Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 276 pages; 2003.
Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul is a unique insight into the lives, loves and traumas of a family living in Afghanistan coming to terms with life after the Taliban.
Initially, I had thought this book would be about Sultan, the bookseller to which the title refers, and how he managed to build up quite a successful business in such oppressive circumstances. But the bulk of the book is a series of vignettes about the various characters in Sultan’s large, extended family.
Sultan himself is an educated man in a relatively uneducated society. He is also relatively well off in a society that is very poor. He is also a dominant patriarch who does little to help the women in his family better themselves. This angered me.
For the most part, while reading this eloquent, simply-told book, I was upset by the ways in which the Afghan women were treated as servants and second-class citizens. I was upset that their emancipation was, and continues to be, hindered by generations of men who know of no other way to treat or respect them; their poor treatment is so ingrained in the culture.
But what I did like about The bookseller of Kabul was the way in which Seierstad, a Norwegian war correspondent, has kept herself out of the story, despite the fact she lived with Sultan’s family for several months to get a ‘flavour’ of their life and customs. In keeping her distance, she allows the actions of each individual to tell their own story without fear, favour or judgement.
Anyone wishing to learn more about the Afghan culture, both before and after the Taliban, could do worse than read this intriguing book. I was mesmirised by this inside glimpse of a totally unfamiliar world, and will never take my female equality for granted again.