess of gutted roads, broken water systems, and crumbling buildings. Rockets launched by warring commanders regularly arced across Kabul's horizon, falling onto the capital's streets and killing its residents indiscriminately. Everyday events like graduations had become too dangerous to even contemplate, let alone attend.

Kamila placed the neatly printed certificate into a sturdy brown folder and stepped out of the administrator's office, leaving behind a line of young women who were waiting to receive their diplomas. Walking through a narrow corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked Sayed Jamaluddin's main entrance, she passed two women who were absorbed in conversation in the crowded hallway. She couldn't help overhearing them. "I hear they are coming today," the first woman said to her friend.

"My cousin told me they are just outside Kabul," the other answered in a whisper.

Kamila immediately knew who "they" were: the Taliban, whose arrival now felt utterly inevitable. News in the capital traveled at an astoundingly rapid pace via a far-reaching network of extended families that connected the provinces across Afghanistan. Rumors of the arriving regime were rampant, and the word was out that women were in the crosshairs. The harder-to-control, more remote rural regions could sometimes carve out exceptions for their young women, but the Taliban moved quickly to consolidate power in the urban areas. So far they had won every battle.

Kamila stood quietly in the hallway of the school she had fought so hard to attend, despite all the dangers, and listened to her classmates with a feeling of growing unease. She moved closer so she could hear the girls' conversation more clearly.

"You know they shut the schools for girls in Herat," the sharp-nosed brunette said. Her voice was heavy with worry. The Taliban had captured the western city a year earlier. "My sister heard that women can't even leave the house once they take over. And here we thought we had lived through the worst."

"Come, it might not be so bad," answered her friend, taking her hand. "They might actually bring some peace with them, God willing."

Holding her folder tightly with both hands, Kamila hurried downstairs for the long bus ride that would take her to her family's home in the neighborhood of Khair Khana. Only a few months ago she had walked the seven miles after a rocket had landed along the road in Karteh Char, the neighborhood where her school was located, damaging the roof of a hospital for government security forces and knocking out the city's bus service for the entire evening.

Everyone in Kabul had grown accustomed to seeking safety between doorjambs or in basements once they heard the now-familiar shriek of approaching rockets. A year earlier the teacher training institute had moved its classes from Karteh Char, which was regularly pummeled by rocket attacks and mortar fire, to what its director hoped was a safer location in a once-elegant French high school downtown. Not long afterward yet another rocket, this one targeting the nearby Ministry of Interior, landed directly in front of the school's new home.

All these memories raced through Kamila's mind as she boarded the rusty light blue "Millie" bus that was once part of the government-run service and settled into her seat. She leaned against the large mud-flecked window and listened to the women around her while the bus began to maneuver bumpily through Karteh Char's torn-up streets. Everyone had her version of what the new regime would mean for Kabul's residents.

"Maybe they will bring security," said a girl who sat a few rows behind Kamila.

"I don't think so," her friend answered. "I heard on the radio that they don't allow school or anything once they come. No jobs, either. We won't even be able to leave the house unless they say so. Perhaps they will only be here for a few months . . ."

Kamila gazed through the window and tried to tune out the conversations around her. She knew the girl was probably right, but she couldn't bear to think about what it would mean for her and her four younger sisters still living at home. She watched as shopkeepers on the city's dusty streets engaged in the daily routine of closing their grocery stores, photo shops, and bakery stalls. Over the past four years the entrances to Kabul's shops had become a barometer of the day's violence: doors that were wide open meant daily life pushed forward, even if occasionally punctured by the ring of distant rocket fire. But when they were shut in broad daylight, Kabulis knew danger waited nearby and that they, too, would be best served by remaining indoors.

Excerpted from The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Copyright 2011 by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Excerpted by permission of Harper, a division of HarperCollins, Inc.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon