Inside Afghanistan

The Bookseller of Kabul – Asne Seierstad – Book Review

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 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 bad life was under the Taliban, but I wonder if it gives 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 from newspapers and tv, but I don’t trust our media in general because of the way 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 did feel I understood more about Afghanistan after reading this book, but I’m not convinced it was written from an entirely balanced viewpoint. It’s been ten years since the action took place and I can’t imagine things have improved over that time period. I’d be very interested in a follow up.

*Details*
Paperback 288 pages (March 4, 2004)
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 1844080471 

(adapted from a review previously published on Dooyoo.co.uk and Ciao.co.uk)

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