The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe (Review)

May 6, 2011

Book cover for "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana" by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.Title: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Publication Year: 2011

Pages: 288

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: E-review copy from NetGalley

From the cover:

The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war — a rare achievement for any Afghan woman — Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the incredible true story of this unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community under the Taliban. Former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years on the ground reporting Kamila’s story, and the result is an unusually intimate and unsanitized look at the daily lives of women in Afghanistan.

I had high hopes for this book, but they were sadly not quite realized.

Kamila and her family – particularly her sisters – are the focus of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and we get to know them a little bit through the way their past and present is re-told by Lemmon. It was interesting for me to learn about the value that her father and mother had placed on educating the girls right from the beginning, which marked their family right from the beginning as being somewhat privileged.

Unfortunately, that privilege was pervasive throughout the rest of the book as well. I’m not sure that it was actually so pervasive in their lives, though, or whether it was just the way that Lemmon presented their story. While reading this book, I felt as if Kamila and her sisters mostly coasted through this difficult period, and that they didn’t really face that much difficulty once they got going with their seamstress business. Surely, that wasn’t the case. I kept reading, hoping that the real difficulties of Kamila and her family would shine through … but sadly, they never really did.

There were hints here and there about situations that could have “turned bad”, or that challenged the way that Kamila and her family lived, but they never really went past the “hint” stage. I could tell that, beneath the surface, there was more danger and courage in their story, but it just didn’t shine through.

Having said that, I still enjoyed reading The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. The girls were interesting, and I wanted them to do well and succeed in keeping their family (and community) afloat. I just felt like it could have pulled fewer punches and been a much stronger work. But as an introduction to the subject, or as a family narrative, it was pretty good.



  • Helen Murdoch May 6, 2011 at 8:36 am

    I’ve been hearing quite mixed reviews about this book. I have it on my list to read soon and am still looking forward to it even though I know it isn’t going to be fabulous. Maybe with lower expectations I’ll like it more…

  • softdrink May 8, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I was thinking about buying this at the bookstore yesterday…glad I changed my mind!

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