This fascinating book, written by Asne Seierstad and first published in English in Great Britain in 2003 by Back Bay Books / Little Brown, is her own story, but is written as though a work of fiction. In the foreword she tells how she met Sultan Khan – the bookseller (not his real name) – while working in Afghanistan as a journalist in 2001. He invited her in to his home so that she could experience Afghan family life firsthand in the recently-liberated capital city. A man who loves books, Sultan took many risks over the years in order to trade them, but at the same time is traditional in his views about women and their place in Afghan society. Chapters in the book each tell a story, either originating from Sultan Khan himself or told from the perspective of a member of his family, which comprises his two wives, five children, and several other relatives sharing the family home. The second and much younger wife is permitted in accordance with Sultan’s status in Afghan society, but is introduced into the family without his first wife’s blessing, usurping her position, much to her discomfort.
The story follows the lives of Sultan and family members, including his son Mansur embarking on a religious pilgrimage and one of Sultan’s younger sisters preparing for her wedding. Seierstad chose to write her book and tell the story “how it is” which means her main character will definitely not like it, as he is portrayed as a dictatorial patriarch who runs his family on strict lines, in which each member has their defined role and position, but Seierstad really wanted to tell the world about the plight of women in Afghanistan. The book itself is fascinating, but it is the underlying story about those women that captures the imagination.
Because of those strict rules regarding no contact with the opposite sex, women rarely meet their husband-to-be until the engagement party arranged partly for the couple to meet. Also, it is customary for families to “trade” their daughters, bargaining for a husband without consulting the girl. After she is married, a woman needs her husband’s permission even to visit her own family. Although women are permitted to have a job outside the home, the reality is that a woman may still be beaten for taking a job if her family does not approve. Also, education for women is not thought necessary. The widely-reported recent case of the Taliban shooting a young girl in the head simply because she wanted to attend school to be educated, highlighted that particular situation. Although the new regime in Afghanistan is hopefully more enlightened and forward-thinking, one wonders if the situation for women will ever really improve. There may be more tolerant men who were perhaps educated in the West, but there are also a great many ordinary family men who no doubt still adhere to the traditions of Islam and Afghan society and do not want to change. Although the occupying forces in Afghanistan have done their best in recent times to modernise attitudes, there is concern that once the overseas-based personnel have left, the Taliban will once again return to impose their extremist views on the Afghan population, which will be especially bad news for Afghan women. Seierstad’s book brings that fear to the surface.
Seierstad, Asne. The Bookseller of Kabul. Trans. Ingrid Christophersen. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2003. Print.