The bookseller of kabul

Somewhere in the Buffalo-Niagara airport a couple of weeks ago, I bought a book to read on the plane back to Seattle. It was The Bookseller of Kabul, a book that I thought was going to be an interesting glimpse into the lives of an average family in Afghanistan told by a Norwegian journalist. In reality, the book was indeed interesting but it also saddened me and made me angry. Most of all, it made me extremely thankful for the life I lead as a woman here in Canada.

I thought the book would be something similar to Honeymoon in Purdah, a story that I really loved by Alison Wearing. Although it was the same sort of setting – Western woman lives with a local family and comments upon her experiences – the two books could not have been more different. While I remember Honeymoon as a glass-half-full kind of book, a mostly positive commentary, Bookseller was distinctly glass-half-empty. The story is really about the bookseller’s family – his two wives and their children, and his mother, sisters and brothers – and in particular, it details the plight of the women and their subjugation inside and outside the homes of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan really is a troubled place right now, and it shows in this book. It is a shockingly different way of life for women – and men, too – living there than here in Canada. Seierstad leaves herself out of the story, but her Western values come through loud and clear in the way she describes the daily life of this family. The bookseller’s wife is powerless to prevent or react to her husband marrying a second wife. The bookseller’s youngest sister is forced to play a slave role to the rest of the family and has no choice but to marry a man she has no interest in marrying. The bookseller’s teenage son treats his mother like she’s the dirt under his feet, and she has no recourse when he does so. Living with these attitudes, I’m sure it would have been hard to keep my values and feelings under wraps as well. Seierstad herself says in the foreward that:

I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women. The belief in male superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned.

Even so, Seierstad does describe the bookseller as a bit of an enlightened sort. Amassing a huge collection of books over the years in his shops, he hid many that were considered forbidden from the Taliban. He strove for freedom of expression during a regime that made people blacken over pictures of people and animals in some books and burned complete volumes of others. At work, Mr. Khan was a bit of a revolutionary. At home, he was a traditionalist. He ruled his family with a very strong fist.

I’m glad I read this book, but I’m also glad that I don’t have to read it again.

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