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Tulips and kalashnikovs
The Bookseller of Kabul - Asne Seierstad
Member Name: ms_memory
The Bookseller of Kabul - Asne Seierstad
Date: 19/03/10, updated on 23/03/10 (88 review reads)
Advantages: Fascinating and absorbing
Disadvantages: Not sure how much poetic licence has been used
** 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.
Summary: Definitely worth reading
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