The Bookseller of Kabul

by Åsne Seierstad

I thought I would love this book, but it was different than I expected. From the introduction, I thought it would be the story of how the journalist fit into an Afghan family\’s life, her observations of their family dynamics and conflicts with them (at one point she says \”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.\”) But the journalist has no presence in the story at all. She describes everything in the third person, a flowing narrative style. I really wonder what was left out- she states that nothing was written here that the family did not want her to share. And some of the things shared made me cringe; in the end I did not like the bookseller himself at all, even though the premise is what made me pick up the book. I could not abide some of his actions and decisions.

It is all about a bookseller in Kabul and his family. How he loves knowledge and books, saves them through the turbulent, oppressive times living under control of the Communists and then later the Taliban era. He watched his books being torn apart, burned or confiscated, was imprisoned for selling illegal materials, rescued and hid books in attics all over the city. It was awful to read about how public libraries were pillaged and destroyed, yet this man hoarded the books he was able to find and planned one day to return some ten thousand books to the library, when it was rebuilt and safe to do so. He also supported education, travelling into Pakistan to print textbooks himself.  But this is where I started to dislike things. Not surprisingly, he had no regard for copyrights and would simply take a textbook to a printer, have it copied and reproduced by the hundreds so he could resell to university students. (Reading about the printing process was fascinating). He also made a lot of income off of postcards- selecting photographs and taking them to printers for similar reproduction, then selling them in his shop and to smaller vendors in his town. But later in the book a poor man who cannot feed his starving family, steals bundles of postcards, presumably to sell to the vendors himself at a cheaper price. Our man was brutal in retaliation, incensed that someone would ruin his livelihood. I was appalled at how he treated the poor man and his family.

But yet I couldn\’t help admiring his love for books, his tireless work in creating a business that not only supported his own family but various male relatives, able to send younger boys to school. Much of the book is not about Sultan himself and the bookshop, but about life in Afghanistan as the people struggle to recover (or just survive) after years of war and strict religious rule. It was another one of those really eye-opening books for me. Each section tells about a different member of Sultan\’s family, what their life is like, their viewpoint on things. It was night and day for some of them. His son bitterly resents being forced to work in a bookstall. His younger wife is cossetted and pampered, barely lifts a finger to do anything, while his youngest sister works like a slave in the home, doing all the labor of cleaning and cooking. It was a stark picture of how the lives of women are controlled- unable to leave the house without an escort, not really able to choose who they marry, difficult to get an education- some of the women in the story tried to, with dismal results. The bickering, family drama and gossip among relatives and neighbors threatened to tear them all apart.

One thing I did not expect to find was a picture emerging of how men find life in Afghanistan restrictive, as well. At least among this family. Autocratic rule of fathers over sons, mothers arranging their marriages, boys finding no opportunities, getting stuck in a life path they do not want, feeling restricted by religious dictates. Not nearly as controlled as the womens\’ lives, but still there were a lot of unhappy men feeling constricted and frustrated by their circumstances in this story.

I was surprised at two things mentioned, which I had never heard of. One was of boys crushing a dried scorpion, mixing the resulting powder with tobacco and smoking it to get high. The other was of men betting on fighting quails. I\’ve heard of people pitting roosters, betta fish and even rhincerous beetles against each other, but quail? those diminutive little birds? Apparently they will peck each other to death! Google informs me both of these are relatively common in Afghanistan.

This is one of those very few books that I am not sure if I will keep or not. The picture of all the different layers of life in this one family in Kabul is very interesting reading, but I am not sure I would say it is particularly enjoyable. Valuable, yes. Fun to read, not really. The book stuff- not nearly enough of that. And yet, I learned so much. I am undecided. So I will shelve it for now, and see how it goes if I ever read it again.

Rating: 3/5     288 pages, 2002

more opinions:
Savidge Reads
Book Dragon
The Octogon
Rhapsody in Books
Medieval Bookworm

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