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The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad
I have had a bit of a spate of reading books set in Afghanistan and this had been sitting on my shelf for a while so I thought it was time to actually read it.
I always like to read the parts about the author before I begin as it gives an insight into a book like this. Wow! What an amazingly brave lady she is. She spent six weeks with troops by the Tajikistani border as they fought the Taliban. She slept on floors in mud huts , traveled in the backs of lorries and so on. She returned to Kabul, met this bookseller and decided she would write a book about him and his family. Prior to this experience Åsne was a war correspondent for Norwegian television reporting on the war in Kossovo she she was no stranger to danger and hardship.
To do this she had to live with the family in their small flat with erratic electricity and water shortages, sleep with the women and children on the floor and observe the family members as they went about their daily lives. She says in her opening chapter; "I was guest, but soon felt at home. I was incredibly well treated; the family were generous and open. We shared many good times, but I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family...."
I thought this book was brilliantly written in such an easy to read style despite the quite startling content. I was very impressed with the way the author managed to make the book a story and not stamp her own emotions on what she was telling the readers. I can understand her saying she never more angry than when living in the family and she must at times have really had to hold her tongue.
The fact that this is a real family makes what I read even more heart wrenching and quite horrific when seen through the eyes of a Western woman. I knew that women were treated as second class citizens and had actually the country had gone backwards since the Taliban but it seems that the men actually couldn't give a damn and in fact went along happily with these changes.
This family which consisted of Sultan Khan ( the Bookseller), Sharifa (Sultan's first wife), Sonya (Sultan's second) wife, Bibi Gul (Sultan's mother), Mansur, Eqbal and Aimal (Sultan's sons) Shakila (Sharifa's daughter), Latifa (Sonya's baby daughter), Yunus (Sultan 's brother) and Bulbula & Leila (Sultan's unmarried sisters) all lived in a small four roomed flat.
Åsne was fortunate in that many family member spoke English because they had been to school in Pakistan when the Taliban were in control. This meant that Åsne was able to check the information given by one family member against another to ensure it was factually correct and that the males were not giving a different view from the women.
The stories in the book are really all about every day life, Sultan's journeys to Pakistan to get his books and postcards printed cheaply, his first wife's life there, a wedding and the preparations for that, the problems of cooking and washing as the electricity and water are both erratic. The little story I enjoyed was the women's visit to the baths and scrubbing each other clean. The descriptions of the women and their body odour plus the fact their burqas were never washed and smelled of the women and cooking.
The cooking and food made me think yuk as everything was covered in mutton fat. Poor Leila was the family drudge treated like a servant by one and all. I really felt for her and thought what a really awful life she had. Another thing that really made me angry to learn was that if woman wa raped she was stoned. If a woman was sent secret love letters and found out , she was punished. In fact whatever women did it seems that they could do no right.
I would have really struggled to stay in the home , not only because the food would have really made my retch, the lack of washing facilities, the smell, the over crowding and sleeping on the floor in a room with about five others and so on but also because I would not have been able to hold my tongue when injustices towards the women were carried out in my view.
I salute the translator Ingrid Christophersen as the text flows well and it kept me wanting to find out what happened to different members of the family. I also liked the fact that the author added an epilogue to let the reader know what happened to some of the family member s after she had left.
I found this a far more gripping book than I had thought. I can't say I liked the bookseller much, I found him greedy, cruel and totally selfish. I thought his attitude towards women was archaic and the way he treated his children was awful. It seemed to me that he had learned nothing from all his books and reading.
All I could think as I was reading was, thank heavens I was NOT born in Afghanistan! I also would advise any female against going to live there or even think of marrying anyone from there. Their attitude towards women is archaic and beyond back in the dark ages as far as I am concerned.
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Although I really enjoyed this book and think it is very well written it took me quite a while to read it. Knowing it was based on fact made a lot of the things I was reading quite difficult to read. Although I have often been told about the conditions in Afghanistan and the fact that women are by and large not treated as equal it seemed worse here as I got to know the characters.
Sultan Khan - in real life he was Shah Muhammad Rais - runs a bookstore in Kabul and is prepared to take risks to allow the customers to own books that the state would not approve of. From the beginning I got the impression that he was a local hero but my illusions were soon shattered. He may have wanted to preserve the history of his country but he was not prepared to look to the future.
The author lived with Rais' family for three months and got to see exactly how many Afghans live. Rais states that he is in favour of women's rights and gives the help he gave to Seierstad as an example of how is prepared to help women. He has been clearly identified as the character in the book and is understandably uneasy about this.
