The Bookseller of Kabul

P1040999

Afghanistan would probably not be high on my list of places to visit should I get the chance, but it was a fascinating visit via this non-fiction book by Asne Seierstad.

The author is a Norwegian journalist who has reported on war zones such as Syria , Iraq and Chechnya. This book is an account of her stay with a large Afghan family after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

I did find the journalistic writing a bit jarring after a while – I found myself wanting a more personal point of view – but it was worth reading for the detail into lives that are very different, unimaginably different, to my own.

The book brought up a lot of conflicting feelings – sympathy for the bookseller and members of his family for the suffering they had to endure under the Taliban regime, but also frustration and fierce anger over the treatment and lives of the women.

I felt especially for poor Leila, a nineteen year old girl and lowest in the pecking order of the house. She does all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the extended family, working from dawn to midnight every day and never has time alone.

“Leila never walks alone. It is not good for a young girl to walk about without company. Who knows where she might be going? Maybe to meet a man, maybe to commit a sin. Leila does not even walk alone to the greengrocer a few minutes away from the apartment. She usually takes a neighbour’s boy along with her, or asks him to run errands for her. Alone is an unknown idea for Leila. She has never, ever, anywhere, at any time, been alone. She has never been alone in the apartment, never gone anywhere alone, and never remained anywhere alone, never slept alone. Every night she sleeps on the mat beside her mother. She quite simply does not know what it is to be alone, nor does she miss it. The only thing she wishes for is a bit more peace and not so much to do.”

Leila is treated worse than a servant and dreams of a different life where she might have gone to university or been a teacher.

The Afghani people as portrayed here, are stuck in a kind of no man’s land – half wanting to be pulled into the modern world, but also resisting that and clinging to the staunch traditions of Islam with which they’ve been brought up.

It was the dusty, overcrowded, claustrophobic atmosphere of the house where they all lived that lingers with me the most. The women of this family may have willingly, gladly even, thrown off the Burka, but there is still so much of the oppressive system deeply ingrained into their behaviour that it is clear it will take generations to shrug that off.

Reading this gave me greater understanding into how ordinary people with essentially good hearts get trapped into oppressive cycles; an interesting, but definitely not easy read.

6 thoughts on “The Bookseller of Kabul

  1. I read this quite a while ago for my book group and I think I found the style jarring too. Also, I might be wrong but I’m sure there were bits where she writes about what people are thinking and feeling that is quite presumptious. In fact, I think the family in the book complained after publication that they had been misrepresented by the journalist who had taken liberties with the truth to fit a Western idea of Afghanistan. It’s a shame, as I think that it had the makings of a really enlightening book.

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    1. I did read about the controversy around the book – the court cleared her and found the book to be an accurate portrayal. I did wonder though, how she could’ve known some of the things she wrote about. Still it was worth reading – I’m glad I did.

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  2. Not something I’ve read, but the quote from it was poignant to me. When myself and my daughter stayed with a Moroccan family, the hardest cultural practice we experienced was the lack of privacy. But we also experienced incredible hospitality and love. I’ll add the book in my growing ibooks collection – I think I’d like to read it. I’ll keep your caveats in mind!

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  3. That sounds like an intriguing book. I think it is always difficult to understand those who live very differently to ourselves as it is out of our own understanding. As a home educator I come across this all the time. To suggest that the girl wishes to be alone is to misunderstand her culture, how can she crave or want something that she knows nothing of?

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  4. Excellent review, Kim. We live in a time when I believe it is so important to read of places and cultures completely different than what is familiar to us.
    Since childhood, I have been an individual who requires big chunks of alone time.
    The comments to this piece rasie some very important issues, too. Thank you, Kim. šŸž

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