The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Excerpt

In an excerpt from her new book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story of the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul and how women’s lives there changed instantly.

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. Kabul, Afghanistan, September 1996

“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 floor-length 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 knee-skimming 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.

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Women would now be forced to dress in a style—and assume a way of life—they had never known, by rulers who had known nothing else.

“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.

The old bus lurched forward amid a belch of exhaust and finally arrived at Kamila’s stop. Khair Khana, a northern suburb of Kabul, was home to a large community of Tajiks, Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group. Like most Tajik families, Kamila’s parents came from the north of the country. The south was traditionally Pashtun terrain. Kamila’s father had moved the family to Khair Khana during his last tour of duty as a senior military officer for the Afghan army, in which he had served his country for more than three decades. Kabul, he thought at the time, offered his nine girls the best chance of a good education. And education, he believed, was critical to his children’s, his family’s, and his country’s future.

Kamila hurriedly made her way down the dusty street, holding her scarf over her mouth to keep from inhaling the city’s gritty soot. She passed the narrow grocery store fronts and wooden vegetable carts where peddlers sold carrots and potatoes. Smiling, flower-laden brides and grooms stared down at her from a series of wedding pictures that hung from the wall of a photo shop. From the bakery came the delicious smell of fresh naan bread, followed by a butcher shop where large hunks of dark red meat dangled from steel hooks. As she walked Kamila overheard two shopkeepers trading stories of the day. Like all Kabulis who remained in the capital, these men had grown accustomed to watching regimes come and go, and they were quick to sense an impending collapse. The first, a short man with balding hair and deeply set wrinkles, was saying that his cousin had told him Massoud’s forces were loading up their trucks and fleeing the capital. The other man shook his head in disbelief.

“We will see what comes next,” he said. “Maybe things will get better, Inshallah. But I doubt it.”

Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud [LINK] was the country’s defense minister and a Tajik military hero from the Panjshir Valley, not far from Parwan, where Kamila’s family came from. During the years of resistance against the Russians, Dr. Najibullah’s forces had imprisoned Kamila’s father on suspicion of supporting Massoud, who was known as the “Lion of Panjshir” and was among the most famous of the Mujahideen fighters. After the Russians withdrew in 1992, Mr. Sidiqi was freed by forces loyal to Massoud, who was now serving in President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s new government. Mr. Sidiqi went to work with Massoud’s soldiers in the north for a while, eventually deciding on retirement in Parwan, his boyhood home and a place he loved more than any other in the world.

All through the preceding summer of 1996, Massoud had vowed to stop the Taliban’s offensive even as the relentless bombardment of the capital continued and Taliban forces took one city after another. If the government soldiers were really packing up and heading out of Kabul, Kamila thought, the Taliban could not be far behind. She picked up her pace and kept her eyes on the ground. No need to look for trouble. As she approached her green metal gate on the corner of Khair Khana’s well-trafficked main road, she sighed in relief. She had never been more grateful to live so close to the bus stop.

The wide green door clanged shut behind Kamila, and her mother, Ruhasva, rushed out into the small courtyard to embrace her daughter. She was a tiny woman with wisps of white hair that framed a kindly, round face. She kissed Kamila on both cheeks and pressed her close. Mrs. Sidiqi had heard the rumors of the Taliban’s arrival all morning long, and had been pacing her living room floor for two hours, anxious for her daughter’s safety.

Finally home, with her family close and darkness falling, Kamila settled down on a velvety pillow in her living room. She picked up one of her favorite books, a frayed collection of poems, and lit a hurricane lamp with one of the small red and white matchboxes the family kept all over the house for just such a purpose. Power was a luxury; it arrived unpredictably and for only an hour or two a day, if at all, and everyone had learned to adjust to life in the dark. A long night lay before them, and they waited anxiously to see what would happen next. Mr. Sidiqi said little as he joined his daughter on the floor next to the radio to listen to the news from the Bbc in London.

Just four miles away, Kamila’s older sister Malika was finally winding down a far more eventful day.

“Mommy, I don’t feel well,” said Hossein.

Four years old, he was Malika’s second child and a favorite of his aunt Kamila. She would play with him in the family’s parched yard in Khair Khana and together they would count the goats and sheep that sometimes passed by. Today his small body was seized by stomach pain and diarrhea, which had worsened as the afternoon passed. He lay on the living room floor on a bed of pillows that Malika had made in the center of the large red carpet. Hossein breathed heavily as he fell in and out of a fitful sleep.

Malika studied Hossein and wondered how she would manage. She was several months pregnant with her third child and had spent the day inside, heeding a neighbor’s early morning warning to stay home from work because the Taliban were coming. Distractedly she sewed pieces of a rayon suit she was making for a neighbor, and watched with growing concern as Hossein’s condition worsened. Beads of sweat now covered his forehead, and his arms and legs were clammy. He needed a doctor.

From her closet Malika selected the largest chador, or headscarf, she owned. She took care to cover not just her head but the lower half of her face as well. Like most educated women in Kabul, she usually wore her scarf draped casually over her hair and across her shoulders.

