The Bookseller of Kabul

Cover image for The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstadby Asne Seierstad

Translated by Ingrid Christophersen

ISBN 978-0-316-15941-8

“It won’t help this country however much we bang our heads on the ground. All we know is how to scream, pray, and fight. But the prayers are worth nothing if we don’t work. We can’t just sit and just wait for God’s mercy.”

In the early months of 2002, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad entered Kabul with the conquering Northern Alliance after spending six weeks with them in the desert as they fought the Taliban. In Kabul she met the man she calls by the pseudonym “Sultan Khan,” the proprietor of a book shop, with whom she could discuss literature, history, and poetry. Seierstad was struck by his unusual story, as a literate middle-class merchant in a country where such a distinction is almost non-existent. He had been persecuted by the Communists, the Mujahedeen, and the Taliban alike, and spent time in prison and in exile, but fancied himself a patriot and a proponent of women’s rights and free expression. She spent three months living with the family, including Khan’s first wife, Sharifa, his second wife Sonya, his five children, his mother and three sisters, his brother, and his nephew. She soon sees that there is a contradiction within the Khan family, for although Khan does not want his wives and sister to wear the burka after the fall of the Taliban, he still keeps them at home, and retains final authority over all their decisions. And while he makes his living from selling books, he does not send his children to school, putting them to work for his business instead.

Although she initially set out to write the story of a bookseller, it is clear that Seierstad quickly became preoccupied with the role of the women in the Khan family. Even before we learn about how Khan became a bookseller, we are told the story of how he proposed to his second wife, Sonya against the wishes of his female relatives. Seierstad’s portrayals of Sharifa, Sonya, and Leila are deeply sympathetic, if not exactly sensitive to their privacy, and these portraits of family life quickly come to dominate over the story of the book shop. Khan’s youngest sister Leila is essentially the family servant, doing almost all of the cooking and cleaning. Her efforts to become a teacher of beginner’s English are stymied by the fact that no male relative will escort her to the Ministry of Education to enroll as a teacher, and her efforts to take more classes to continue to improve her English are derailed by the fact that there are men in the class. That is no good, all the women of the family agree; she must not go back.

The contrast in Khan’s apparently liberal thinking compared to his behaviour appears to stem from his attitudes about the role of family. He views order in the family as essential to order in society at large, thus attempting to justify his authoritarian role as patriarch. The family is so important that it is preferable to marry within the clan, usually to cousins. Outsiders are less trustworthy. It seems to be this same mistrust that causes Khan to keep his sons out of school, running his various shops for him so that he does not have to hire outsiders. However, this is largely speculation about his mindset; while the introduction implies that Seierstad fought with Khan over cultural differences, the decision to write herself out of the book means that these conversations, in which Khan presumably defended and explained himself, are absent.

Only in the introduction does Seierstad delve into her own thoughts on the experience. Otherwise she uses a narrative style, writing about the Khan family as if she was not present in their home. There is no distinction in the way in which she reports events which she witnessed, and events which she heard about, and the fact that she has written herself out of the story makes it harder to tell which are which. The decision to omit herself serves to foreground the family, rather than her experience of living with them, but it also raises the question of attribution. Her literary style takes to reader into the minds of the characters, rendering her interpretations of their words as fact. This has proved to be a problematic decision for Seierstad, who was subsequently sued for her portrayal of the family in a Norwegian court. Some findings were made against her in 2010, but a higher court overturned the decision, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Perhaps Seierstad should have expected this reaction from Khan; in the chapter called “The Carpenter,” she relates his merciless pursuit of a poor carpenter who stole postcards from his shop. The man eventually served three years in prison.

The Bookseller of Kabul tells the controversial story of one unusual Kabul family as seen from the perspective of a Western journalist who had the unique opportunity to live with them for a short time. Although Seierstad has written herself out of the story in an attempt to tell the story in an objective, journalistic style, the narrative remains marked by her anger and sadness at what she found in the Khan household. Lacking both the strength of good reportage, and the personality of an individual account, it occupies an awkward middle ground that has exposed this account to ample criticism.

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