The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Published in 2002.
Synopsis: Shorty after the United States began its attack on Afghanistan in late 2001, Asne Seierstad is in Kabul working as a war correspondent. There she befriends Sultan Khan, who possesses (the previously illegal) profession of bookstore owner. This work of creative non-fiction is an account of 3 months Seierstad spent living with Khan’s family in 2001-2002. Through this collection of stories from Khan’s family, Seierstad reflects on Afghan culture and the role of women in Afghan society.
About the Author: Asne Seierstad is an award-winning journalist and war correspondent from Norway. She has previously reported from Chechnya, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, and is fluent in five languages. Seierstad donated $300,000 worth of royalties from The Bookseller of Kabul to the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee, which supports educational and health-care initiatives in Afghanistan.
My Initial Reactions to this Book
While this is the third book I’ve read this year that reflects on life in Afghanistan, I realized as I began to read this book that I’m now experiencing a bit of Afghan literary fatigue. For these reasons, this bestselling book was probably not as eye-opening for me as it could be for readers without a prior introduction to Afghanistan. Some of the issues that Seierstad discussess — e.g. women’s lack of rights, polygamy, honor killings, poverty, the Taliban, burqas — are issues that have been explored by other writers as well in the recent past.
In reading this book, I’ll admit I was a bit envious and admiring of Seierstad for the role she undertook — spontaneously moving in with Khan’s family with the primary goal of writing a book on her observations. While Seierstad is a journalist by training, her style of writing has a definite anthropological/ethnographic feel to it. There is no traditional plotline, but rather the book is more a collection of short stories around a central theme. Because of this, I wouldn’t place this in the category of “books you can’t put down,” but rather it’s a book that’s eloquently written while also educational.
Clearly the most difficult thing for Seierstad to address during her time with Khan’s family was the role of women in Afghan society. I can imagine how hard this must have been for her as a Norwegian woman, coming from perhaps one of the most gender-progressive societies in the world. Seierstad frequently discusses how women do not have a say in who they marry, whether they are allowed to work and when they are allowed to leave the home. Yet the women also enjoy gossiping, fret about what to wear to important events and put in great effort to love their husbands and be happy in their lives.
Sultan Khan has a big family — 2 wives, 4 children, siblings and their extended families. Oftentimes it was difficult to keep track of all of the characters, and I almost wish there was a family tree included in the book. Out of all of the characters, the 2 I found the most interesting were Sultan’s son Mansur and Sultan’s youngest sister Leila.
Have you read the book, and if so, what did you think of it? How do you think Seierstad’s approach to writing this book compares to other recent works about Afghanistan? Is there a particular character you found interesting, and if so, why? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.