30 August 2017

Review #638: The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad, Ingrid Christophersen (Translator)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“She couldn't survey the wreck of the world with an air of casual unconcern.”

----Margaret Mitchell

Åsne Seierstad, an Award winning journalist-turned-Norwegian-author, has penned a delectable and slightly captivating account of her stay with an Afghan family, who owned a bookshop in a terror-stricken and on-the-verge-of-a-civil-war type Kabul in the year 2002, in the book called, The Bookseller of Kabul. This is the personal story of almost every human being, mainly women of the household, from the bookseller family, with two wives and tons of children and an equally great number of siblings, the bookseller is a subtly liberal man of his times, that only demanded women of each and every household to stay indoors and keep giving birth until their last dying breath.


In spring 2002, following the fall of the Taliban, Asne Seierstad spent four months living with a bookseller and his family in Kabul.

For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities - be they communist or Taliban - to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists, and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock - almost ten thousand books - in attics all over Kabul.

But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and his hatred of censorship, he also has strict views on family life and the role of women. As an outsider, Asne Seierstad found herself in a unique position, able to move freely between the private, restricted sphere of the women - including Khan's two wives - and the freer, more public lives of the men.

It is an experience that Seierstad finds both fascinating and frustrating. As she steps back from the page and allows the Khans to speak for themselves, we learn of proposals and marriages, hope and fear, crime and punishment. The result is a genuinely gripping and moving portrait of a family, and a clear-eyed assessment of a country struggling to free itself from history.

The household of Sultan Khan in Kabul, ruled under the communist party, which is later succeeded by the Taliban's dictatorial rule, is not a happy place for the women, with two wives and a handful of children from the wives and lots of siblings and grandparents. This house is more like a time warp with one generation after another shares their journeys together, despite of unhappiness and constraints. Although Sultan Khan who is a reputed bookshop owner, selling modern Afghan books, some controversial Afghan books and a lot of history books about Afghanistan, is a free-thinker and a liberal man about politics and his patriotism, yet he is a very tyrannical man when it comes to the women of his household, be it his wives or his daughters or his sisters or his own mother, he dominates them all with old customs and difficult rules as set in the Holy Quran by the Prophet. Sultan Khan never believed in women's equal rights or their right to education or their right to choose their own husbands or their right to live freely, only in the right to obey the man of the house with their heads bowing-down-to-their-feet. Seierstad has lived with this particular Muslim family for four months to experience their grueling lifestyle both in a repressive household as well as in a country dominated by warlords and religious dictators.

Always being on the verge of a civil war, Afghanistan has forever suffered a lot, lost a lot of its history in the dust and the bloodshed, and so are the country's women, who too have suffered silently through ages. The author has brought out and have captured vividly those pain of both the country as well as of the women always clad and bound behind a black veil and a burka, evocatively. The author's personal account definitely moved me and that too very deeply, but has failed to stir any emotions or my thoughts towards the women or the men from this book.

The author's writing style is eloquent and evocative enough to make the readers feel and comprehend with her story line. The narrative is very mush realistic, and it will feel like the characters voicing their honest opinions discreetly in the ears of the author. Even though it has been translated into English, I felt that the charm of the author and her flair has not been lost in translation. The prose is articulate and really strong and that which leaves room for the readers' own judgement and thoughts.

The backdrop of an unhinged Kabul is portrayed strikingly by the author in her story line, and have successfully captured both the rugged and golden terrains and landscape as well as the struggle of the country's citizens, especially the women. While reading, the book transported me straight in front of Sultan's bookshop as well as right in the middle of his large brick house, and felt the scenes unraveling right before my own eyes. The author not only did her research well enough to strike a cord into the hearts of her readers, but have also arrested them in a fascinating way to let the readers experience a troubled and terror-stricken country from their minds' eyes.

The characters are the most disappointing fact of this book as they will not only fail to impress the readers of the book, but will only irk them up with their lack of development. As for me, I lost interest in their tragedy or in their lights, what kept me engaged is the country's disturbing politics and religious extremist ideals. The lives of the female characters could have been written with much more depth, so that they could leave an imprint in the minds of the readers. The accounts of the women are very scattered and disoriented, hence at times, I felt very bored to keep reading the book.

In a nutshell, even though this is non fictional account of a journalist-turned-author's experience of living in a dangerous and repressive Muslim country, yet somehow, this book is not that great enough to read and explore about such a country. I do not recommend this to any reader.

Verdict: A behind-the-veil and an honest story of a bookseller and his family in Kabul.

Author Info:
Asne Seierstad has received numerous awards for her journaism and has reported from such war-torn regions as Chchnya, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. She is fluent in five languages and lives in Norway.
Visit her here

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