Sultan decides to take a second wife as men are allowed to have a number of wives. Despite his first wife who is the mother of his children being so unhappy about this, he still marries again to a 16 year old, which just adds insult to injury. His children have to work rather than be educated and the only way he can justifiably claim to support women's rights is at home as he treats his youngest son as badly as his daughter.
There are tales of how men are prepared to use women sexually knowing that if they get caught it will be the women who will be in trouble regardless of the circumstances. There are stories of honour killings and the appalling way even the youngest males are taught to treat women as inferior.
Seierstad has been sued by Rais who claims that she has misrepresented him and his country but Seierstad stands by her account. He has so far won his case although there is an appeal in process. I can fully understand why Rais is not happy about the book as it shown him and his actions in a poor light, He has sought asylum in Scandinavia as he now feels that his life is in danger in Afghanistan.
I am glad I persevered and would like to think that some of Rais (Khans) actions were exaggerated. Had I not known it was based on fact I may have read it in one go as it is well written and all the stories are well told and explained.
The Bookseller of Kabul
Written By Asne Seierstad
Published 2003 by Little, Brown & Co. £12.99 - this can however be purchased used for little over £1 on Amazon.
The Bookseller of Kabul was written by the Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad and published in 2002. The version I'm reviewing is the translation by Ingrid Christopherson, which was published a year later, in 2003, by Back Bay Books.
** Synopsis **
In November 2001, Seierstad entered Kabul for the first time, having spent six weeks in Afghanistan's border regions following the commanders of the Northern Alliance in their offensive against the Taliban. One of the first people she got talking to was a 50-something bookseller named Sultan Khan, who ran a small chain of shops in the city. After striking up a friendship with him and being invited back to his home for dinner, Seierstad expressed an interest in writing a book about his family. Sultan thought this was a good idea, and so the Norwegian journalist moved in the Khans' cramped flat and spent a few few months living as a kind of guest-cum-family-member, all the time observing their daily life and interaction against the backdrop of Kabul's first post-Taliban spring. What came out of her stay was this book - a portrait of an individual family and a whole city on the brink of change.
** My opinion **
In a nutshell, I thought this was a wonderfully entertaining book, and it taught me a lot about life in Afghanistan during and after Taliban rule. It is structured into chapters which seem to be loosely chronological; each is a short story in its own right and usually features a different member of Sultan's large family. The author skillfully weaves together the family's own personal experiences and sufferings with the wider political and cultural history of the country.
Some of the stories that really stuck out for me personally were the tales of Sultan's sisters' courtships and weddings; the pilgrimage by Sultan's 17-year-old son Mansur to Masar-i-Sharif - the first time he had ever left the Kabul region or travelled alone; the frustrations of Sultan's youngest sister Leila, condemned to act as the family's slave and denied the opportunity to better herself through education; and the scene of mass bathing at a Kabul hamam. Seierstad's account is well-rounded, focusing on older and younger members of the family, men and women, and encompassing several different parts of Afghanistan as well as some Pakistani cities. She is skilled at putting herself in the place of the different individuals and giving them a voice, from the obese old grandmother who prizes sugared almonds over everything else, to the skittish teenage son sick of working in Sultan's shop, to the youngest grandson who is terrified of his religion teacher.
In fact, Seierstad is so skilled at telling her hosts' stories that she is almost invisible throughout the book. Her account is written in the third person, centres around the family members rather than herself and contains no direct personal opinion. Nevertheless, her frustration, anger and sorrow at her hosts' predicaments and behaviour are sometimes reflected in sympathetic or hostile descriptions, or the occasional flash of wit or sarcasm in the text. It is difficult to know how much of the story is true and how much is down to poetic licence. In the foreword Seierstad tells the reader that she was allowed to go to some places where women didn't usually travel, thanks to her status as foreigner. Even so, in some episodes she relates the characters' innermost thoughts as well as actions and it's unclear how much of this is really true to life. A couple of family members helped her by interpreting throughout her stay (Seierstad didn't speak the local language) but it is questionable whether certain family members would have revealed such private thoughts to be translated in public.
What is certain, though, is that many of the scenes are told from a first-hand perspective. The story of the women of the family going to the market is extremely evocative, especially the account of what it's like to go shopping in a burka. Only those who have worn a burka or a similar garment will fully understand what it's like to have to turn your head all the time because you have no peripheral vision or identify your companions by their shoes in a crowd since everyone looks the same. Similarly, the descriptions of the smells and tastes of Kabul are very evocative; the reader really feels as though they are there.
The overall tone of the book is sad, even though it takes place during the spring as the city wakes up after the fall of the oppressive Taliban regime. Although some women are taking jobs and painting their toenails again, and music and dancing are once more allowed at weddings, the people seem to have difficulty moving on and progressing from their state of perpetual fear. What is more, the country's infrastructure and landscape bears the scars of decades of warfare. There is a particularly poignant part of the chapter when Mansur travels to Masar-i-Sharif with his Iranian friends and they read a 1970s guidebook as they drive through the winding, mountainous terrain near the Hindu Kush range. The guidebook is bursting with optimism and plans for the country's tourism: plans that never ended up coming to fruition, such as a ski resort. The area that Mansur sees is still strewn with the wreckage of the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the newer signs of Taliban occupation. Thre are no spring tulips left here. Instead of pastoral scenes there are just tales of goatherds who used to hide kalashnikovs under the bellies of their long-haired goats.
What is more, it is shocking that the Khan family - to all intents and purposes middle class and better off than the majority of Afghan citizens - live is such poor conditions, without a constant electricity or water supply. The family's emotional life is gloomy too, with most members of the family dissatisfied at having to live under the constraints of tradition, religion and Sultan's iron rule. We learn in the foreword that Seierstad had never felt so angry in her life as when she saw how the women of the family were treated. Yet this anger doesn't come out of the text as much as the sense of melancholy does.
What we are left with at the end of the book is a taste of Afghanistan during (another) pivotal period in its development and a portrait of how one family is dealing with this. The information on the country's political and historical background is accessible and not overly complicated in Seierstad's account: she simply relates the main details when they are necessary for the story. With my very basic knowledge of modern Afghan history I didn't have any problems following the main political events. In summary, this is a sensitively-told, absorbing, fascinating account that really drew me into the world of the Khans and kept me hooked until the last page. This is something I'll definitely be reading again.
The book is 288 pages and can currently be bought for £4.86 (new) on amazon.co.uk or £0.01 plus P&P (used) on amazon.co.uk Marketplace.
A Bookseller in Kabul does not make for easy reading, it is a rather uncomfortable book to read especially in light of the current war effort in the country and the loss of life that such a conflict brings to all involved.
Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who during 2002 got to live with Sultan Khan a bookseller in Kabul for a four month period. Through this experience she got a unique insight into Afghani culture basing the story on interviews and conversations with membersof the family, now these are quite an educated family and relatively well off in Afghani terms and Abdul claims to have been persecuted over the years both by the Russians and then the Taliban as they tried to destroy his books.
At times the book reads like a piece of fiction rather than a first hadn account, maybe because the book describes the feelings of the characters which is quite hard to maybe nuy into completely with a non fiction book as it relies on the individual being written about to be able to express these feelings, or at least those that are not easily observable.
The book does not exactly paint a picture of the rights of women and how they are treated in Afghanistan, Sultan is clearly the ruler of the house and the women are at the beck and call of the men and can be treated harshly at times especially one young girl Leila.
The book is an interesting read and written in a nice flowing style, some of the subject matter is fascinating but sometimes it is a rather morbid fascination and it can be a little distressing in places however it is well worth reading.
I've read a few books about Afghanistan and its people during its troubled times which has evoked all sorts of emotions from sadness, anger, grief and heart break. However, the books that I have read have merely been based on facts from writers such as Khaled Hosseini who wrote "The Kite Runner" and the brilliant "A Thousand Splendid Suns." This book from Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad deals purely in facts, which - quite obviously - gives a considerable amount of realism, shock and intrigue to the events and characters in which she describes.
** About the authors experience and the story of the 'Khans'...
Although this book is written exactly like a piece of fiction, Seierstad explains at the beginning of the book that all events in which she writes about is fact.
The Foreword from the author is the only time that Asne Seierstad appears in the story. She explains that she arrived in Kabul in November 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. The first person she met was Sultan Khan (all names have been changed, only because she "felt it was right" rather than it being a choice of Sultans family whom she stayed with whilst gleaning the facts of their life.)
Sultan Khan runs a bookshop in Kabul and his family are far from the typical one in modern Afghan. The Khan family live an almost luxurious lifestyle compared to most; some of the family are educated, Sultan Khan runs a successful business, a lot of his family can speak English and they are well respected within their community. The story that Sultan Khan and his family provide through Seierstad is a snapshot of life before, during and after the Taliban came to rule. It describes their family dynamic, the way in which women are treated, the political and religious position of the country at the time as well as Sultan's experience of hiding books from the police, the book burning that occurred.
