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Lipstick in Afghanistan


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About The Book

Roberta Gately’s lyrical and authentic debut novel—inspired by her own experiences as a nurse in third world war zones—is one woman’s moving story of offering help and finding hope in the last place she expected.

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 cement her determination. With lipstick on, she can do anything—even travel alone to war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

But violent nights as an ER nurse in South Boston could not prepare Elsa for the devastation she witnesses at the small medical clinic she runs in Bamiyan. As she struggles to prove herself to the Afghan doctors and local villagers, she begins a forbidden romance with her only confidant, a charming Special Forces soldier. Then, a tube of lipstick she finds in the aftermath of a tragic bus bombing leads her to another life-changing friendship. In her neighbor Parween, Elsa finds a kindred spirit, fiery and generous. Together, the two women risk their lives to save friends and family from the worst excesses of the Taliban. But when the war waging around them threatens their own survival, Elsa discovers her only hope is to unveil the warrior within. Roberta Gately’s raw, intimate novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of friendship and a poignant reminder of the tragic cost of war.


Lipstick in Afghanistan 1
Boston, 1994

It was the hopelessness in their eyes that held sixteen-year-old Elsa’s attention. The black and white images of starving, big-bellied babies gripped her with horror, but one photo in particular haunted her—a close-up of a skeletal mother holding a shriveled baby while two other gaunt children clung to her frail arms. It felt like they were looking right at Elsa.

She read the caption, which explained that they were refugees who’d escaped a quick death at the hands of rebel tribesmen only to be trapped in a life of misery. They weren’t just starving, the story said, they were dying. All four suffered from malaria and dysentery, and without help they would likely be dead in one month’s time.

Elsa flipped back to the cover to check the magazine’s issue date and her eyes widened.

The magazine was two months old.

A strange feeling—a kind of numbness—came over her, and she sat on the floor, her knees bent up, supporting the magazine. She turned the page and held her breath as she read.

As the tragedy in Rwanda deepens and the death toll continues to rise, world leaders seem paralyzed, unable to act. It is only the valiant efforts of a few doctors and nurses that are making a difference, snatching thousands from death’s certain grip. But more relief workers are needed and the UN has issued an urgent plea for help.

Elsa read the words again and then turned the page.

A large picture revealed hundreds of women and children standing in what seemed to be an endless line, waiting for their food rations. The women, and even the small children, seemed lifeless as they waited their turn. None of them looked at the camera. It was a photograph of utter despair.

Elsa sighed and ran her fingers over the picture. She turned to the next page and found a series of photos, all of corpses—endless rows of babies and children, entire families, lying in the road or in fields, clinging to one another in death. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she closed her eyes.

But when she opened them, the bodies were still there. She turned back to the first page and read the story again. She lingered over that first image, the one of the dying mother and her young children. She wondered where they were, if they’d died or somehow been rescued. It was hard to believe that people lived like this.

How could she ever complain about her own life again?

She paused at a shiny picture of a nurse cradling a baby. The nurse seemed to be crying. The caption explained that the baby was dead and the nurse was looking for his mother.

A nurse, she thought, doing something that matters.

Elsa closed the magazine, breathing deeply to calm herself, before she glanced at her watch. Four o’clock! Jeez, where did the time go? She quickly gathered her remaining books onto her cart and hurried to the library’s front desk.

“Sorry, Miss James, I lost track of time.” She needed this job; she couldn’t afford to be fired. “I’ll finish these tomorrow.”

The old librarian, fidgeting with her hearing aid, smiled up at Elsa. “What, dear?”

“I’ll finish tomorrow,” Elsa almost shouted. “And this,” she said, holding out the magazine, “can I keep it? It’s two months old.”

“You want the magazine?” Miss James confirmed. “That’s fine, dear.”

Elsa trudged home along the narrow, crowded streets, the magazine stuffed into her backpack. If she hurried, her mother could still get to work on time. Rushing into the house, she pulled the magazine from her bag and showed the pictures to her mother.

“Oh God, Elsa, why do you look at that stuff? Jesus, it’s awful,” her mother said, slipping her arms into her old coat.

“But, Mom, I was thinking, I could be a nurse, maybe help someday.”

