From the author of the “bighearted . . . inspiring” (Vogue) memoir Kabul Beauty School comes a fiction debut as compelling as real life: the story of a remarkable coffee shop in the heart of Afghanistan, and the men and women who meet there—thrown together by circumstance, bonded by secrets, and united in an extraordinary friendship.
After hard luck and some bad choices, Sunny has finally found a place to call home—it just happens to be in the middle of a war zone. The thirty-eight-year-old American’s pride and joy is the Kabul Coffee House, where she brings hospitality to the expatriates, misfits, missionaries, and mercenaries who stroll through its doors. She’s especially grateful that the busy days allow her to forget Tommy, the love of her life, who left her in pursuit of money and adventure.
Working alongside Sunny is the maternal Halajan, who vividly recalls the days before the Taliban and now must hide a modern romance from her ultratraditional son—who, unbeknownst to her, is facing his own religious doubts. Into the café come Isabel, a British journalist on the trail of a risky story; Jack, who left his family back home in Michigan to earn “danger pay” as a consultant; and Candace, a wealthy and well-connected American whose desire to help threatens to cloud her judgment.
When Yazmina, a young Afghan from a remote village, is kidnapped and left on a city street pregnant and alone, Sunny welcomes her into the café and gives her a home—but Yazmina hides a secret that could put all their lives in jeopardy. As this group of men and women discover that there’s more to one another than meets the eye, they’ll form an unlikely friendship that will change not only their own lives but the lives of an entire country.
Brimming with Deborah Rodriguez’s remarkable gift for depicting the nuances of life in Kabul, and filled with vibrant characters that readers will truly care about, A Cup of Friendship is the best kind of fiction—full of heart yet smart and thought-provoking.
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Deborah Rodriguez is a hairdresser, a motivational speaker, and the author of the bestselling memoir Kabul Beauty School. She spent five years teaching at and later directing the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty academy and training salon in Afghanistan. Rodriguez also owned the Oasis Salon and the Cabul Coffee House. She currently lives in Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was a vibrant blue-skied Afghan morning, the kind that made Yazmina stop to loosen her scarf and tilt her face to the sun. She and her younger sister, Layla, were returning from the well, their calloused feet accustomed to repeated treks on the ancient dirt. The tiny cowrie shells that decorated Yazmina's long black dress clacked with every step. She looked toward the snow-capped peaks to the north and prayed that this winter, Inshallah, God willing, would not be as bad as the last. It was so cold, so unforgiving, killing the goats, freezing the earth, destroying any chance of a good wheat crop. Another winter like that would surely make the threat of starvation real.
Her secret, the one she carried in her belly, the one she could hide for only another month or two, flooded her with nausea. She tripped on a rock, her body not as sure and strong as it had been working only for one. She almost spilled the water from the kuza, the clay pot that she carried on her shoulder.
"Yazmina, be careful! You're walking like a donkey with three legs," Layla said, even as she struggled with her own kuza. It was almost bigger than she was. Layla had been in high spirits all morning. She was too young to be covered in a chaderi like the one Yazmina was wearing, and her dark hair shone in the sunlight.
When they arrived at their uncle's compound, they carefully placed the kuza in the cooking room and headed back to the main house. An unfamiliar black SUV with tinted windows was parked outside, and Layla ran toward it, letting out a squeal of delight.
"Look, Yazmina! Look at the landawar!" Layla called. "It's bigger than our house!"
But Yazmina knew that since no one in Nuristan could afford a car like this, it must've come from the city, and nothing good ever came from the city. A car like this brought a warlord or a drug lord. When cars like this had arrived before, girls had gone missing.
Yazmina tried to laugh with Layla, but her heart sank. Heavy beads of perspiration formed on her brow and nausea overcame her again, though this time it had more to do with her fears than with the baby growing inside her. She stood by the door of the main salon where her uncle was talking to an older man with brown teeth wearing a tan-colored shalwaar kameez. Her uncle looked panicked. He pulled a small cloth purse of money from his pocket and offered it to the man.
"This is baksheesh," money fit for a beggar, the man said with a sneer, and struck her uncle's hand, making the purse drop to the floor.
She couldn't hear what else was being said, but she could hear her own heartbeat and over it she imagined her uncle pleading for mercy. She leaned heavily against the wall, letting out the breath she'd been holding. She couldn't blame him for what he'd done. After last year's harsh winter, he could barely afford to feed them all. But when Yazmina's husband was killed three months before, the one she'd known since she was a child and married when she was fifteen, she and Layla had nowhere else to go. It was tradition that forced her uncle to take them in and borrow money from these thieves. She knew what was coming. He would not be able to protect her since he could not repay his debt.
"Take my goats!" her uncle cried. "Take my house," he begged as he dropped to his knees. "But do not take Yazmina. It is as if I am selling her. Would you sell your eyes? Would you sell your heart?" He stopped for a moment to catch his breath, to think. "Besides," he continued, looking up into the cold eyes of the man looming over him, "my goats are worth more in the market than she is. She has already been married."
"Yes, she is not a girl anymore," the man answered. "What I should take is your little one." He turned to Layla, who was now by Yazmina's side, his black eyes boring a hole through her.
