The Bookseller of Kabul

To find a book today that is interesting, topical, and readable is a rare feat. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad is just such a gem. After 9/11, and with the ongoing War on Terrorism, so much of the focus is on far away countries with unfamiliar cultures and unfathomable lives. Attempts to learn more about these issues can often be thwarted by angry rhetoric, long academic tomes, politically correct pandering, or turgid prose. Asne Seierstad, in contrast, has produced a fascinating, educational, and enjoyable book that will leave you feeling like you know the people of Afghanistan better for having read it. No wonder it has become the best-selling book in the history of Norway and has been creating buzz all over Europe. That buzz has now come to America.

The Bookseller of Kabul was the result of a simple yet courageous idea. After having spent six weeks in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance, Seierstad made for Kabul. While in Kabul she met the intriguing owner of a bookshop and soon found herself spending hours listening to his stories of life under the various regimes: communist, Mujahedeen, and Taliban. Each was destructive and tyrannical in its own unique way and each forced the bookseller to defend his beloved books, often without success:

First the communists burned my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again.

As part of their growing friendship, the Norwegian journalist was even invited over to his house for dinner. Her interaction with this unique man and his family presented an opportunity: the chance to write a book about a real family in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. She raised the idea with the bookseller, given the pseudonym Sultan Khan in the book, and he graciously agreed to allow the author full access to his life and his family. Besides living with the family, the author had unique access. As a western woman she had access not only to the women of the family but also the men. She could participate in both the intimate day-to-day activities of the mothers, wives, and daughters but she could also interact with the Sultan and his sons as they moved in the larger world. This access is a big part of what this book so fascinating and educational. It is also what gives it such an emotional punch. The author has the access sociologists dream of.

The interesting subject and the unique perspective set the stage for the book but what makes it all click is the fictionalized form. Rather than attempt to report what she found in a straightforward non-fiction work, Seierstad turns the facts and feelings she uncovers into a fictionalized story. As a result, the Bookseller of Kabul reads like a novel rather than a contemporary news account. Here is how the author describes it:

I have written this book in literary form, but it is based on real events or what was told to me by people who took part in those events. When I describe thoughts and feelings, the point of departure is what people told me they thought or felt in any given situation . . . I am not, of course, an omniscient author. Internal dialogue and feelings are based entirely on what family members described to me.

Fictionalizing history is a tricky thing. One can easily leave an unwarranted impression or create a belief in facts that are unverified. But that is not really a danger here because the aim is not to argue facts or the historical record but rather to gain insight into the life of a particular people and place. At this Seierstad succeeds.

The reason this story is so interesting is because the characters come alive. They are full-bodied characters with good and bad traits with a wide range of feelings and emotions. They are compelling because they are real human beings not caricatures. The Sultan himself is a complex character. He has a love of literature and rebels against the tyrannical rulers who seek to destroy his books. He believes that his country must modernize and move forward in order to succeed. He is a bustling and ambitious capitalist. But when it comes to his family he is unable to so easily throw off the past. Despite his modern ideas and talk of freedom he is an authoritarian patriarch who harshly and often coldly rules his household. But Seierstad doesn’t demonize him either but rather reveals the difficulty in transitioning from a world ruled by tradition and strict rules to a more open and free society. Try as he might Sultan can’t envision a family all that different from the one his father ruled.

The book is full of interesting characters:
– Sultan’s son Mansur, who often has good intentions but finds himself trapped as the eldest son between responsibility and the freedom that is just out of reach. He realizes that he has more than others but can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing. He alternates between rebellion, promises of virtue and faith, and resignation of his fate.
– Sultan’s youngest sister Leila, who is forced to be the servant for the entire family who yearns to break out and make a place for herself in the world. She struggles to get a job as a teacher and hopes to be married to a man that will allow her to escape the life of servitude. Despite these longings, however, she can’t break free from the weight of social norms and tradition; she seems almost resigned to a fate of “eating dust.”
– Sultan’s wives, Sharifa and Sonya. Sonya the young girl brought in as Sultan’s second wife, shy and simple minded – interested in nothing but her new husband. Sharifa, shamed and embarrassed by her husband’s actions, yet compelled to continue to do the work of a dutiful wife with less and less of the rewards.
– Aimal, Sultan’s youngest son, twelve years old yet forced to work twelve hours a day in a small booth in a hotel lobby. Deprived of an education and seemingly of a future beyond the small walls of the booth, Aimal sprits are slowly being crushed.

The story of Aimal is a good illustration of the melancholy but insightful storytelling in the Bookseller of Kabul. Aimal is in the lobby of the hotel when the new Minister of Aviation is killed:

He returned to the dreary room, sat down behind the table, ate a Snickers. More than four hours to go.
The cleaning man swept the floor and emptied the wastepaper basket.
“You look so sad, Aimal.”
“Jigar khoon,” said Aimal. My heart bleeds.
“Did you know him?” asked the cleaning man.
“The minister.”
“No,” said Aimal. “Or, yes, a little.”
It felt better that his heart bleed for the dead minister than for his own lost childhood.

What is amazing about the portraits that Seierstad draws is that she captures the fatalistic nature of much of life in Afghanistan, even amongst this “middle class” family, but she also gives them their dignity. They have dreams and hopes; they have feelings and desires even if in the end they lack the strength to overcome the burden of their circumstances. She avoids the trap of idealizing them but she also doesn’t look down on them because they refuse to play the part of social revolutionary. Given the personal feelings and emotions that she must have felt, Seierstad does a remarkable job of simply telling the character’s stories without interjecting her own views.

The bookseller of Kabul is a unique glimpse into the world, lives, and thoughts of a real Afghanistan family. That alone is worth the price of the book but combine that with its elegance and readability and it is a real treat. As all good books do, this book expands ones knowledge of what it means to be human. I heartily recommend it.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).