“That’s just a wish, don’t ya think? Nothin’ good ever came from wishing for things you can’t have. Look around, honey. We’re in the crummiest three-decker in the crummiest part of Dorchester. And with Diana getting sicker, I don’t see things getting any better.”

“But if we don’t wish for more or try for more, things will never change.”

“I’ve worked two jobs since your father died, and every single day, I’ve wished things would be easier. I just don’t want you to be disappointed is all.”

But Elsa was disappointed. She was always wishing for things she couldn’t have—her friend Annie’s wild red hair, a nice house, a real family. There was always something else she wanted. God knows, there was a lot to wish for when you lived in Dorchester.

“Learn to be happy with what you’ve got, Elsa. There’s always someone else who’s got it worse.”

“That’s just it—these refugees have got it worse. I want to help.”

“Well, you can start with Diana. I fed her, but she needs to be changed and put to bed. I’ll see you later.” With a quick peck on the cheek, her mother left for work, the second shift at the supermarket where she rang up groceries she could barely afford.

Life isn’t fair, Elsa thought glumly, but that doesn’t mean you just sit back and accept it. She shed her coat and moved toward Diana, who sat awkwardly in an oversized high chair. Unable to hold her head up, it bobbed on her spindly neck until Elsa set a pillow behind her.

“There, Diana. Is that better?” she cooed.

Diana, the four-year-old daughter of Elsa’s older sister, Janice, was hopelessly disabled, or so the doctors said. It took all of Elsa and her mother’s efforts just to feed and take care of Diana. Janice was never home, and her brother, Tommy, the oldest of the three, only came home long enough to swipe money from either his mother or Elsa.

It hadn’t always been that way. Though money had always been tight, they’d been a family once, and when Diana was born, she’d brought smiles and laughter into the house, at least for a while. Those were the good days, when even Annie, Elsa’s only close friend, still came around.

Annie had lived with her Polish grandmother in another dingy three-decker on the next corner. It was Annie who’d sat with Elsa when she’d fed, changed, and babysat Diana, and it was Annie who’d poked through Janice’s bureau drawers one afternoon until she discovered an old tube of lipstick called “Misty Mauve.” At Elsa’s urging, Annie had opened it and swiped it across her lips. Though the color was hopelessly outdated, they’d taken turns applying it.

Annie, her red hair straining against the elastic that held it back, had peered into the mirror and declared that it was a bad color for her. “With my hair, I need something brown. This is awful.”

Elsa, small and narrow, had always wished for hair like Annie’s, something that would set her apart. When it was her turn, she’d stood in front of the mirror and swiped the waxy mauve over her mouth. She’d pressed her lips together to spread the stain and peered at her reflection, suddenly boasting violet-colored lips. Against her brown hair, the color had been perfect. She’d turned to Annie.

“Well, what do you think?”

Annie had looked at her friend admiringly.

“You look beautiful, Elsa. You should wear lipstick all the time.”

Elsa had looked in the mirror and smiled again. The face that stared back at her was pretty—really pretty—she had to admit. She’d grinned at her reflection as though she were seeing herself for the first time—shiny hair, creamy skin, upturned nose, and full violet lips. The very act of applying the lipstick—the gentle stroke of color, the pressing of her lips to spread it evenly, and finally, the gaze into the mirror—fascinated her.

This lipstick is amazing, Elsa had thought. It didn’t just put color on her lips, it put an unmistakable glow in her green eyes and made her feel, if only for an instant, as though she were somebody, like one of those important women in the fancy magazines. Women who mattered wore lipstick. She smiled at her reflection again.

“Jeez, Elsa,” Annie had declared. “You were made for lipstick.”

I am, Elsa had thought. I really am.

The memory of that afternoon still made her smile, and though Annie had long since moved away, Elsa’s love of lipstick was the same. A swipe of bold plum or soft pink was enough to raise her spirits, and in Dorchester, that was a necessity.

Lipstick was magic.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Lipstick in Afghanistan includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Roberta Gately. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Elsa Murphy is a serious, sweet Boston girl whose tough childhood made her want nothing more than to truly help people. After working tirelessly to finish nursing school and sweating through long hours in the ER, she decides to volunteer with Aide du Monde, a world relief organization. Elsa feels it’s the best way to put her nursing skills to use, and she secretly longs to leave Boston and add some color to her life. But she has no idea what to expect when she is posted to a rural clinic in Afghanistan, just after 9/11.

