Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, writes about her time spent in Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the fall of the Taliban. She writes nimbly and intelligently. Within a few words she creates characters and situations that immediately come to life; we feel as if we know Sultan Khan – the bookseller of the title, his matriarchal mother, his two wives and their children, and the numerous members of his complex greater family. Equally praiseworthy is Ingrid Chrisophersen’s English translation. As far as I could ascertain, not a thought, emotion or nuance was lost in translation.
Seierstad spent four months living with Sultan and his family, and captures their tribulations and fears, hopes and losses in her retelling of their stories. But most skilful is her retreat as narrator, allowing the characters to develop and speak for themselves.
Sultan Khan is portrayed as a good business man, taking dangerous routes through mountain passes to buy books in neighbouring Pakistan. He is also an erudite, highly-respected member of Kabul society, fluent in English, and revered as a literary expert. He suffered arrest, interrogation, beatings and imprisonment in his fight for freedom of expression, and is utterly intolerant of the failings of others. At home he is portrayed as tyrannical; even his boldest son fears him, and dares not dispute his decisions. His word is law, and everyone in the family must obey.
Above all this book is a documentary of the legacy of the Taliban. Books were strictly censored, and many, including the wares of the protagonist, were burned by illiterate Taliban thugs. Education for girls was not even debatable. Their place was in the home, alone – literally. Through Seierstad’s eyes we also see a brutal picture of strict Muslim life in post-Taliban Kabul: women are prized for good health (especially for making babies) and diligence as home-keepers, rather than for their prowess in the academic arena. Many have become to so accustomed to the safety and anonymity of the burka that they fear stepping out of the house without being covered from head to toe. Male relatives must escort them everywhere, and small boys are sent to the market to buy fresh produce. In Western terms, it is tragic to see the waste of good brains doing nothing but honouring the hearth, and bearing and rearing children.
Internet research about this book reveals interesting repercussions to Seierstad’s book, and her honest portrayal of the scenes and events she witnessed and about which she wrote: Shah Muhammad Rais believed that she “wilfully misinterpreted almost everything she witnessed, failing to take into account deep-seated social customs and the traditional roles of men and women in Afghan society.” He wrote a defence, titled Once Upon a Time there was a Bookseller in Kabul. He accuses her of abusing his hospitality, a sacred tenet in Afghan culture, and states that she “misread the dynamics of Afghan family life, with its web of obligations and subsuming of individual happiness.” He is still angry of her portrayal of his mother in a public bath – “a shaming violation of her womanhood.”*
This dispute aside, Seierstad’s vivid descriptions of Kabul life are a pleasure to read. I especially enjoyed her depiction of an Afghan bazar:
It is as though time has stood still in Kabul’s bazar. The goods are the same as when Darius of Persia roamed here around 500 BC. On large carpets under the open sky or in cramped stalls the magnificent and the necessary lie side by side, turned and fingered by discerning customers. Pistachio nuts, dried apricots and green raisins are kept in large hessian sacks; small hybrid fruit of lime and lemon lie on ramshackle carts, with skin so thin the peel is eaten too. One vendor has sacks of cackling and wriggling hens; the spice merchant has chilli, paprika, curry and ginger heaped up on his barrow. The spice merchant also acts as medicine man and recommends dried herbs, roots, fruit and tea, which, with the precision of a doctor, he explains will heal all illnesses, from simple to the more mysterious.
Both Seierstad and Rais’s view reveal a country and capital city struggling to rebuild in the wake of Taliban domination, and American withdrawal. “The bookseller believes that the Western powers have squandered a chance to rebuild Afghan society.” *
I found the ending of the book a little disappointing. Seierstad quickly rounds off various strands, leaving some loose ends untied. Her departure from Kabul was perhaps precipitate, which transferred into the story and made for a frustratingly incomplete narrative.
That said, I would recommend this book, especially for the acquisition of some insight into Afghan life, and the effects of religious fanaticism – especially for females.