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January 31, 2011

"Lipstick in Afghanistan:" Women Helping Women

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Lipstick-in-Afghanistan The novel "Lipstick in Afghanistan" by Roberta Gately tells the story of an idealistic young American nurse who goes to Afghanistan after 9/11 as a humanitarian aid worker.

After arriving in the small town of Bamiyan, Elsa learns to live with the bare essentials, to navigate cultural differences, and to treat a population ravaged by war and poverty, with very few resources.

Roberta Gately knows her subject well since she's served as a nurse and humanitarian aid worker in Africa and Afghanistan.  Her knowledge of the sights, sounds, customs and culture provide "Lipstick in Afghanistan" with a unique authenticity.

One of the other great things about the book is it doesn't only tell us Elsa's story but tells the story of Parween, a young Afghan girl whose life is irrevocably changed with the arrival of the ruthless Taliban.

Elsa and Parween eventually meet and become friends and work together to improve life for the community's residents.

The theme of women helping women is a major one in the book and reminds us how, Afghan or American, the goals of all women are often the same:  a warm and supportive companion, safety and prosperity for their families, and fulfillment of their own individual aspirations.

As a novel, the plotting of the book is routine and predictable.  It reads like a romance novel, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, I like romance novels, but because Gately had so much to work with in terms of her own experiences, I wish the plotting had lived up to the powerful time period and setting. 

Having said that, I cared about the characters, I was transported by Gately's vivid descriptions of the Afghan landscape and its people, and the book more than held my interest.

Though it's a different kind of book, "Lipstick in Afghanistan" reminded me of Ken Follett's "Lie Down with Lions" about an American woman caught up in political intrigue when she goes to Afghanistan with her new French husband.  The book was published in 1986, long before 9/11, but I remember loving it and being thrilled by my first literary trip to Afghanistan.

I should re-read it and see if it holds up after all these years.  If I do, I'll let you know.

Finally, in a note at the back of the book, Roberta Gately writes that she's authored an unpublished memoir about her experiences. I sincerely hope some smart publisher gets off the dime and puts it out there because I for one would love to read it.

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