But today was different; if the Taliban really were on their way to Kabul they would be demanding that women be entirely covered in the full-length burqa, known in Dari as a chadri; it concealed not just the head but the entire face. Already this was the rule in Herat and Jalalabad, which had fallen to the Taliban just a few weeks earlier. Since she had no burqa, the oversize veil was the closest Malika could come to following Taliban rules. It would have to suffice.

Once her sister-in-law had arrived from the apartment upstairs to look after her older boy, Malika gathered Hossein in her arms and tucked him inside her baggy black overcoat. Holding him close to her swelling belly, she hurried out the door for the ten-minute walk to the doctor’s office.

The silence in the street frightened Malika. At this early afternoon hour her neighborhood was usually crowded with a jumble of taxis, bicycles, donkeys, and trucks, but today the streets were empty. The rumors of the approaching army had sent her neighbors deep into their homes, behind their gates and window coverings. It was now a waiting game, and no one knew what the next few days would bring.

Malika winced at the sound of her own heels clacking on the sidewalk. She focused her eyes on the ground as she struggled to hold the wide folds of her scarf in place, but the heavy fabric kept slipping off her head, forcing her to juggle and shift the small boy in her arms as she performed the awkward dance of replacing the shawl, keeping the child covered, and walking as quickly as she could. An afternoon shadow began to fall on Karteh Parwan’s uneven rows of homes and shops.

Finally Malika made a right turn off the main road and reached an office that occupied the ground floor of a shabby strip of storefronts, all of which shared the same cement floors and low ceilings. Several rows of brown stone separated the shops from the balconied apartments above. Relieved to be inside and to rest for a moment, Malika checked in with the doctor, who had come out of his examining room when he heard the front door.

“My son has a fever; I think he may be very sick,” she said. “I brought him here as soon as I could.” The doctor, an older gentleman whom her husband’s family had visited for years, offered her a kind smile. “No problem, just take a seat. It won’t be long.”

Malika settled Hossein into a wooden chair in the dark and empty waiting room. She walked the floor, trying to calm herself, then rubbed her belly for a moment and inhaled deeply. Little Hossein was pale and his eyes looked glassy and expressionless. She wrapped her arms tightly around him and pulled him closer to her.

Suddenly a noise on the street outside startled her. Malika jumped from her chair toward the window. Gray clouds hovered over the street and it had grown dark outside. The first thing she could make out was a shiny dark truck. It looked new, certainly newer than most cars in Kabul.

And then she saw three men standing beside the pickup. They wore turbans wrapped high and thick and carried long rods in their hands that looked like batons. They were striking at something or someone, that much she could tell.

With a start Malika realized that the figure huddled in front of them was a woman. She lay in the middle of the street, crouched in a ball, and was trying to fend off the blows. But the men would not stop. Malika heard the dreadful slapping sound of the wooden batons as they hit the helpless woman—on her back, her legs, over and over again.

“Where is your chadri?” one of the men shouted at his victim as he lifted his arms above his head to strike her. “Why are you not covered? What kind of woman are you to go out like this?”

“Stop,” the woman pleaded. “Please have mercy. I am wearing a scarf. I don’t have a chadri. We never had to wear them before!”

She began to sob. Malika’s eyes teared as she watched. Her instincts commanded her to run into the street and rescue this poor woman from her attackers. But her rational mind knew it was impossible. If she left the doctor’s office she would be beaten as well. These men would have no problem hitting a pregnant woman, she thought. And she had a sick child to protect. So she stood helplessly by the window listening to the woman cry, and wiped her own tears away.

“You think this is the last regime?” one of the young men shouted. His eyes were black with kohl, the nightcolored cosmetic that Taliban soldiers wore. “This is not Dr. Najibullah or the Mujahideen,” he said, his club hitting her once more. “We believe in sharia, Islamic law, and this is now the law of the land. Women must be covered. This is your warning.”

Finally the men got back in their truck and left. The woman bent over unsteadily to grab her handbag from the street and slowly limped away.

Malika turned back to Hossein, who was folded up in his chair and moaning softly. Her hands shook as she held his small fingers. Like the woman outside, she was from a generation of Kabul women who had never known life under the chadri. They had grown up in the capital long after Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud Khan had embraced the voluntary unveiling of his countrywomen in the 1950s. King Amanullah Khan had attempted this reform unsuccessfully thirty years earlier, but it wasn’t until 1959, when the prime minister’s own wife appeared at a national independence day celebration wearing a headscarf rather than the full chadri, that the change finally took hold. That one gesture stunned the crowd and marked a cultural turning point in the capital. Kabul’s next generation of women had gone on to become teachers, factory workers, doctors, and civil servants; they went to work with their heads loosely covered and their faces exposed. Before today many had never had reason to wear or even own the full veils of their grandmothers’ generation.

