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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Bookseller of Kabul Offers Unflinching Look At Afghanistan (A Review & A Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

There are some countries I am content to "see" only through books and movies. Afghanistan is one of them. Often books about a country make me want to visit, but The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad had the exact opposite effect. Although the culture she describes is fascinating, I prefer to learn about it from the comfort and safety of my living room couch.

Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who entered Kabul in 2001. She had been in Aghanistan for six grueling weeks, following Northern Alliance commandos through mountians, desert and steppes as they moved against the Taliban. After the grimy adventure, she happened upon an oasis in the country's capital city - a bookshop where she found it "refreshing to leaf through books and talk about literature and history" (ix). Although the books were interesting, she found their owner, Sultan Khan, to be an engaging storyteller, a veritable "history book on two feet" (x). Seierstad made him a proposal: If he allowed her to live with his family temporarily, she would write a book about him. He agreed. Thus, began her 3-month visit with a family she describes as typical in some ways, not in others.

As Seierstad began her stay, she observed the pecking order in the Khan Family: Sultan ruled his multi-generational family (his household included his mother, his sister, 2 wives, and his own children) with an iron fist. His sons did not attend school, but worked in their father's bookshops, despite their own dreams. Women had even less choice - they remained home, cooking, cleaning and waiting on the men. Sultan's word was law. No one dared oppose him. The man, himself, was an enigma. He had risked his life to save books from destruction by Kabul's religious fanatics, and considered himself open-minded on the subjects of education and women's rights. Yet, he denied his own children opportunities to learn and made sure all of his women were kept in their proper places.

The book shifts its focus constantly, highlighting different members of the family, who in turn represent various sections of Afghanistan society. Trying to sort out the names and relationships of all the individuals will make your head spin, which must echo the reality of living with a dozen or more people in a cramped city apartment. There is Rasul, Sultan's eldest son, who resents having to work for his demanding father. He takes his anger out on his aunt, Leila, who is only 3 years older than him, but the lowest creature on the Khan Family food chain. Then there is Mansur, also crushed under the thumb of his father. He desires only to get an education and see the world, but his future has already been carved for him. Leila's is the most tragic situation - as Sultan's younger sister, she is the family's slave, working tirelessly for the men who torment her. When a young suitor sends her love notes, she becomes excited, but terrified. If Sultan finds the notes, she will be beaten as contact between unrelated men and women is strictly forbidden. Her marriage will be treated as a business deal between the men of her family and her fiance's - she has no say in the matter. As these decisions are made, she feels "how life, her youth, hope leave her - she is unable to save herself. She feels her heart, heavy and lonely like a stone, condemned to be crushed forever" (282).

Through the various members of the family, we are given an intimate and troubling portrait of Afghanistan. The country emerges as a weary land, sagging under the plague of endless war and greedy leaders. With the possible exception of Sultan, all members of the Khan Family appear deeply unhappy with their lots in life. Afghan men, especially, are portrayed as cruel hypocrites - men like Sultan welcome progress on one hand while holding their wives' and daughters' heads under the water with the other. To me, and I think to Seierstad, this dichotomy is one of the most intriguing and odious things about Afghan culture.

I found this book to be many things - fascinating, compelling, disturbing, heart-wrenching, depressing - but it offers an unparalleled look inside a society that is notoriously closed to outsiders. Like all glimpses into other cultures, the book helped broaden my world view, and like any trip abroad, it made me realize once again how blessed I am to live in The United States of America. For this, if for nothing else, it is worth the read.

Grade: B

**Don't forget - I'm giving away my copy of this book. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post and I will enter you into the drawing. I will draw a name on February 25, so entries need to be in by midnight on the 24th. Good luck!


  1. I read this book in January and found it both fascinating and disturbing. I also read "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson. His goal is to build village schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan for boys AND girls. He feels that is the way to a better future. Check out Border's Book Club for the video of him meeting with a book club about his book.

  2. I think I should have Ben read this. He has actually been to Kabul and has told me a lot about the culture. It is interesting b/c while he was there, he didn't talk much about it. But now with books like Kite Runner out he has talked a lot more about his experience over there.

  3. Laurel - I've heard a lot about Greg Mortenson's book. It's definitely on my To Be Read list. It sounds as if it's a lot more optimistic than this one.