Yazmina's uncle pleaded with him. "No, Haji," he said, using the common name for such men. "I beg you. She is too young yet. She is still a child."
Yazmina felt her sister take her hand and hold it tightly.
"If I cannot get the money you owe me from this one, I'll be back for the little one after the snows have melted. Now come," he commanded Yazmina.
Her uncle stood, and as he looked from the man to Yazmina, his strong jaw worked hard to keep his mouth closed against the curses he was struggling not to utter. He brushed the dust from his knees and escorted her to the car. He told her not to worry, but his face revealed what Yazmina already knew in her heart. She would be driven from her home in Nuristan, southwest on rubble-lined, pockmarked roads, to Kabul, and sold to the highest bidder, to be his third, perhaps even fourth wife, or worse, a slave, or worse yet-she would be forced to be a prostitute.
A young man, unusually tall for an Afghan, with a black beard and deep-set eyes, was at the car's heavy back door, holding it open for Yazmina. Another was sitting in the driver's seat.
Yazmina wanted to fight, to kick and scream and run, but she knew that to resist meant they'd take Layla. So she asked, "May I get my things? Can I bring a change of clothes?"
"Get in the car!" the man yelled at her, pushing her shoulder roughly.
She started to climb in, then turned to her uncle and hugged him. He whispered in her ear the poem that her own mother had recited to Yazmina when she was only a baby:
The moon is made round by the right hand of God.
The moon is made crescent by his left.
But it is God's heart that
Makes my love for you forever.
She recited the last line along with him with much difficulty, choked, as she was, by the fullness in her throat. Then Yazmina gave Layla three kisses, each saltier than the last from the tears on her cheeks. "You'll have a blessed life, little one. Now show me that smile of yours, for that'll be my parting gift," she said. But the younger girl had started to cry herself, afraid she'd never see Yazmina again, knowing she could be next. From her pocket she pulled her prayer beads and put them into Yazmina's hand, clasping it tightly with her two little hands, not wanting to ever let go.
"Enough good-byes," said the man with the brown teeth. "Get in the car."
Yazmina quickly put the beads into her own pocket, gathered her long dress, and sat inside, pulling her legs in after her.
Layla ran away, back to the cooking room. "Wait, wait for me!" she called. Yazmina knew she was getting water to throw at the car, a tradition to ensure that the person leaving would return one day. But Yazmina knew she would never be back, so she squared her shoulders, forced her eyes straight ahead, and sat tall as the old man got into the front seat with the driver and the young one got in next to her and closed the door. The SUV pulled away in a cloud of dust.
By the time Layla got back with the water to throw at the car, it was already gone, a black speck on the road leading far down the hill.
The Kabul Coffee House was jammed with regulars-misfits, missionaries and mercenaries, Afghans and foreigners-and Sunny, as usual, was at the counter. She surveyed her domain, pleased with the business, the buzz, the life that pulsated in the room. This was her very own place, here, in the middle of a war zone, in one of the most dangerous locations on earth. After a lifetime of hard luck and bad choices, finally, at the age of thirty-eight, she'd found a home. Sunny was the center of the cafe, and she planned never to leave.
Kabul was the perfect place for her. Since nothing here was on solid ground, anything was possible, and anything could happen. Five men had just walked in, dressed in black, Foster Grants hiding their eyes, machine guns slung over their shoulders, sidearms hanging from their waists. She hadn't seen such beautiful men in a long, long time. In another country they'd mean trouble. But here, she knew they were five tall lattes and a plate of biscotti.
"Hey guys," she said with the slight Southern lilt that she couldn't shake loose after all these years. "If you want a menu, you need to give me your guns, like the sign says." She nodded toward the door where a placard read: please check your weapons at the door.
With a thick Eastern European accent, one of the men started to argue, and all eyes in the cafe turned toward them. Sunny flashed her biggest smile and assured him their guns would be safe. "And besides," she said, "with guns, no menu. You want to eat? You give them up."
They reluctantly handed their firearms to Sunny, who then handed them to her barista and right-hand man, Bashir Hadi, who put them in the back room, where weapons were stored along with mops and brooms. They took off their leather jackets and scarves and Sunny hung them in the front closet.
She met Bashir Hadi back at the counter. "I have some errands. I'll be back as soon as I can," she said, taking off her apron.
"I'll go with you," he said, as he always did.
"I'm fine," she replied, in their daily tradition. She knew what was coming next.
"Make sure that you lock your doors. Keep your windows up. Promise me you will not drive with the top down, for goodness' sake! Avoid the roadblocks. Don't stop unless you have to. Don't take the side roads, or the alleys."
"I've already asked Ahmet to get the car from the alley and bring it around to the front."
"And I know I don't have to remind you-"
"But you will." Sunny smiled.
"You should not be driving and you should not be alone. Call me when you get there."
"I always do." She reflexively clasped the cellphone that hung from her neck on a woven red cord. She'd lost too many setting them down on the counter.
Today Sunny had a mission to bring flowers to the newly elected head of the Women's Ministry. Though they'd met before at the cafe, a formal visit would secure an important relationship, necessary for a woman in Kabul running a business. Sunny put on a coat and took a chador from a hook behind the counter and covered her long, wavy brown hair, carefully wrapping the...
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