Book Review: The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
By Ǻsne Seierstad
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2003

The Bookseller of Kabul is a “stranger in a strange land” book. The stranger, Ǻsne Seierstad, is a blond, female, Norwegian journalist. The strange land is Kabul during the post-Taliban spring of 2002 where Seierstad lived for three months with the family of a bookseller named Sultan Khan. The book is a literary account of her observations, interviews, and discussions with members of the extended Khan family.

In the Foreword to the book, Seierstad describes how she was angered by, quarreled with, and even wanted to hit the subjects she was writing about. It’s no surprise that a modern, educated, Western woman like her would be shocked and angered by what she observed in the Khan household, especially the treatment of women.

More than anything else, what she saw, and what The Bookseller of Kabul portrays so starkly, is oppression. The women suffer from it most, but even the men are not entirely free.

Most obvious is the patriarchal and misogynistic oppression of women. Women, young girls really, are bartered off by their parents to marry men old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers. Their consent is not required; their opinions are not sought. They are valued for their virginity, their production of sons, and their household labor. When Sultan Khan, the patriarch, decides he wants a second wife, he negotiates for one. His first wife is not consulted; instead she is exiled to Peshawar in Pakistan for a year. Sultan’s sister, Leila, being the youngest, knows no other life than that of a household drudge and cannot expect anything better.

Patriarchal oppression extends to the men too. No one dares question the dictates of Sultan Khan, even his sons. He decides which of his sons go to school and which work in his bookshops. Yet his eldest son Mansur, who chafes under his father’s rule, behaves exactly the same way toward the rest of his family.

Another form of oppression is a fanatical religious Puritanism that enmeshes everyone, but again the women especially, in suffocating net of rules, restrictions, and prohibitions. A woman is brutally beaten by members of her own family for riding in a taxi with a man who is not a member of her family. Leila is terrified that letters she has received from a suitor will be discovered by her family – to even possess them is dishonorable, responding to them unthinkable.

Lastly, poverty, exacerbated by decades of war, is a pervasive oppressor. Large families live compressed together in small houses or flats in filthy and desperate conditions. People steal from and cheat on others only slightly better off than themselves. A corrupt and inefficient government bureaucracy makes it nearly impossible for anyone to get ahead in life.

The Bookseller of Kabul will do little to foster mutual understanding and acceptance between Western and Muslim cultures. Seierstad makes no attempt to explain or analyze or “contextualize” what she saw. She’s not interested in balance. Most Western readers will probably be as shocked or repulsed as Seierstad was herself. I can only speculate what Afghan readers might think. Perhaps they would think that the behavior of the Khan family is simply the natural order. They might think that Seierstad seriously abused the hospitality of the Khan family by portraying the men in such an unfavorable light, even though she used pseudonyms.

It’s impossible to know whether this one family is typical of most Afghan families or not. Seierstad asserts that the main difference was not behavior but wealth; Sultan Khan is by Afghan standards relatively well off.

The best we can probably do is to accept her account provisionally as one data point, albeit a compelling and well-written one. It’s easy to be shocked and outraged; shock and outrage may in fact be justified. But it’s also easy to forget that Western society was not so different not so long ago.

For me, the key difference is that Western societies seem to be on a journey called progress. That journey proceeds in fits and starts, it suffers setbacks and missteps, and is nowhere near complete, but it is a journey nonetheless. The society depicted so clearly in The Bookseller of Kabul seems trapped in a feudal dead end from which it cannot escape, not even by overthrowing the Taliban.

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