Around the globe, the words “coffee house” conjure a fairly standard picture: steaming mugs of caffeinated refreshment, quality time with friends and intimate conversation over the buzz of an espresso machine. Author Deborah Rodriguez opens her first novel, A Cup of Friendship, in heart of the Afghan city Kabul. Here, at Sunny’s cafe, there are hot beverages and baristas. But there is also an armed guard at the door and a policy that patrons must check their guns before enjoying a latte. The shatterproof glass in the windows serves as a strong reminder of the threat of terrorism that Afghans face on a daily basis.
Though fictional, A Cup of Friendship was penned by a realist: The wayfaringRodriguez, whose best-selling memoir Kabul Beauty School drew on her own experiences living in the fickle Middle Eastern metropolis.
Readers meet several strong women from all walks of life in the novel. American ex-pat Sunny is struggling to run a business while navigating her feelings for two men: her longtime boyfriend Tommy flits in and out of her life while fighting the Taliban, while Jack, a regular at the café, begins to catch Sunny’s eye. The problem is, he’s already in a relationship.
At the book’s opening, the generous Sunny adds village girl Yazmina to her small staff and Sunny is drawn into a dangerous predicament that she’ll need both Tommy and Jack to help resolve. Yazmina harbors a secret that could endanger her life, but Sunny feels a moral obligation to engage despite the risk.
Isabel, an assertive British journalist working to expose the injustices against women in the country, is another memorable character. While her assertive manner is hard for Sunny to digest at first, Isabel’s heroics endear her to her coffee house compatriots forever.
Halajan, Sunny’s landlord, feels like the most authentic of Rodriguez’s characters. At almost 60, Halajan has lived through freer times: when women weren’t mandated to cover up in public or prohibited from keeping company with the opposite sex. Halajan’s feisty and insightful commentary on a nation torn between tradition, religion and change gives readers a truly unique and thought-provoking perspective.
Though A Cup of Friendship is light on page-turning action, the story here is more about the complexity and, ultimately, importance of bonds that transcend culture and circumstance.