** What did I think?..
This book caught me in its web the minute I read the foreword. Seierstad has a simple and direct way of describing and explaining the way of life of those living in Kabul. Through the foreword, she makes clear that she was an "invisible" family member during her time with the Khans, that there were certain events that she wasn't there for but through family members she managed to gain the facts of the stories. She also explains that of course she is not an omniscient author; that "internal dialogue and feelings are based entirely on what family members described to me".
As a result, there is nothing fanciful in her account, but nonetheless, it is extremely well written, describing traditions and life with good detail that still remains interesting. Instead of bombarding the reader with information about the rule of the Taliban, or overly long passages about the politics of the country, Seierstad thoughtfully drops in pieces of information that are relevant to the story, she keeps it simple as well as these facts providing an interesting side to the story told as a whole.
For instance, there is a section where Seierstad explains the history of the Burka. It is a fairly short passage, just telling how there are only a few women in Afghanistan who know that the Burka were strangers to the Burka. She also details how the Burka was only really used widely between 1901-1919. I just found these bits of information fascinating, especially since there aren't many women who have renounced the Burka since the fall of the Taliban.
Although I was prepared for how the men in Afghan society treat women through what I had gleaned from news and from books, to actually read the facts of a modern family such as the Khans did give me a shock. Although Seierstad makes it clear in her foreword that she hated the way in which the men treated the women ("The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women. The belief in man's superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned.") I thought she handled their treatment brilliantly and I felt that she really was completely un-biased when it came to relaying the unfair treatment of women in society.
I don't think Seierstad could have picked a better family to observe. Like most Afghan families, their numbers are large and within that, there are some interesting characters that she managed to show in all their different colours to the reader. Most of the time, I was torn between fury at Sutlan Khan's superiority and arrogance over all that met him, and liking him for his ability to change his families circumstances, for standing up to the authorities and their censorship. I also found him frustrating - he is an unbelievable hypocrite; agreeing that Burkas are outdated and wanting his family to move with the times, but still wanting the traditional women's roles within the home. He was also hypocritical when it came to education; wanting Afghan people to have a better education and access to books, but pulling his sons out of their education because he didn't trust anyone to run his business.
All of these facts all of course just point to how ingrained tradition is in Afghan society - Sultan's small admissions of modernity are more than most men in Afghanistan today. However, I doubt very much that Sultan Khan will be happy of with his portrayal by Seierstad; the way In which he is described is not exactly flattering and he isn't portrayed as the modern Afghan man - I believe that is what he thinks he is. This coupled with the other members stories gives me the impression that Sultan Khan wouldn't be selling Seierstad's book in his shop anytime soon!
One of Sultan's sisters, Leila, was another intriguing character in this book. Seirstad points out in the foreword that Leila's English was excellent, so I imagine this is why I got such a clear picture of her throughout as well as the fact that Seierstad slept next to her for her stay. Her part of the story was at times really heart breaking as she is the last born child so she is treated as the servant for Sultans family and her mother. Leila, at only 19 is subjected to constant verbal abuse by her nephew who is only a couple of years younger and because of tradition and society, she cannot answer back. I admired her need to get more from her circumstances, she wanted to teach but the logistics in getting her papers in order without the presence of a male family member was tricky. Equally I found her families treatment of any possible suitors heart breaking. Out of all the family members, I felt the most sympathetic to this one person, who was depicted by Seierstad as intelligent, hard working and loyal.
Overall, this was a truly engrossing, thought provoking and most of all interesting snapshot of the modern Afghan family. I thought the way in which Seierstad blended the facts of her time with the Khans into an interesting story was extremely clever and the most successful book I have read that has tried to do this. It was by no means boring or loaded down with facts; I was totally absorbed in their lives from beginning to end, an intelligent and honest account of life of 21st Century Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2002 a Norwegian journalist, who had been reporting for Scandinavian newspapers on the offensive against the Taliban, spent four months living with Sultan Khan, a Kabul bookseller, and his family. The resulting bestseller was released to rave reviews in Britain.
Asne Seierstad explains in the foreword how she met Sultan and went to live with his family. He presented himself to her as a man who has tried to save the art and literature of his country. He has had his books burned by the communists and again by the Taliban. He has spent years fighting against censorship. Through the Communist, Mujahedeen and Taliban regimes he has managed to hide, buy, collect and sell illegal books. He has been imprisoned. The scene is set for an uplifting book, a story of resistance against oppression, but instead brutality pervades the book. The lives portrayed are not happy ones, as I suppose could only be expected in a country so ravaged by warring factions for many years.
