A young woman without many options finds herself compelled by a photograph in a magazine to help the sick, the ill, the desperate and disenfranchised wherever they may be. This calling propels young Elsa Murphy, a girl from the gritty streets of Dorchester in Boston, to go to college, become a nurse and volunteer to work anywhere in the world she is needed.
This is also the story of Parween, a young Afghani who is vibrant, intelligent and ambitious, but because of where she lives will have a very different life.
Based on the author's experiences in Afghanistan and other war-torn nations, this novel serves both as witness and warning. While the fictional Elsa lands in Afghanistan shortly after the September 11th attacks, the author first worked there during the Russian invasion in the 1980s, which gives her a deeper knowledge of the area and its people than is seen on the evening news.
Roberta Gately talks about Lipstick in Afghanistan
video courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Elsa, who has never been outside of Boston, finds herself in the remote Bamiyan province of the country. "...Bamiyan seemed chisled out of some long-forgotten age where it had been frozen in time." There is no electricity or running water and food is cooked over open fires.
Elsa is provided with a small house and a cook and not much else. Bed is a foam mattress covered in fabric and water for bathing and cooking will be brought to her from a nearby well. Elsa barely has time to process this when she
finds out that head of the office has to go to another part of Afghanistan and that she will be in charge of the clinic in which she was to be a staffer.
Petrified but determined, she arrives at the small, overwhelmed hospital, meets the staff and begins her work steamlining procedures and learning as much as possible as quickly as possible so she can help the patients.
Elsa soon has a circle of close friends; Hamid her driver, Laila and Ezat, the doctors she works with, and Amina her chaperone (single women can't live alone in Afghanistan). She also befriends the American servicemen in the area, who give her their perspective of the area, which she finds at odds with the warm hospitable people she knows.
She also gets to know the vibrant people in the village - the Hazara - who fought and succeeded in getting the Taliban out of their village. They remain a threat, having taken over a village a few miles north, but for the most part, Bamiyan is free.
Woven through this story is the history of Parween, who has no freedom. Betrothed at age twelve against her wishes, Parween has to wear the veil, cannot go out alone, and can't go to school. Her soul rebels at the thought of the same future of childbirth, housework, fieldwork without end. Abuse from the husband or his family is often part of life for young wives. Parween sees her best friend packed off as a third wife to a wizened old man and despairs of her future.
How Elsa and Parween meet and how their friendship affects them both is the culmination of the story. Climax and parable, the book questions the future of a nation that shackles half its population in slavery, and how the simple act of friendship can open doors actual and spiritual, and can inspire heroism