Gayle Tzemach Lemmon first met Kamila Sidiqi while traveling to Afghanistan to report on Afghan businesswomen for the Financial Times and find a subject for a case study that would be taught at Harvard Business School. Lemmon was looking for female entrepreneurs in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, but when she learned that Kamila had actually gotten her start under the Taliban, Lemmon decided to devote three years of on-the-ground reporting to telling Kamila’s story in her first book, The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana.
It’s unusual, compelling material. Kamila graduated from a teacher-training institute in Kabul the day Taliban soldiers arrived and took over the capital city. As they implemented policies largely confining women to their homes, Kamila and her sisters initially planned to wait out the new regime so they could resume their work and studies. Their parents were forced to flee north, and as their savings dwindled, Kamila set out to make money in one of the few ways a woman could: by making dresses in her home to sell at the city’s bazaars. Her business soon evolved from a family operation to an enterprise employing dozens of local women who desperately needed income.
It’s a shame that the book isn’t better written. Lemmon relies too much on bland reconstructed dialogue, going so far as writing about a conversation Kamila has, then having her relay that same conversation to her sister, when simple paraphrasing would do. Too often, the dialogue focuses on how brave and determined Kamila is, when her actions speak for themselves. The book almost entirely follows Kamila, but her plotline is largely flat. While she bends the rules in some places, she’s no revolutionary, and she eventually learns that the Taliban knows about her business and is fine with it. It would seem from The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana that Kamila only ever thought of expanding her business and helping her community and family. Lemmon expresses Kamila’s faith that Allah would keep her safe, but if Kamila felt any anger at the men who were using a version of her religion to threaten and beat other women, the book doesn’t share it.
Some of the best moments in The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana are simple looks at life under the Taliban. When a clothing-shop owner asks Kamila to change the style of her dresses in a specific way, she has to commit the design to memory, because drawing is illegal. The chadri all women must wear is stiflingly hot and obscures sight, making shopping difficult. When bootleg videos of Titanic come to Kabul, the movie becomes an obsession that the Taliban cannot quash, in spite of efforts to punish barbers who give patrons Leonard DiCaprio-style haircuts. Lemmon only dwells on this phenomenon for a few paragraphs before going back to following Kamila’s enterprise, but it’s such a strange, funny story that it stands out in a way that little of the rest of her work does. Kamila’s story is certainly worth telling, but the book’s narrow focus makes it feel like a missed opportunity to share more.