Lipstick in Afghanistan

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Published by: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: November 9, 2010
Pages: 288
ISBN13: 978-1439191385


Gripped by haunting magazine images of starving refugees, Elsa has dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a teenager, of leaving her humble working-class Boston neighborhood to help people whose lives are far more difficult than her own. No one in her family has ever escaped poverty, but Elsa has a secret weapon: a tube of lipstick she found in her older sister’s bureau. Wearing it never fails to raise her spirits and bolster her confidence. With lipstick on, she can do anything—even travel alone to war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of September 11.

Violent nights as an emergency room nurse in Boston did not prepare Elsa for the devastation she witnesses at the small medical clinic she runs in Bamiyan. As she struggles to prove herself in the male-dominated culture, a tube of lipstick she finds in the aftermath of a tragic bus bombing leads her to a life-changing friendship with Parween, a young woman who has lost her adored young husband to the Taliban’s treachery. In Parween, Elsa finds a kindred spirit, fiery, generous, and determined to fight back against the restrictions that plague the women of her small country.

Together, they risk their lives to rebel against the Taliban and bring opportunity to the people of their village. But when they must stand up and fight for their own survival, Elsa discovers her only hope is to unveil the warrior within.


"...a supremely gifted writer and eloquent ambassador for the people who have been banished from civilized society..."
—Mark Fritz, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World

“Absorbing debut… In this utterly engrossing read, Gately vividly evokes
the beauty and tragedy of Afghanistan.”

“Engaging characters…an informative glimpse into the lives of women in challenging times.”
—Library Journal

“[Gately gives] readers an Afghanistan that…has the tang of the real deal.”
—Publishers Weekly

"Lipstick in Afghanistan keeps you captivated with the details of Afghanistan and its way of life.  This is a book that should be on everyone’s TBR list."
—Sacramento Book Review

“… in this fascinating, heart-wrenching novel… readers will be enthralled…”
— Las Vegas Review-Journal


Though Afghanistan has a complex history swirling with war and chaos and seemingly never-ending tragedy, it has been for the last century – despite the long and failed Soviet invasion – a nation that has mostly remained off of the world’s radar screen.  Until 9/11, the heartbreak of Afghanistan remained as hidden and veiled as the women of that country.  But the events of 9/11 forced the global community to take a closer look at the misery that had festered for so long.

I am a nurse and humanitarian aid worker and have long been interested in Afghanistan.  In the late 1980s, I served along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with a fledgling aid group providing care to Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invaders.  I never forgot the authentic gentleness of those desperate refugees who in their most tragic moments took time to be kind to me.  I had always dreamed of returning but once the Taliban took control, American aid workers were no longer welcome.   All of that changed after 9/11, and in 2002, I was lucky enough to spend six months with a French aid group providing health care to the villagers in Bamiyan and beyond.

Since the horrific events of September 11th, and the subsequent invasion, life in Afghanistan has certainly improved on some levels.  There is better access to health care for everyone, including women, although there is still a long way to go.  The UN has reported that an Afghan woman dies of complications from childbirth or pregnancy every twenty minutes, and one of every four babies born will not live to see his fifth birthday.

Tragedy and danger linger; landmines continue to threaten the lives of women and children on a daily basis. Latest estimates indicate that between one hundred fifty and three hundred people are killed or injured by landmines every month in Afghanistan.  Many of those are children.

There are however, hopeful signs.  According to UNICEF, an estimated three million children now attend some form of school, most at the primary level, and the long drought has finally ended.  Though wracked by poverty and misery and war, Afghanistan is populated by some of the kindest, gentlest people imaginable.  Despite decades of war and turbulence, its citizens remain unfailingly kind and polite.

Despite the recent progress and their own determination, there are worrisome signs.  By all accounts, the Taliban have regrouped, and in 2009, the BBC reported that they had encircled Bamiyan.

But the people of Bamiyan are nothing if not resilient.  There is a long-rumored lady rebel in Afghanistan, a warrior for goodness, they say, and her exploits are legendary; her reputation for courage boundless.  To hear the stories of this remarkable warrior is to believe.  Even now, I can almost see her as she flies on horseback across the top of a distant mountain range, saving her countrymen from one calamity or another.

It is that lady rebel who is the true inspiration for this story and for the people of Bamiyan, because despite its persistent miseries, Afghanistan is a place, where even in its darkest hours, hope lives, and that hope is never more evident than in the legend of the lady rebel.

For information on how to help the people of Afghanistan or some of the more than 20 million refugees around the world, please visit the website of the International Rescue Committee at


Do you hear it?” The voice was almost a whisper. Elsa held her breath, and then she heard it too, a faint rustling of footsteps over twigs and leaves. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed several shadowy figures darting through the trees, and when she turned, she saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off the barrel of an assault rifle. Read More

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