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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Bookseller of Kabul

After reading a few chapters in between everything else, I finally finished reading The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad. The book is set in Afghanistan, after the fall of the Taliban. It is a non-fiction account of the political and social turmoil of the country as seen thru the eyes of an atypical Afghani family. Ms. Seierstad lived with the family of Sultan Khan, a bookseller, for five months. This experience allowed her to write about the lives of the members of the Khan family, and what it means to live in a country that has weathered an extraordinary amount of upheaval. She wrote haunting narratives about each member of the family and depicted graphically their fears, their hopes, their temptations, their joys, their frustrations.

The book narrated traditions that many of the Western world would consider barbaric. Buying brides that are half the groom’s age; arranged marriages without the bride or groom’s consent; women being restricted from attending school or even going out in public alone; a young girl murdered by her brothers for committing adultery; wearing the constricting burkas that masked everything except women’s eyes; lives of complete servitude for young unmarried women; and having your hand cut off for stealing bread for your starving family, among others.

Ms. Seierstad assures readers that the book’s purpose is not meant to judge nor to create repulsion for such acts. But rather, is the author taking a step back and simply allowing the characters, who have been silenced for so long, to speak out and tell their stories. In that regard it is a powerful and fascinating piece of literature.

However, having had some time to reflect, I found that the tone of the book, although intended to be neutral and objective, often focused more on the negative aspects of Afghan society. There was a masked but still present criticism of the culture’s practices of male dominance, female subservience, and religious fervor. There was a thinly veiled air of criticism surrounding the stories told. I thought there was not enough substance showing the more positive characteristics of the Afghan people. Surely there must be something more the author could have said about how important family and tradition is to the culture, how the people have risen above so many years of war and reigns of terror, how the country is now desperately trying to rebuild after so much devastation. Instead the focus was more on what was then and is now still wrong with the overall picture.

I guess it is a difficult task to remain completely unbiased towards a cultural practice and tradition that is so completely foreign from your own. And that the author probably struggled with this dilema with every chapter she wrote. However inspite of this, I would still recommend the book (maybe to my book club eventually), after all it is still a compelling and stirring piece. And the author overall does a good job of giving a detailed, albeit oftentimes one-dimensional, depiction of Afghanistan’s history and culture. Still, I would caution readers to read the book with an open mind and not take everything purely at face value.

Incidentally, Sultan Khan, the patriarch of the Khan family, is suing the author over what he claims is a defamation of himself, his family and his country. Khan does not come out as a hero in this book and is in fact depicted quite negatively. Obviously by inviting a journalist into his home and welcoming her into his family, this is not how he imagined he would be portrayed. Khan maintains that the author took advantage of the plight of a society that is trying to recover from oppression. And that the author also took advantage of the trust and hospitality that Khan and his family showed her by focusing on the salacious and sordid aspects of their lives. He states that the author’s work is not a deep study of Afghan life but rather a story that has been highly sensationalized to increase sales.

As of yet, the lawsuit has not been resolved.

1 comment:

jol said...

After reading your review, we must all be thankful for the kind of life we now enjoy. We live in a much better atmosphere and must be appreciative of all our blessings. I shared your views that the book does not dwell on the positive side of the Afghan people. This confirms the sad fact that the negative side of any story sells more than the good side.