Wednesday, May 21, 2008
The Bookseller of Kabul - Asne Seierstad
For more than twenty years, Sultan Khan has defied the authorities, whether communist or Taliban, to supply books to the people of Kabul. He has been arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned, and has watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. Yet he has persisted in his passion for books, shedding light in one of the world's darkest places. This is the intimate portrait of a man of principle and of his family - two wives, five children, and many relatives sharing a small four-room apartment in this war-ravaged city. As they endure the extraordinary trials and tensions of Afghanistan's upheavals, they also still try to live ordinary lives, with work, relaxation, shopping, cooking, marriages, rivalries, and shared joys. Most of all, this is an intimate portrait of family life under Islam. Even after the Taliban's collapse, the women in Khan's family must submit to arranged marriages, polygamous husbands, and crippling limitations on their ability to travel, learn, and communicate with others. Seierstad lived with Khan's family for months, experiencing first-hand Afghani life as few outsiders have seen it. Stepping back from the page, she allows the Khans to speak for themselves, giving us a genuinely gripping and moving portrait of a family, and of a country of great cultural riches and extreme contradictions.
I have somewhat ambivalent feelings towards this book. Although the title led me to believe I was going to read about a bookseller the truth is that very little if any part of the story is dedicated to that. Sultan Khan is a bookseller but he could have any other job that for the story it would be just the same.
Then I was interested in learning about a different culture and a different country but if things are just as Seierstad presents them with civil and human rights being denied even amongst family members I think this is a reality truly too difficult to contemplate. Women are nothing and are mostly treated as slaves or objects and even the men in the family have to obey blindly to the head of the family or break off with him and leave the house. The head of the family is Sultan Khan for whom I ended having a strong dislike. I can accept and understand different ways and a different culture but it seemed to me Sultan Khan was the only content person, everyone else disliked the situation they were in and how they were expected to live their lifes. I think she could have used a different perspective when telling the story, this way I ended up not knowing why certain traditions are important and I think they are presented in a less than favourable light.
The author mentions she spent 3 months with the family to write this book. I would have been interested in knowing how she dealt with such a different reality from what is certainly used to and how did the family, in particular the women, reacted to her what she certainly has told them about life in Europe. None of that appears in the book as the author totally removed herself of the story...