From the moment she sets foot in Bamiyan, Elsa knows her life will forever be changed by what she sees and who she befriends. There’s spirited Parween, a young mother who’s been forced to silently accept the horrors the Taliban inflicted on her family and friends, but who longs to throw off her veil and fight back. And there’s Mike, a handsome engineer in the U.S. Special Forces who teaches Elsa what it truly means to love. But when an innocent venture to a nearby town puts them in grave danger from a Taliban guerrilla unit, Elsa and her friends must fight for their lives—and Elsa discovers the real power that comes from friendship, and the strength she never knew she had.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Throughout the novel, Elsa is somewhat naïve in her motivations and expectations. Do you see this as a positive or negative quality? Do you think that her naïveté is what really allowed her to embrace Bamiyan and be less of an “outsider,” or do you think it has blinded her to the constant danger of her situation, making her reckless when she ought to have been careful?

2. Elsa says to Mike, “If you’re still coming to dinner tonight—and I hope you are—you’ll see my Afghanistan. Good friends and gentle people” (p. 194). Do you agree that even under such volatile circumstances, there can be such a dichotomy of views? That a soldier could never look at the place and people around him the same way a nurse or aid worker could, and that even though they’re physically in the same location, their experiences are vastly different?

3. The story is narrated in third-person limited: that is, we see through the experiences of Elsa, and at times, through the experiences of Parween. Why do you think the author chose to write it this way? Was there another character that you wished to see at the center of the narration?

4. What did you think about Elsa’s relationship with Mike? Do you think it would have progressed so quickly had they met under different circumstances? Do you think that being in Bamiyan gives Elsa a kind of courage that the Boston Elsa would never have had? Do you think the fact that they both sought familiarity in a foreign land (and found it in each other) made for a deeper relationship, or is that a superficial (albeit passionate) connection that might not last in a place like Boston?

5. Before the encounter with the Taliban guerrillas, Elsa tells Mike of her plans to go “to Rwanda, or, well . . . anywhere they need us” (p. 226). Do you think she will follow through on that plan after all that has happened, perhaps by joining the UN? Do you think she feels she owes it to Parween to continue to help people?

Do you feel Aide du Monde’s decision to have her replaced was warranted?

6. Lipstick in Afghanistan has many strong female characters. Think about all the different women who impact on Elsa’s life: Margaret, Maureen, Parween, Amina, Rahima, and Laila. What does Elsa learn from each of these women at various points of the novel? What do you think they learn from her? Think about the women who play a significant role in your life. What can you learn from them?

7. To a great extent, the male characters in the novel are quite clearly good (Uncle Abdullah, Mike, Hamid, Raziq) or evil (Mariam’s husband, the members of the Taliban, Noor Mohammed). How did you feel about the portrayal of men? Did you find it accurate, or too simple? What about the fact that men were shown as both victims and perpetrators of crimes, while women were almost solely victims?

8. When Elsa tells Parween that she is angry at Mike for saying that he’d shoot Hamid if he had to, Parween’s reaction surprises her. Parween says, “Things are not always as complicated as you make them, Elsa. You are like a tree—strong, yes—but rigid. Too rigid. . . . When you see Mike—and you will—ask him if he’d save Hamid. That is the only thing you need to know” (p. 203). Do you agree with Parween’s and Mike’s point of view? Or do you feel that Elsa is right to try and see the complexity of the situation—to want to always judge people on an individual basis, as impossible as it may be?

9. Parween willingly risks everything when she jumps from the tree and attempts to surprise the Taliban members from behind. What do you think of her decision? Do you think it was selfish—that she should have considered her mother and her daughter and the life they’d have without her before risking her life? Or do you think it was selfless—that her risk was a way to try and ensure a better future for her daughter, and for all women?

10. The story of the lady rebel is very significant throughout the novel. What do you think the legend symbolizes? What did you think about the fact that Parween, through her death, becomes the embodiment of the legend? How else does the idea of rebellion manifest through the book?