Seierstad points out in the foreword that the Khans are not a typical Afghan family in that some of them are educated, can speak english and some can read and write. These are wealthy Afghans, although they may not seem so to Westerners. They do not have to worry about putting food on the table and can afford to flee to Pakistan when Kabul is being bombed. A more typical family would have been illiterate and battling for survival in the countryside.
Apart from the foreword and epilogue, Seierstad does not include herself in the book. Instead she writes the stories in literary form as though they are fiction. She has interviewed family members at length and put the stories together from their accounts. Some parts of the book include tales in which she had no part, but in others she is an invisible observer. This works very well, although it can make some of the stories a bit deceptive. For example one of the chapters follows Sultans eldest son on a religious pilgrimage with three of his friends. I imagined that this story had been told to the author, but on referring to the foreword I realised that she had actually been present on the journey itself. Obviously her presence would have had an impact on their behaviour, so the authenticity of the book as an intimate portrayal of life in Afghanistan could be questioned to a certain degree. She tells us how the characters are thinking and feeling and again this unlikely to be truly authentic. Nonetheless she does give a vividly detailed account of the families experiences and the book is very well written.
Sultan is the ruler of the house and his word is law. He has been treated as the most important person in the house from the moment he was born and he sees it as his right, his duty, to guide the family with an authority that is not to be questioned. Over the course of the book he is increasingly portrayed as a tyrant.There are up to thirteen people living in the four roomed appartment at any one time and the men expect the women to do their bidding. The lowest ranking person in the household is the youngest unmarried female, Leila. Seierstad fittingly describes her as living like Cinderella but with no prince about to come and rescue her. At one point Leila visits the doctor, because she has been feeling dizzy and weak. He tells her she has vitamin D deficiency and needs sunshine. Ironically, Kabul is one of the sunniest cities in the world, but Leila is rarely allowed outside and when she is, it is almost always under cover of the hated Burka, so she doesn't get the sunshine she needs. The position and rights of women are appalling and Seierstad suggests that sexual abuse is common and virtually always seen as the woman's fault.
Whilst reading this I kept having to stop and tell my partner some of the seemingly crazy details that kept popping up. One of the things that really struck me was the description of some childrens textbooks from under the Taliban. To learn the alphabet children were taught; 'J is for Jihad, our aim in life, I is for Israel, our enemy, K is for Kalashnikov', and so on, and an example of a typical maths problem; 'Little Omar has a Kalashnikov with three magazines. There are twenty bullets in each magazine. He uses two-thirds of the bullets and kills sixty infidels. How many infidels does he kill with each bullet?' Very scary stuff.
The book has many examples of how appalling life was under the Taliban, but I worry it might give a somewhat doctored version of events. For example although Seierstad writes about the background history and politics of the region there is no mention of the American aid given to the Islamic fundamentalists to help get rid of the Communists. The history that is given is presented quite skilfully in bits and pieces relevant to the different tales, so that you take it in but it doesn't read like a history lesson. I don't know a lot about Afghanistan, just bits and pieces picked up mainly from newspapers and television news, but I don't trust our media in general because stories are distorted to fit with the newspapers/broadcasters politics. With this book there will probably be some bias from the author, she may have had preconceived notions about Afghan life and fitted what she heard to those notions and as a war corresondent who had spent a fair amount of time living alongside Western soldiers, there must have been temptation for her to validate their experiences and show how they were on the side of right. I'm not saying she hasn't tried to show how life really was for the family, just that it is bound to be coloured by her own perceptions and possible prejudices.
I felt quite disturbed and a little depressed by this book. It does give a very negative view of Afghan society, particularly the men, none of whom come across well. The real bookseller of Kabul, Mohammed Shah Rais, took legal action against the author, claiming that she invented some of the material and that she revealed secrets which she had said would be confidential. Although his legal action failed, some reprints of the book had paragraphs removed because of the controversy over them. Seierstad says that Afghan women offered her their support for telling the truth about how life is for women over there. The case highlighted serious questions about the ethics of people from rich countries writing about those from poor countries with very different cultures. I do feel I understand more about Afghanistan from reading this book, but I'm not convinced it is an entirely balanced viewpoint.
Paperback 288 pages (March 4, 2004)
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
Cover Price: 6.99