The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
is a work of nonfiction written by Asne Seierstad, written in a literary style. The author lived with the family of a fairly successful merchant in the months immediately following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. For four months in the spring of 2002 the author was squeezed into the small, decaying, soviet-area apartment along with eleven family members. There was almost no furniture – if I understand correctly the Prophet Muhammad had no furnishings.

That spring was a time of optimism in Afghanistan, although as yet there was nothing concrete to justify hopes that the country would once again be a peaceful and prosperous nation. The merchant, Sultan, no longer has to fear for his beloved books being burned (those with pictures were most at risk; the soldiers who came to remove contraband material from his shop were themselves illiterate), and he no longer needs fear being labeled ‘capitalist’ as he was during Soviet times. There is still the threat of violence, however, and the city has been ground into poverty by war and drought.

Things were bad under the Taliban, but in 2002 they weren’t much better. Especially for women.

As a woman the author was able to learn of the life of the women in the apartment they shared. Had the author been male, he never would not even have been able to look at the unmarried women of the house, let alone talk to them. Sultan, for all his political modernity (he is very pleased that there are women in the government), maintains an iron rule over his family. It is he who negotiates a price for his daughters, marrying them to husbands they have never met. His youngest daughter is suffering from Vitamin D deficiency because the sunshine never touches her skin – in one of the sunniest places on Earth. His sons work long hours in his shops, so they do not have a chance to go to school or study.

Perhaps there are two sorts of women in Sultan’s world – those who work and wear western clothes, and those who follow tradition. The first group is somehow asexual, their behavior not an issue because they will never be part of a traditional Afghan family. While he respects those women, he is never going to allow that to happen to any of his family.

It is to be remembered that Sultan is a relatively prosperous man, part of the power he holds over his extended family is because of his success. However, on issues like the traditional role of a woman, I suspect if anything he is more liberal than many of his neighbors. It is that way, because it has always been that way. (Although the burka, the all-concealing robe and head gear, was not as common in earlier times.)

Makes me glad to be who and where I am.

The book was a good read, entertaining as well as enlightening. I started slowly, but the prose steadily pulled me in, until I read the last third or so in a single sitting. I am curious how things are going there now, after at least relative calm in the city for a while. Is the family prospering? Has reliable electricity and running water been restored? Are more women daring to show their faces in public? 

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

6 thoughts on “The Bookseller of Kabul

  1. I recommend The Kite Runner in the same vein. The fictional story runs from pre-Soviet times up to the Taliban. It is an excellent, if disturbing, story, well told.

  2. When the Taliban took over, they broadcast sixteen rules. Number seven: Prohibition against kite flying.

    Kite flying has wicked consequences, such as gambling, death among children, and truancy. Shops selling kites shall be removed.

  3. I remember reading that kite flying is also illegal in Pakistan – something about how they use wire instead of string, and the frailty of the human neck…

  4. Prohibition of music was rule number two, although the rule seemed aimed mostly at casettes. Music and dancing was specifically banned at weddings (rule 13), and rule 14 banned playing drums.

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