11. Do you think karma and/or fate play significant roles in the story? Support your answer with examples from the text.

12. Were you left with a sense of hope at the end of the novel— that things would be better for the women in Bamiyan (and also Elsa), or was there a lingering feeling of futility? Do the themes in this fictional account relate at all to your real world perspectives on war and change?

13. The title of the book is Lipstick in Afghanistan. Discuss the significance of lipstick to the women in the novel. What does it mean to Elsa? To Parween and Mariam? If you had to pick one overarching idea or theme for it to symbolize, what would it be?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Do you have an item that is to you what lipstick is for Elsa? Something you could never travel to a foreign country without? Have each member bring her “lipstick” to the book club and discuss.

2. The Hazaras are a real tribe in Afghanistan. Do some research on their culture and way of life, and have each member present an interesting fact.

3. Visit the International Rescue Committee’s website at to see how you can help the people of Afghanistan or the millions of other refugees around the world.

A Conversation with Roberta Gately

What inspired you to write Lipstick in Afghanistan? Did you pull from many of your real-life experiences? What made you decide to write a work of fiction as opposed to a nonfiction account or memoir?

My inspiration came from the people of Afghanistan, whose stories and struggles, though the stuff of legend, often stay hidden in dusty villages and timeworn towns. I wanted to share the stories of the bent old woman who was likely starving, but who gave me a handful of chickpeas so that I might know that Afghans were generous; of the tiny girl who pummeled every boy in the village just because she

could; and of the shy young woman who dreamed of going to Kabul as a legislator. Their stories are endless, their courage infinite despite Afghanistan’s seemingly unending history of tragedy heaped upon tragedy. And ultimately, it is the women I hoped to unveil so that the reader might get an authentic glimpse into the lives and struggles of the women and girls and even the men of Afghanistan. Although I chose fiction for this story, I have written a memoir— From Africa to Afghanistan: A Nurse’s Story —and hope someday to publish it as well.

You really transport the reader to the remote climes of Bamiyan, evoking the village atmosphere in rich detail. How much time did you spend in Afghanistan? What did you take away from your time there?

I’ve been involved in aid work on and off for several years, and long before 9/11 I’d made several aid trips to Afghanistan and its environs. In 2002, I spent six months in Bamiyan providing aid both in the village and beyond. My work has provided me a glimpse into their lives, their everyday struggles and their triumphs and failures. I’ve gained a profound respect for the citizens of Afghanistan and a deep appreciation for their traditions and family values. Though on the surface they might seem very dissimilar to us, I found that there was more that connected us than separated us. 

Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a character you identify with most? Are any of the characters in Lipstick based on the people you encountered while in Bamiyan?

This story grew from the fascinating legend of the lady rebel. Is she real or a mythic figure? It’s hard to say with certainty, but much like the people of Bamiyan, I was captivated by the tale. As for my main characters, they are all based, in some measure, on people I’ve met on one or another of my missions to Afghanistan and other spots around the world. Once I created the characters, I felt as though they almost wrote their own stories. Parween’s courage dictated what she would and wouldn’t do, what roads she would choose. Elsa’s shyness hindered her until she gained her professional footing—and a firm friend in Parween. Mike was always a soldier—it just took Elsa time to see that.

You write about some truly horrific situations—for example, Mariam’s exploitative marriage and eventual rape at the hands of the Taliban, and Meena’s abuse at the hands of a village lord. What made you choose to include these topics? Are they based on true events, perhaps even ones you encountered firsthand?

Although not based on actual situations I witnessed, they are drawn from bits and pieces of stories I’ve heard. Though terribly disturbing, they serve to illustrate the incredible resilience of Afghanistan’s women, who rise above adversity again and again. In both Meena’s and Mariam’s stories, it is the women who band together and defy not just their traditional roles but the potential explosive wrath of their society. These stories screamed to be told—so that women everywhere might understand the heartbreaking decisions that the women of Afghanistan face on a regular basis.

A point of contention in Mike and Elsa’s relationship is that they have somewhat opposing views of the place they’re in, because their roles and expectations are so different. Is that something you have found to be true in your experience?