Suddenly the tide had turned again. Women would now be forced to dress in a style—and assume a way of life—they had never known, by rulers who had known nothing else. Was this what was in store for her, too, once she left the doctor’s office? Malika felt her heart pounding in her chest as she wondered how she was going to get Hossein and herself safely home. Like the woman’s outside, Malika’s scarf was large, but it was hardly big enough to cover her whole face and convince the soldiers of her piety. She held Hossein tightly, trying to comfort herself as much as her son.

Just then the doctor returned. After a quick but thorough examination he assured Malika that it was nothing serious. He prescribed plenty of fluids and gave her a prescription to fill, then walked Malika and Hossein back to the waiting room. When they reached the front door Malika stopped.

“Doctor, I wonder if we could stay here for a few more minutes?” She pointed her chin down in the direction of the little boy in her arms. “I need to rest for just a moment before carrying him home again.”

Malika didn’t want to talk about what she had just seen, but it weighed heavily on her mind. She needed to a make a plan to get them safely out of this situation.

“Of course,” the doctor replied. “Stay as long as you wish.” Malika paced the waiting room floor and prayed for help. She could not go back out onto the street without a chadri, that much was certain. But she had no idea how she would get hold of one.

Suddenly her heart leapt. Through the window she saw Soraya, her older son’s elementary school teacher, walking down the street toward the doctor’s office. Malika recognized the purposeful gait from a distance and then glimpsed the teacher’s face peeking out from beneath her dark scarf. A small grocery sack dangled from each arm. Malika ran toward the door. After she had scanned the sidewalk to make certain the Taliban were no longer in sight, she took a furtive step out of the doctor’s office.

“Soraya Jan,” she called from the doorway. “It is Malika, Saeed’s mother.” The startled teacher hurried over and Malika related what she had seen in the street.

Soraya shook her head in amazement. She had spent the past hour buying what vegetables she could for her family’s evening meal of pilau, Afghan aromatic rice, and naan bread, but food had become hard to find these days. A Taliban blockade now strangled the city, preventing trucks carrying food from reaching the capital’s 1.2 million residents. Today Soraya had barely managed to get hold of a few potatoes and some onions. The market had been abuzz with rumors of the Taliban’s arrival, but Malika was the first person she knew who had actually seen the capital’s new soldiers up close.

“My house is just around the corner,” Soraya told Malika, taking her hand. “You and Hossein will come with me, and we’ll figure out how to get you a chadri to wear home. Don’t worry; we’ll find a way.”

Malika smiled for the first time all day. “Thank you, Soraya Jan,” she said. “I am so grateful.”

The women quickly walked the one block to Soraya’s house, which stood behind a bright yellow gate. They didn’t speak a word during the short trip, and Malika wondered if Soraya was praying as hard as she was that they wouldn’t be stopped. She couldn’t get the image of the woman in the street off her mind.

A few minutes later they sat together in Soraya’s small kitchen. Malika tightly gripped a glass of hot green tea and relaxed for the first time in hours. She was deeply thankful for the warmth of her friend’s home and the fact that Hossein, who had taken a pill at the doctor’s office, was already feeling a bit better.

“I have a plan, Malika,” Soraya announced. She called for her son, Muhammad, who was in the other room. Once the little boy appeared, Soraya gave him his mission. “I need you to go to your aunt Orzala’s house. Tell her we need to borrow one of her chadri for Auntie Malika; tell her we will return it to her in just a few days. This is very important. Okay?” The eight-year-old nodded.

Just half an hour later young Muhammad bounded into the living room and solemnly handed Malika a white plastic shopping bag; the handles had been carefully tied together and inside was a blue chadri. “My aunt says you can borrow the chadri as long as you need it,” Muhammad said, beaming.

Malika unfolded the fabric, which was really several panels of material that had been sewn together by hand. The front section, about a yard in length, was made of a light polyester with a finely embroidered border at the bottom and a cap at the top. The chadri’s longer side and back panels formed an uninterrupted wave of intricate and meticulously pressed accordion pleats that hung close to the floor. Wearing the garment required getting underneath the billowy folds and making certain the cap was in just the right spot for maximum visibility through the webbed eye slit, which turned the world slightly blue.

The family invited Malika to stay for dinner, and after sharing a plate of rice and potatoes by candlelight on the living room floor, she stood up and put on the chadri. The hem of her fashionable brown suit pants stuck out from beneath the veil. Malika had worn the covering only a few times before when visiting family in the provinces, and she now found it tricky to maneuver among the slippery pleats and panels. She struggled to see out through the small eye vent, which was just two inches long and three and a half inches wide. She tripped over the fabric while saying her last good-byes to Soraya’s family.

“One of my sons will bring the chadri back to you soon,” Malika said, embracing her friend and rescuer.

She took Hossein by the hand and began to walk home under the starry evening sky, stepping slowly and carefully to make certain she didn’t trip again. She prayed the rockets would wait for her to make it back safely.

Days would pass before she would see her family in Khair Khana and share her harrowing story. Malika, it turned out, was among the first to experience what lay ahead for them all. It would be just as the young woman at Sayed Jamaluddin had predicted.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, published this month.