    Marie - I don't know if Ben would like the book or not, but I'd be interested to hear his opinion. The author makes Kabul sound like a filthy, crumbling city dominated by greedy, merciless men. What were Ben's impressions?

  4. This sounds like a very interesting book. There are several books about Afghanistan I'd like to read but I haven't got around to any of them yet.

  5. This sort of situation is very common in patriarchal families which are the norm generally in Asian and Muslim societies. I completely agree with you here - "this dichotomy is one of the most intriguing and odious things".

    I'd love to read this book. Count me in.

    I'm also going to post this at my book review/contest blog - A Book Blogger's Diary

    Hope that's ok with you. Thanks!
    aBookworm / aBookBlogger

  6. Very interesting. One of my former students was from Afghanistan, and she had some very heart wrenching stories. I'll have to add this to my list.

  7. Wow! What an in depth look at the Afghanistan family ways. Please enter me in your drawing. This books sounds very interesting and intriguing!!!!!
    Thanks very much.....Cindi

  8. I've been wanting to read this for some time, now. I'd love to enter!



  9. I am very interested in reading this unique novel.

  10. This books sounds great! Please enter me in your drawing! I love to read and love to review books. This looks fantastic!

  11. I've read a couple of books about Afghanistan, but I am definitely interested in reading more (as long as you don't mind posting overseas!)

  12. Well Ben says he was offended that you didn't mention him :) But, he said that what you put in the comments was right on. Hmmm...

  13. Please count me in for the book drawing - sounds fascinating! Thanks! ~ :)

  14. I am definitely learning a lesson here - giveaways are the way to get comments! LOL. Keep them coming...

  15. I forgot to mention - one of the things I love about comments is checking out the profiles and blogs of my readers. Once you post here, there's no hiding from me! I will add your book blogs to my blogroll when I get the time, but would you let me know if you DON'T want me to add your blog? I know some of you might want to keep your blogs small and simple, so just LMK. Otherwise, I will be snooping around all of your blogs soon!

  16. I love this book. Count me in!

  17. this sounds like an amazing book- yes please!

  18. This sounds like a great book - I'm in for the drawing! :-)

  19. Excellent review! I've wanted to read this book for awhile, so I'd be happy to be entered in your drawing! =)

  20. Susan, I am looking forward to reading this one and have been for awhile now. I am like you in that I like to read about certain countries, but I am not sure I would ever want to set foot in them. Perhaps if things were more peaceful . . . Anyhow, this was a wonderful review!

    Please don't enter me in the contest as I already have this one on my shelf.

    I love giving away books, knowing they are going into the hands of someone who really will appreciate the gift. :-)

  21. If you don't mind posting overseas I would like to be added to the draw. The book sounds fascinating.

  22. A couple of people have asked if I'm willing to send the book overseas. I absolutely am, so please enter - no matter where you live.

  23. Thishas been on my tbr pile for a long time, I'd like to enter. Thanks!

  24. Please enter me. I would like to read this for...possible research purposes. thanks!

  25. I loved this book and would like to win a copy to give to a friend!

  26. I was trying to remember where I just barely heard about this book and then I realized I have you in my feed reader and I heard it from you! I forgot to make my way over here to post a comment!

    This book sounds fascinating. I recently read The Breadwinner and A Thousand Splendid Suns this past month. One of my books clubs is reading The Kite Runner (yes, I will be the last person to finally be reading this) this month. Now I must add this one to my TBR to round out my reading about Afganistan.

    Thanks for a great review.

  27. I would love a copy of this! I would say my chances are quite slim have a lot of entrants! Slip my name in the pot too please!

  28. Sounds interesting! Please enter me in your giveaway. Thank you.

  29. a friend of mine recommended this one to me a while ago, and i'm planning to read it this year. it'd be great to win a copy of it! :)

  30. Looks like I'm just barely making the deadline. I'd love to read this book. Our book club met yesterday and discussed "A Thousand Splendid Suns". I highly recommend it.

  31. The story does a nice job of showing the structure of the patriarchal family and the affect war has had on the society is visible in the descriptions throughout the story. Cultural traditions are also highlighted in the text. The thing I found most striking in this book was how different women are treated in society and within the family compared to Western culture.


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