Although I’ve met soldiers in many of the war-torn places I’ve been, I can’t really answer that—expectations are based on perceptions, and with soldiers and aid workers alike the diversity of viewpoints is almost never what I expect.

As an aid worker, do you think Elsa behaves somewhat recklessly while in Afghanistan, especially when agreeing to go with Parween to Sattar? Or do you think it’s difficult to judge such a situation until you’ve actually been there?

By the time Elsa accompanies Parween to Mashaal, she has been incountry

for six months. She has already skirted danger by banding with the women to offer refuge to Meena and traveled secretly to Mashaal, both acts fueling her fledgling sense of self-esteem. Despite the confrontation on the clinic road with the surly young group of Taliban, she is confident that she can handle herself. She has grown accustomed to Bamiyan and has been accepted into the village. Elsa’s decision to accompany Parween was only reckless in hindsight. 

How do you see the story playing out? Do you think Elsa and Mike are meant to be together? Do you see Elsa joining the UN and continuing on in her aid work?

I am not sure how it will play out. Perhaps that is best left for the reader to decide.

Do you have plans to write another novel? Would you return to Elsa and this cast of characters, or focus on something entirely new?

I am working on a second novel. Based in Africa and tentatively titled The Bracelet, it is the story of a young aid worker who may have witnessed or perhaps only dreamed that she witnessed a murder in Geneva while en route to her posting in Africa. I would definitely write a sequel to Lipstick. I too am curious to see how Elsa and Mike play out!

Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading?

Almost impossible to pinpoint all the writers who have influenced me, and they are an eclectic group. Early on it was Harper Lee, D. H. Lawrence, and Marge Piercy; and lately it’s Ann Patchett, Elizabeth George, and Philippa Gregory—all brilliant writers whose novels make me swoon with reader’s delight.

Reading: I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum—both were spellbinding stories that absorbed me from the first page. The characters and stories were so beautifully written, I still mull over my favorite passages. I’ve just started A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.

What advice do you have for readers working on their first novels?

Write what you know, an oft-used phrase but the best advice I’ve received.

If you know your story, you’ll write from your heart. Beyond that—persistence, persistence, persistence, and as in everything that matters—hard work.

Does lipstick mean the same thing to you that it does to Elsa?

Oh my, maybe more. I have graduated from lipstick that melted in the heat on my very first aid mission to industrial-strength, all day lipstick that has taken me through sandstorms, roadblocks, and countless dicey situations. When I am away and find that I cannot wash properly or that my sleeping mat is filled with bedbugs, a swipe of lipstick restores my dignity and soothes my soul. And at home, a

tube of lipstick really is magical. It holds more than a waxy bit of color—it holds the promise of a brilliant smile, a brilliant day, both literally and figuratively.


About The Author

Photograph by Miller Studios

A nurse, humanitarian aid worker, and writer, Roberta Gately has served in war zones ranging from Africa to Afghanistan. She has written extensively on the subject of refugees for the Journal of Emergency Nursing, as well as a series of articles for the BBC Worlds News Online. She speaks regularly on the plight of the world’s refugees and displaced. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (November 9, 2010)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439191385

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Raves and Reviews

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

“[Gately is] a supremely gifted writer and eloquent ambassador for the people who have been banished from civilized society…” –Mark Fritz, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist & author of Lost on Earth: Nomads in the New World

"Gately’s absorbing debut transports readers to the small Afghan village of Bamiyan in the months after 9/11. A volunteer for a French relief organization, Elsa Murphy, a young nurse, has left her tragic life behind in Boston in the hopes of finding a purpose by providing aid and medical care in Afghanistan. Living without running water and on rationed kerosene, the one comfort from home Elsa allows herself is lipstick, which helps her retain her identity behind the veil she wears. Elsa’s work engenders two relationships that will change her life: a friendship with Parween, a young, strong-willed Afghani widow whose hatred of the Taliban is born out of unimaginable loss, and a romance with Mike, a handsome, brave U.S. soldier with flashing blue eyes. Though the Taliban have largely been driven out by the soldiers, Elsa learns they are still very much a presence. In this utterly engrossing read, Gately vividly evokes the beauty and tragedy of Afghanistan, where she, like Elsa, worked as a nurse after 9/11." - Booklist

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