Saturday, April 16, 2005

Extreme Makeover, Afghan Style

In search of a little nip, tuck

By Kim Barker the Tribune's South Asia correspondent

Most patients want their scars removed, all evidence of burns, skin diseases and even gunshot wounds erased. But others, hiding beneath their burqas, want nose jobs.
Cosmetic surgery has arrived in Kabul, in the form of the tiny Hamkar Surgical Clinic, across the street from the bombed-out Cinema Theatre building, in need of its own face-lift. In this clinic, tucked away at the top of a dark stairway, people can pay for tummy tucks, although no one has been brave enough yet to try. Women will be able to buy larger breasts, although only one woman has expressed interest so far.
"It's peaceful now in Afghanistan," nurse Mohammad Fazel said. "People can get rid of their wrinkles. They can get rid of their bad figures."
Most Afghans are still too busy surviving to worry too much about appearance. But the existence of such a clinic--which charges as little as $100 for a nose job--shows how much Kabul, at least, has changed since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.
The harsh regime frowned on people changing their appearances. The Taliban would have closed such a surgical clinic and harmed doctors even thinking about opening such a place. It viewed beauty shops as pure vanity.
The surgical clinic is only one example of the changing face of beauty in Kabul. Now, hair salons thrive across the capital. Last week, a new one opened, with a laser machine to get rid of blackheads, and massages are offered for Afghan women--by Afghan women, of course.
"Everybody feels much better after a massage," said Mahjoba Molaee, who works at the Jewel Beauty Center. "Why shouldn't we have massages for Afghan women?"
Bald men can get hair plugs at the Kabul version of a hair club for men, aptly called The Solution for Losing Hair. Mirwais Salehi, who believes he lost his hair six years ago because of hemorrhoids, was an early client.
"I have no problems with my new hair," said Salehi, 36, whose new hair indeed blends in with his old hair and makes him look years younger. "I'm playing soccer in it. I'm washing it. I'm even swimming in it."
He has acted as a walking advertisement, convincing dozens of acquaintances to come here, including two soccer teammates. The Solution for Losing Hair also received a major boost in business a few months ago after a local TV anchor, once bald, suddenly appeared on air with a full head of hair.
But the Hamkar clinic is probably the biggest surprise in the new Afghanistan. It opened early last year, focused primarily on treating cleft lips, cleft palates and the scars left by skin disease. Doctors fixed injuries from 23 years of war, bullet wounds and burns.
Dr. Aminullah Hamkar has photo albums of before and after pictures, of gruesome burns he has fixed, of faces he has repaired. But in recent months, patients have started demanding other procedures.
A woman first asked for a nose job. A month later, an older man came to the clinic. He had scars removed first from his hand, then from his face. Finally, he asked Hamkar to take away wrinkles near his eyes.
"I joked with him and told him, `You want to have a second wife?'" Hamkar recalled.
The man laughed, but insisted on the surgery. Since then, about 15 people, mostly men, have received eyelifts, Hamkar said.
About 10 patients, mostly women who walk into the clinic in burqas, which cover their faces, have had nose jobs.
Sometimes, Hamkar insists on a letter from a therapist certifying a patient's sanity.
"One man said: `Please get rid of the tip of my nose. When I'm reading, it's in the way, hanging down. When I'm sleeping on my right side, it hangs to the right. When I'm sleeping on my left, it hangs to the left,'" said Hamkar, who got a letter and performed the surgery.
Not everyone in Kabul accepts the clinic. Many Muslims here are conservative, and they believe nothing created by God should be changed.
A taxi driver once threatened to kick out a clinic doctor because he was talking about nose jobs. And a government TV station censored an ad that touted breast surgery and tummy tucks.
Clinic workers acknowledge it could be too soon to start talking publicly about such things.
"No one has come so far to fix their breasts, to make them smaller or bigger, or to get rid of their hanging stomachs," Fazel said. "No one has come so far, because our society is still a little bit extremist."


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