Deborah Rodriguez spent five years living in Afghanistan. From 2002 to 2007 the hairdresser, storyteller and mother of two from Michigan faced the daily dangers of living in a war-torn country.
Rodriguez helped run the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty academy in Afghanistan, empowering local women and equipping them with skills in hair and makeup. She recounted those experiences in the bestselling memoir “Kabul Beauty School,” written with Kristin Ohlson.
After the book’s release there was some controversy regarding possible inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Rodriguez now chalks that up to the complexities of translating real life into a narrative: “The events are real and not fabricated but some of the timeline was reordered, combined and sometimes compressed. The character names were changed,” she tells the Los Angeles Times.
Rodriguez has returned with a new memoir, “Margarita Wednesdays: Making a New Life by the Mexican Sea” (Gallery Books, $26) about life after Kabul. After marrying a former mujahideen fighter, her safety was compromised and she was forced to leave Afghanistan.
After a brief return to the United States, where Rodriguez collected herself in Northern California, the author has ended up in Mazatlan, the Mexican seaside town, where the laid-back lifestyle and music-filled streets could not be more different from Kabul.
Rodriguez’s faith in the power of hairdressing manifests itself again: Looking for a new purpose, she opens a salon there and establishes Project Mariposa, an organization that provides funds for girls to attend beauty school.
Rodriguez spoke by phone about Kabul, storytelling and starting a new life. She will be at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Mission Viejo on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
You’ve written two memoirs within a decade. How did the experiences differ?
“The Kabul Beauty School” was more about other people’s lives. Whereas this book was far more personal and I had to dig deeper. It was harder because it involved a lot of self-discovery .... Sometimes when you say something out loud it makes it more real. Like writing about my weight ....
You’ve been a hairdresser for so many years. Where did the passion for writing and storytelling start?
As hairdressers, that’s what we do — we’re storytellers first and hairdressers second. My roots are from the South and Southerners are known for being big storytellers. I also always wrote everything down, even when I was much younger. I never wanted to forget personal experiences.
What was it about Mexico that drew you to planting your roots there?
I had been living in Afghanistan and was so far away from my family for so long that I started looking a little bit closer. When I came to Mexico I was really impressed by people’s friendliness. When I came back to Mazatlan I felt like I had met more people in 24 hours than I had in California in two years. I felt this sense of community.
Now there are four generations of us living here: my mother, myself, my son and my grandchildren. It’s really home ....
What did you find to be the most challenging element of rebuilding your life in Mexico?
Starting a business in a country with a foreign language was tough. But I had done all of this in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan was really hard. So this felt much less difficult. The challenges were there, but I kept comparing them to the huge challenges I had in Afghanistan — and they were nothing compared to them. People in Mexico complained that they didn’t have hot water and I would say, “Well at least you have water.”
You often mention the process of moving from “surviving to thriving.” What did that look like to you?
When I first came from Afghanistan, I remember that moment just before waking up, and for a brief moment I would feel normal. And then I would wake up. It took a lot of time for the normal moment to become longer and longer.
In the beginning, all I wanted was to either be around people who had been to Afghanistan, or followed the war, or talked about the war. I couldn’t relate to anything else.
When I moved to Mazatlan it felt so healthy — there was fresh air, there was music, there were tons of distractions. There was something very healing about it .... People started showing up in my life, almost like guides, helping me work through some of my issues with PTSD. Every once in a while, there would be a trigger — but the triggers became further and further apart.
While Mexico and Afghanistan are such different worlds, you saw in both places a need to empower girls by creating both the Kabul Beauty School and Project Mariposa.
Yes. First of all I’m a firm believer in my industry: hairdressing. In Mazatlan prostitution is legal, and often these girls are experiencing serious poverty or they’re in orphanages. Something as simple as learning how to do hairdressing can truly make the difference between surviving and thriving.
I find that the difference between Mexico and Afghanistan is that in Afghanistan you were helping the married women or the widows. Whereas here I find that I need to get to them when they’re young — at around 14 or 15 years old, since many of them stop going to school at around 14. My industry has made such a difference in my life, so I feel like I have to keep paying it forward.
How many girls are currently involved with Project Mariposa?
Right now we have been able to enroll seven kids — including one little boy — into two different schools. At my salon, Tippy Toes, we have a mentorship program set up that allows the kids to come in once a week and learn some additional skills. Two of the students are actually employed at Tippy Toes working part time.
Watching these kids learn a trade, and knowing that at the end of the day they can take care of themselves, makes me feel full. I have one little girl who’s been on her own since she was 14 when her mother died. And now she goes to school part time and works at Tippy Toes Salon part time ....
Is the Kabul Beauty School still running in Afghanistan?
No, it’s not. But I do keep in contact with some of my students.
I’m really excited because one of my students now lives in San Diego with her four children and husband. She left Afghanistan when I left and they just made it to the United States. Before my book tour I’m going to visit them for the first time since 2007. And I’m over the moon about that.