Return To The Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul

Author: Deborah Rodriguez
Publisher: Sphere, fiction

American author Deborah Rodriguez used her years living in the Afghan capital while married to an Afghan warlord as the basis of her debut novel, The Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul (2011).

Giving herself creative licence, Rodriguez swapped her real-life Kabul beauty school for a coffee shop. It is in this fictional coffee shop that the plot of the first novel takes place, revolving around protagonist Sunny, her boyfriend Jack, the elderly and rebellious Halajan, her (potentially fundamentalist) son Ahmet, and Yasmina the girl from the mountains who harbours a dark secret (her pregnancy).

In Return To The Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul, Sunny, tired of the constant insurgencies and threats against foreigners, has relocated to an island off northern California with Jack (like Rodriguez herself).

The novel opens with Sunny feeling melancholic about Jack’s untimely demise. Her sadness is dual in nature: she misses both Jack and Kabul, and her friends in the coffee shop.

Rodriguez is quick to point out that Sunny keeps in constant touch with her Afghan friends through Skype and through her friend, the socialite Candace who travels between California and Kabul to fundraise for various organisations based in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, the coffee shop is now run by Halajan, her husband Rashif, Halajan’s son Ahmet, and Ahmet’s wife Yasmina. While Yasmina once hid her pregnancy, she is now proudly showing off her growing bump to all who come into the coffee shop. Some may see this as progress in women’s rights, others may see this as the corrupting influence of foreigners.

While in the first novel a suicide bomber blows himself up inside the shop, the sequel is less dramatic. Apart from threats from the anti-foreigner element, Rodriguez does not delve much into the increasingly worsening situation in Afghanistan. Instead, she focuses on the negativity of arranged marriages.

str2_sharilkabulR_ma_coverIn this instance, she introduces a young school-aged girl named Zara who is in love with a fellow student, Omar (who happens to frequent the coffee shop). Unfortunately, Zara’s principal has his eye on her and she is to be married to him, a much older man.

This is probably one of the more realistic storylines, as it is the main Afghan characters who step in to aid Zara and Omar. It makes the story more believable, as no foreigners are involved in preventing an age-old practice from being carried out.

However, there’s another subplot that does not fully work: Yasmina’s sister Layla is studying in the United States when she chances to meet Sunny and forms an Afghan-American family of sorts. Despite establishing a friendship with Sunny, Rodriguez has Layla spendmost her time with another transplanted Afghan, a moody and rebellious girl called Kat, and with a Californian surfer boy named Sky. The debates between Layla and Kat regarding progress versus tradition, Muslims versus infidels, and Afghanistan versus America, and the dialogue between the two teenage girls and Sky about life in Kabul versus in California has much potential but, sadly, Rodriguez does not expand on it. In fact, much like the first novel, many potential topics that Rodriguez touches upon are left dangling without resolve.

Despite the negatives, the novel does have its plus points. Like the first novel, the language Rodriguez uses in Return To The Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul is simple, and the plotlines are not too convoluted, which makes this book an easy read; and you can pick it up even if you haven’t read the first one.

And like the first novel, Return To The Little Coffee Shop Of Kabul does not pretend to be deep or political in any way; instead, it is just a tale of a woman who loves Afghanistan and her friends who run a coffee shop in a troubled land.

This said, the novel may not be to everyone’s liking. The best way to approach this book is to have no expectations.