The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad: Book Review

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Cover of The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

3.5 Stars

After following the Northern Alliance troops around Afghanistan and reporting on the fall of the Taliban, journalist Åsne Seierstad finds herself in Kabul. She stumbles upon a bookshop and goes in. She and the proprietor, Sultan, hit it off at first and she is invited to spend a little time with his family. She thinks she has found an enlightened Afghan man and asks him for permission to live in his house for a while and write about everyday life in an Afghan household. She finds out that some of his politics and beliefs are more liberal than one would expect, but he still very much rules his family with iron authority.

There was one chapter that I loved, “Billowing, Fluttering, Winding.” Seierstad sets out to make the reader experience life inside the burka, and I felt that she pulled it off very well. I felt closed in and like I had blinders on. I felt like I had to physically turn my head to see anything around me. I felt lost in a sea of mostly-anonymous burkas. The only way to differentiate between other women was by the bits of their shoes that were peeking out. When the narrator loses track of the other women she’s with, I realized how hard it was going to be to find them. It was beautifully, effectively done, and it’s worth reading for that chapter alone.

I like that the author included a list of the 16 decrees that the Taliban broadcast when they took power. Some of them weren’t really all that surprising, but others left me shaking my head in puzzlement. “Prohibition against the washing of clothes by river embankments.” What? Are they afraid that women are going to have a “wet burka” contest or something? I don’t understand that one. And then there’s a chilling appeal to women at the end. I won’t quote it here, but it’s basically about how “Oh, we’re making these rules for your own safety. But if you break them, you and the head of your household will be severely punished, and you’re going to hell in a hand basket.”

I hope I don’t sound callous when I say this, but I started off horrified by all the stories that were being shared, but eventually I became desensitized. It’s hard to feel bad for the man who is translating and putting himself in harm’s way to try to feed his family, when family members literally killed a woman who had brought them “shame” pages earlier, for something that Westerners would only gossip about until the next juicy tidbit came along.

There are a lot of heart-breaking stories in here. I felt very bad for Sultan’s youngest sister, Leila, and her subservient role in the family. She is basically a slave but it’s obvious that she’s an intelligent young woman who wants more out of life.

It’s shocking to me that this is actually a middle-class family. It’s mentioned that Sultan is a cheapskate, but there are something like 13 family members living in a 2 or 3 room apartment. It sounds fairly squalid.

The translation by Ingrid Christopherson is well-done. I pretty much forgot that I was even reading a translation, so that’s a good sign.

I “enjoyed” reading about life in Afghanistan, but it left me feeling a bit hopeless as well. Maybe things have gotten better since this was published in 2002, but somehow I doubt it. From an outsider’s point of view, the whole society is fundamentally broken, and it won’t get fixed until those living on the inside want to change. There’s not really any sign of that in this book.

Pick this up if you want to experience life in a culture that feels very different from our own, and gain a little understanding of a country that is so often cast in the role of “the enemy” on television.

Read an excerpt.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your review! I would be quite interested in reading this because I have a vague idea of the politics but not much understanding of the country.

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  2. Sounds like a worthwhile read! I haven't read this one, though I have a read one or two books set in Afghanistan, and the lifestyle described was just as you mention. I will look up this one.

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