Book Review – The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad


Title: The Bookseller of Kabul

Author: Asne Seierstad

Genre: Non-fiction

The Bookseller of Kabul, a nonfiction work written in literary form, has been out now for more than a decade, and has had its fair share of controversy. Seierstad spent six months living with the Khan family in Kabul, Afghanistan (their name has been changed), not long after the Taliban had been driven out.

Despite the title, the dominant theme of the book is the lack of freedom and autonomy for the women in Sultan Khan’s family. The image presented of Sultan Khan is of a money-hungry businessman who makes his young sons work 12-hour days in his bookshops instead of going to school. He is portrayed as an autocratic patriarch of the family that virtually enslaves his 19-year old sister, and marries a 16-year old girl, bringing her into the family as a second wife.

The picture painted by Asne Seierstad in The Bookseller of Kabul is not a pretty one. And it doesn’t take long for her to be sued by Sultan Khan, whose real name is Shah Muhammad Rais.

As a reader, I can not vouch for the accuracy of the author. I do not know if what she writes is an exaggerated portrayal, dramatized by an author and publicist to appeal to Western audiences…or cold, hard facts about one family in a country that has seen so much devastation and destruction over the last few decades.

The sources for all of the vignettes in The Bookseller of Kabul come primarily from three family members who speak English. Sultan Khan, the patriarch and esteemed bookseller of Kabul; his eldest son Mansur, and Khan’s youngest sister, Leila.

Leila. Out of all the family members, my heart hurts the most for Leila. If what I read was accurate, she is a brave woman for speaking so openly and honestly about her treatment in the Khan household.

Leila tosses her head and places the heavy rice pot over the Primus….Leila is a good cook. She is good at most things. That is why she is made to do everything. During meals she usually sits in the corner by the door and leaps up if anyone needs anything, or fills up the plates. When she has seen to everyone else, she fills her plate with the remains, some fatty rice and cooked beans.

She has been brought up to serve, and she has become a servant, ordered around by everyone. With every new order, respect for her diminishes. If anyone is in a bad mood, Leila suffers. A spot that has not come off a sweater, meat that has been badly cooked; there are many things one can think of when one needs someone to vent one’s wrath on.

Leila would dearly love a bit of independence, and wants to work as an English teacher in one of the recently re-opened schools. It is a long, arduous, up-hill battle, trying to reach that goal.

Another family member that breaks the reader’s heart is Aimal, Sultan’s youngest son. He is twelve years old…and works twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Sultan Khan did not bother to register him when the school’s reopened after the New Year’s Celebrations at the spring equinox.

Aimal became increasingly unwell and unhappy. His face turned pale and his skin sallow. His young body stooped and lost its resilience. They called him “the sad boy”. When he returned home he fought and bickered with his brothers, the only way to vent pent-up energy. He regarded his cousin Fazil with envy. He had gotten into Esteqlal, a school supported by the French government. Fazil came home with exercise books, pencils, ruler, compass, pencil sharpener, mud all up his trousers, and masses of funny stories.

One of the most powerful vignettes was a chapter called “Billowing, Fluttering, Winding”, about a visit to the bazaar by three of the women. Although Seierstad has written herself out of the story, it is obvious that she witnessed this first-hand, and like the three family members, was also wearing a burka. I thought her descriptions of the experience were one of the best in the book.

Sultan Khan worked tirelessly to save thousands of books from destruction over the years of civil war and Taliban rule. Did he do it to preserve Afghan literary culture and history, or solely as a future money-making venture? Khan is an intellectual, yet won’t let some of his children attend school. He risks his life to protect Afghan literature, but also makes rash, spiteful decisions to protect his pride. Contradictions are a part of life, and Sultan Khan certainly is not an exception, at least through the eyes of Asne Seierstad.

Seierstad eventually won the lawsuit against her on appeal, and the Norwegian Supreme Court declined to hear the case, so the appeal ruling currently stands.

The April morning when ex-king Zahir Shah set foot on Afghan soil, after thirty years in exile, she hung up her burka for good and told herself she would never again use the stinking thing. Sonya and Sharifa followed suit. It was easy for Sharifa; she had lived most of her adult life with her face uncovered. It was worse for Sonya. She had lived under the burka all her life and she hung back. In the end it was Sultan who forbade her to use it. “I don’t want a prehistoric wife; you are the wife of a liberal man, not a fundamentalist.”

In many ways, Sultan was a liberal. When he was in Iran he bought Sonya Western clothes. He often referred to the burka as an oppressive cage, and he was pleased that the new government included female ministers. In his heart he wanted Afghanistan to be a modern country, and he talked warmly about the emancipation of women. But at home he remained the authoritarian patriarch. When it came to ruling his family, Sultan had only one model: his own father.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars