Bookseller of Kabul Book Review
A Look in to Modern Kabul
Sometimes in life it is pleasant to know that our lives are not as desolate, full of dull routine, or even as dangerous and desperate as those of others. This is one of the joys of reading -whether fictive or reality based literature. Such is the case with the Bookseller of Kabul, by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad. In this story, which the author declares to be strictly non-fiction, the reader is shown the joys and the harsh realities of life in Kabul, Afghanistan. This is seen from the eyes of a very real family, who will make you glad to be who you are.
Though Sultan at first appears to be the main character, it is truly his family and all of the nation of Afghanistan which are given attention. The main members of this family are Sultan Khan, the Bookseller of Kabul himself; his sons, particularly his eldest, Mansur; Sultan's first wife, Sharifa; his second wife, Sonya (and the scandal that accompanied this second marriage). Highly important to this narrative is Leila, Sultan's youngest sister, who lives with the family and is treated like a slave. The Bookseller discusses Leela's sad life, in which she works almost non-stop with little or no compensation, much less simple gratitude from the others.
Sultan's son Mansur despises being Afghani and with heartfelt conviction, feels the horrific existence that women must endure in this fiercely patriarchal society; the irony is not missed on him that the harsher institutions of society against women are not only maintained by men, but are propped up by women as well, beginning with the burka.
he Bookseller of Kabul tenders a history of the burka, which originally was used exclusively by harem women, and later by women of the upper eschelon of society. Later it became a symbol of religious intolerance, but offered a sort of protection against other forms of religious intolerance, ironically enough. Yet ultimately, in western eyes at least, burkas became things that reified women. Of course, to go without a burka in the past had its great dangers, as religious fundamentalists would go so far as to splash acid upon any woman they considered inappropriately dressed.
The book also reveals the hidden realities of sexuality in a represses society in which everyone is made a loser. Examples of this include the random man attempting to see girls from beneath their burkas, despite social constraint against such perversity. More easily accomplished, perhaps, is when a man would have sex with poor widows and street urchins -women ashamed of the deed, yet in great need of money for survival. The stomach overrides the dictates of humanity.
This shows the poverty, penury, classism, and misogyny of the nation of Afghanistan. Yet ever present too, is war, war, war. Grenades and rockets, destruction; roofs crashing in, walls crumbling, entire shops destroyed and leaving their owners and entire families destitute.
Asne Seierstad, often gets inside the heads of characters, showing their thoughts as well as outward actions, as seen in details leading up to Mansur's journey to see Ali's tomb at Nauroz, Afghani (and Persian) New Year. The book acts as a good, if brief, history book of the history and pageantry of Afghanistan -from Alexander the Great, Gengis Khan, the Afhani civil war, the times of tourism, the hippy trail, the Russian Invasion and the American invasion. While the majority of the book rests in the present and recent past, it also delves into the rites of passage and more common events of Afghani life, including a description of Afghani weddings, and the ensuing marriages.
If you've never read about modern Afghanistan, the place reputed to be "the poorest country on Earth," The Bookseller of Kabul makes a fine introduction.