For many of us before 2001, Afghanistan was simply another dot on the map in the Middle East – one of those poor, problematic countries torn apart by a long history of war.
Until September 11 happened.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to know more about Afghanistan. What were the Taliban? Was the Islam they adopted the real Islam? Were Muslims really violent? Why were they attacking the US? Who was Osama bin Laden? Journalists flocked to the place in droves, despite the precarious situation on ground, to find stories to fulfill the world’s sudden insatiable appetite for news. Among them was Norwegian war correspondent Asne Seiersad. While in Kabul, she met local bookseller ‘Sultan Khan’, and asked if she could write a story about him and his family. He agreed. So Seiersad went to live with them for four months, observing their daily habits/interactions.
When The Bookseller of Kabul was finally published, it received critical acclaim for its intimate portrayal of the lives of, in Seiersad’s own words, a ‘unique’ Afghan family. With it came controversy – the actual Sultan Khan came forward to dispute its contents, suing Seiersad for defamation and breach of privacy. He also alleged that because of the book, the family has had to seek political asylum in other countries for fear of persecution.
Sultan Khan is considered ‘wealthy’ by Kabul standards – he has a book business in the city, which has survived decades of war. Sultan, described as in his 50s, has lived through several regimes; even been imprisoned by some. The book describes how the Taliban era was like – an extreme ideology that saw ancient relics bombed to dust for being ‘un-Islamic’, singing and dancing banned, women confined to homes, men punished for not having their beards at a certain length, Sultan’s books with illustrations of animals or living things burned.
After the Taliban are gone and a ‘democratic government’ established, Sultan looks forward to his business flourishing. He takes a second wife, a teenage bride called Sonya, ignoring the wishes of his first wife Sharifa (whom he has sent to Pakistan to look after the book business there) – but nobody dares to speak against him because Sultan’s word in the family is law. Despite their somewhat ‘rich’ status, we are told that Sultan is tight with money and that the family lives a frugal lifestyle, in an old building in Kabul that has been ravaged by the war, with bullet holes in its walls. Members of the household include Sultan’s sons Mansur and Aimal, who are denied education but are instead made to work at Sultan’s shop to prep them to take over the business; Sultan’s mother Bibi Gul and her daughters Leila, Bulbula and Shakila, among others.
Readers are privy to various events in the course of their lives – proposals, marriages, deaths, births, interwoven with political events and happenings. For many of the characters, life seems to be one big reel of unfulfilled dreams and broken wishes, where they are doomed to sadness and tragedy because of the culture and their standing in it.
The book makes for an engaging read and is a descriptive and easily digestible account of life in Kabul, within an Afghan family. But I think one of the biggest problems with The Bookseller of Kabul, as brilliantly written as it was, was that it was marketed as non-fiction. This, in my opinion, was a double-edged sword. Seiersad took the liberty to write what she perceived were the characters thoughts and feelings, as if they were narrating the story, rather than her take on it as an impartial observer. By adopting a novelistic approach, it made the story engrossing – but it’s pretty obvious that it’s really Seiersad’s voice and opinions talking through the ‘characters’, turning it into a commentary rather than an objective report.
Seiersad’s portrayal of Sultan Khan was not of a likeable man: if this was fiction, he’d be an antagonist. I can understand why he sued her (he also wrote a book chronicling ‘his part of the story’)…I mean, imagine inviting someone into your home and being made out into a villain! One also gets the feeling that Seiersad somehow ‘exploited’ the ignorance of Khan’s family members, especially of the women who are uneducated, because if they knew everything that they said would have been written down and aired like dirty laundry in public, would they have spoken so freely?
The Bookseller of Kabul has a very clear cut, black and white narrative. At times, its critique is clear. As a book written by a Norwegian woman, a country where freedom and equality among sexes ranks highest in the world, it must have been hard for Seiersad to remain neutral, and she projects this into her writing. There’s also the fact that only three people in the house spoke English, so Seiersad must have done a lot of guess work if she was to write as if she knew what the characters were thinking or feeling.
A recurrent theme throughout the book is gender inequality and violence against women. Afghan society is notoriously misogynistic : girls are forced into becoming child brides (like Sonya), are denied education, are not allowed to roam freely without a male companion and a large number die in childbirth (average number of children, 6, with 1 in 10 kids dying before they reach the age of 5). Marriage for love is an alien concept, daughters are sold and bartered like transactions. Many husbands abuse their wives physically and emotionally, honour killings are prevalent and because of the country’s political/cultural setup, educating them on changing their ways takes a lot of effort, and may not even happen in this lifetime.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read The Bookseller of Kabul; I merely caution you not to take it at face value. It’s still a fascinating insight into the many facets of Afghan life, and one feels both sympathy and admiration, especially for the females of its society who have to endure so much. Real life is not a fairytale, so no matter how much one wishes for it, not all characters will have happy endings.