A review of the book The bookseller of Kabul,
by Asne Seierstad.
I would like to acknowledge athinkingmans own blog on this book, and am grateful for his review in bringing this work to life and to my knowledge of it.
As soon as I had discovered this books existence, I knew this was the next read for me, and promptly soon found it in the popular non-fiction section in my local book shop. This is a book with grit and stealth inscribed within its pages. A lavish, heart-rendering tale of survival, hierarcy, family honour and women’s un-met needs, within a wonderfully woven fabric of words, in a setting vivid with bite, passion and sting.
The Bookseller of kabul is one story of an Afghanistan family, not in the middle ages -though you would think so, but in a modern world of post-war liberation from the oppressive Taliban regime. Written by an author, who had been a war correspondent, covering the allied invasion of Afghanistan; Asne Seierstad was allowed into an Afghan home after meeting a bookseller in Kabul. She lived with this family for four months and recalled in detail the many aspects of their lives. It is impossible here to capture everything this book has to offer, but this blog attempts to give an overall feel, to wet the appetite, to go away and read it for yourself.
The book seller was a man of rigid discipline within his own family. The head of the household whose reign was supreme, fierce and often unbending. He would think of himself as a modern man, and a Afghan committed, through his vast collection of books, to preserving the heritage and art of his country; of which he was proud and prepared to defend. He hid his books from the Taliban, served time in prison and saw his stock destroyed and confiscated. Pictures of living things- people and animals were not permitted by the Taliban regime and the book seller did all he could to hide precious pictures and images from detection. He did not adhere to copyright and was able to reproduce works in many numbers to swell his thriving business. He would be seen as a entrepreneur in the western world, a dedicated buisness man building his empire and his fortune.
Asne describes in moving words how 2000 yrs of art was smashed and wiped out in less than a day by this Muslim party and how it’s dynamite left no pieces of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan; Afghanistan’s greatest cultural heritage. The senseless of such destruction I found hard to swallow. The bookseller was a hero in one sense, trying to preserve his country’s history and the identity of Afghanistan as a nation, but the thrust of the book was not to make him a hero within his own family; who looked to him, knowing they had very little freedom within their own lives to choose.
The women for me were the magnet and attraction to this book. I wanted to read about their lives and devour the detail of it. I loved the poetry of the Pashtoon women and their seductive words. These words left me with a sense of sadness for the women within this story; with burning emotions behind the Burka of restriction, of non-feeling and constrained passion- like a leash trying to break away in the wind. Only these women felt, as the Bookseller’s youngest sister said, that they were condemned to eat dust. Their desires for independence, education and a perhaps a career were as fragile as the dust itself, that clung to their clothes, like an all consuming wall of dullness to the heart and spirit.
Asne wore the clothes of these women including the Burka. The tomb of cloth that shrouded them from view. I sensed the Burka gave them a feeling of safety from prying eyes. They hated it, yet also found some strange kind of solace there, where perhaps they dared have a thought or a feeling within its protective shell. How hot and stuffy this garment was and how much it restricted their vision. I was surprised I had not thought of how wearing this clothing would affect their health. Kabul is one of the sunniest places in the world, yet these women suffered Vitamin D deficiency because they were out so little, and when outside would be completely covered: The body’s imposed drought of sunshine. This would certainly increase their risk of osteoporosis . The odds were stacked against them enough when it came to health.
This leads me well into the next point of the women’s lives:marriage. A woman had no right to choose a partner for herself. This was left to her family, who choose the prospective husband and made all the arrangements. She was a passive spectator in this elaborate and rigid path to becoming a wife. Until the wedding night at least, when she had to ensure her passage to the bridegrooms family, by proofing her virginity in a most bizarre way. The Bookseller took a 16yr old bride as his second wife, his first wife of many years being cast aside and out of the marital bed. He prepared his new bride for this role, this innocent girl, little more than a child. Many women were faced with ageing husbands,who could have been their fathers.
Women’s bodies did not stay unblemished for long. The author describes, in the women’s public bathing scene, of cracked bodies worn out by too many pregnancies, in too short a time, by bodies hardly old enough to perform the task safely. Afghanistan has the second highest mortality rate in pregnancy and childbirth in the world- Sierra Leone ranks first. Asne talks of child mortality but not about the women’s hazardous journey through labour. However, bearing in mind she is a journalist, covering military operations, she can certainly be excused for not discussing this. Mothers thoughts were pre-occupied with delivering sons, despairing if daughters were born. The continual confinements being a burden they expected to carry, another plight they just endured as normal for them.
The price of having feelings and daring to move one step outside the box was an extremely dangerous one, as we learn in the chapter where an honour killing is described and the events leading to it. I was very shaken by the words quoted in the chapter Crime and Punishment of a women being stoned to death, a sentence given to women accused of adultery. The word adultery is a rather loose term here in the Muslim world and can mean death in the most ordinary of situations. For example, if a women even meets a man that is not her relative, the penalty for such actions can be extreme.
The plight of the carpenter was for me one of the highlights of the book;illustrating the author’s brilliance, whose writing was rich, imaginative and compelling . This was the only chapter of the book I read from start to end without any pause. I was consumed by his situation, the desperation of stealing post-cards from the bookseller to feed his large and starving family. His punishment from his own father was harrowing, as family honour was lost. The bookseller was ruthless in his sense for justice and the Carpenter was jailed for three years. This could be seen as light compared to the Taliban’s method of punishment, which would have been limb amputation, should this regime still have still been in power.
The booksellers family faced with hours of work and domestic drudgery still had an easier life than many, because they were relatively well off. The tale of the carpenter showed the griding poverty most Afghans faced. I could feel the hunger from the pages of this part of the book.
Strangely enough though it was the lives of the booksellers sons that caused me to re-think a little of my attitudes to the men in this world. I had sympathy for them,as their lives still had enormous restrictions, and in many ways were as stifling and un-liberated as the women’s. Ok, sexually, they could pick up prostitutes and homosexuality was common, as seen in the Afghan army. However, we see the frustrations and exhaustion of working 12 hr shifts for the father’s business. No school and little free time. This was something I was not expecting.
Overall, I found this book fascinating, depressing, yet more compelled than ever to go on with my search in reading other women’s lives so less fortunate than my own. I found the characters complex, kept loosing the thread of so many names in this extended family and sometimes got lost with the stories detailed plot. There was no happy ending, as a row between certain members caused the family to break up.
I hope the carpenter will survive jail. The youngest sister of the main character to find love and a teaching career. The second wife hopes of a son. This family will live with me for sometime. I would encourage anyone to read this book who feels humanity, freedom and independence from oppression is a right that we should all fight for in some small way. Even if that means reading this book is one small step in that stand for liberty.