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Musing Mondays: The Bookseller of Kabul

Musing Mondays is a book-related meme from the ShouldBeReading website. Each week, Musing Mondays asks you to muse in one of the following ways….
• Describe one of your reading habits.
• Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).
• What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it!
• Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.
• Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!
• Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!
Once you've posted your musings on your blog, go the the ShouldBeReading site post a link in the "Comments" section. And post a link here, too, please! I'd love to read what you're musing about. (If you don't have a blog but still want to play, you can do your musing directly in the Comments box.)

Seierstad - The Bookseller of Kabul
For my Musing Mondays entry this week,
a book review:

The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad

Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad traveled to Afghanistan just after September 11, 2011, and was with commandos of the Northern Alliance in November 2011 when they entered Kabul. One of the first people she met there was Sultan Khan, a bookseller, who sold her seven books and, more importantly, became her friend.

To Seierstad, the 50-something bookseller seemed at first to be unusual Afghani man. In a country where three-quarters of the population are illiterate, he had a passion for literature. He was a proud man who had braved prison and persecution to bring books to the people of Kabul. He even argued in favor of equal rights for Afghani women. Seierstad wanted to understand him, his family, and the reality of life in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. She proposed that she live with the Khan family for three months, observe them, and then write a book about the experience. (The name Khan, and all the names used for the family, are fictitious; the author made them up to preserve the family's privacy.)

This book recounts her time among the family. What she found was that Khan was a very different man at home than he was at work. This intelligent, well-read man who argued for women's rights and was pleased that the post-Taliban government included women in high positions treated his own wives, sisters, and daughters like servants. They had no power to make even the smallest decisions for themselves, could not leave the house without permission, could not speak unless they were spoken to, and had to follow his orders or his son's, no matter what. Education for girls and employment for women were now legal, but only with permission from the male head of the family. Worst of all, they had no control over their own destinies; Khan could arrange to marry them to any man he wanted, and they would have no choice but to go along.

In fact, the book begins with a marriage, but this one is Khan's own marriage. His longtime wife Sharifa is bright and educated. She has served him faithfully and borne him three sons and a daughter. But he's longing for a young girl in his bed. So without even telling Sharifa what he has in mind, he looks around for a second wife, chooses pretty, dull, illiterate 16-year-old Sonya, makes the deal with her parents, and only then informs his family that a new wife will be coming to live with them. Sharifa is inconsolable, and even Khan's sons are horrified, but when Khan makes a decision, nobody is allowed to argue. He even forces Sharifa to attend the engagement party.

For three months Seierstad lived in a house without furniture (common in Afghanistan) and with only intermittent electricity and running water (also the norm). She slept on the floor alongside Khan's female relatives. She wore the burka, no longer required by law at the time, but still the safest way for a woman to dress outside the home. She seethed with anger when she saw the way Khan treated Sharifa and especially his youngest sister, Leila, an intelligent 19-year-old who wants to become a teacher but who, as the lowest-status person in the household, works like a slave, eats the others' leftover, and silently suffers through constant insults and abuse. Leila clings to the hope that with persistence and the right connections, she may be able to navigate the bureaucratic maze she is required to pass through in order to escape her servitude and become a teacher. But even that is dependent on the whims of her male relatives. Seierstad longed to speak out, but she realized that her role as a journalist was not to reform this one family, but to observe and record. (That's Seierstad in the photo below.)

Asne Seierstad (author of The Bookseller of Kabul)Personally, I would have been ticked off at Khan, too. And at his oldest son, Mansur. After Khan, Mansur's position in the family is the most exalted. He is more important than his mother, grandmother, or any other female relatives, who all have to follow his orders. Only Khan outranks him among the men. That means that when his father is away on his frequent business trips, Mansur's word is law among the family. The contrast between his power and Leila's enforced subservience is heartbreaking. But despite his position of power, Mansur is surly, resentful, lazy, defiant, and generally obnoxious.

At one point, after he witnesses the sexual abuse of a child and does nothing to stop it, Mansur wracked with guilt and determined to make a pilgrimage, atone for his sins, and become a better Muslim. The chapter about his pilgrimage is one of the most compelling in the book, as Mansur and his companions make a death-defying drive through a snow-choked mountain pass, encounter armed soldiers, and narrowly miss being blown up by landmines before they even reach the holy site. And the details about what happens when they arrive are fascinating.

Another episode that gives both Mansur and Khan a chance to redeem themselves involves a bookshop employee who is caught stealing from the store in order to feed his starving family. Khan is determined to see that the man is punished severely and is deaf to his own family's pleas for leniency, as they realize that the man's wife and children (two of whom have polio) will probably die of starvation or disease if the man has to serve a long prison term. Mansur agrees with his father at first, but the more he sees of the guilty man's poverty, the worse he feels about it. When it comes time to decide whether to press charges, Khan is away and it is Mansur who must decide whether to risk disinheritance by defying his father's wishes by taking pity on a destitute family.

What's really remarkable here is the access Seierstad had to nearly every activity of the family. As a western woman, she was uniquely positioned to observe. She tried to live as an Afghani woman would (and her comments about what that felt like are particularly enlightening) but only to an extent. As a European, she was not held to the same standards. The men saw her as outside the rules and customs that bound their own wives, sisters, and daughters. So she had access to both the male and female halves of the family in this still quite sexually segregated society. I was surprised at the candor of her narrative. There seems to be no effort to sugarcoat the harshness of Afghani society; Seierstad describes bribes paid, copyrights violated, and corners cut in the name of profit. Khan comes across as a man with many good qualities, but he can also be arrogant, hard-nosed, money-grubbing, and downright cruel.

At times the narrative lacks cohesion due to the large numbers of people and the complex family relationships. I wish Seierstad had included a listing of all the characters, and maybe a family tree, to help the reader keep them all straight as she jumps from one relative to another. The book also seems to end rather abruptly, without much closure. That was disappointing, though probably inevitable. Seierstad had decided at the beginning that she would remain with the family for three months; of course some of the ongoing dramas in the lives of the Khan family would have to remain unresolved at the end of her time with them. She tries to make up for it by tacking a few paragraphs onto the end that briefly recount some new developments that occurred after her departure. But after her painstakingly detailed descriptions through the rest of the book, it just isn't enough. Still, this book provides a fascinating glimpse of life in a society that is greatly misunderstood in the west.

(I should add that Sonya, Khan's second wife, sued Seierstad and the book's publisher for violating her privacy and printing inaccuracies about her. Initially, the court agreed that her privacy was violated, but not that the book was inaccurate. That ruling was overturned on appeal, and Seierstad has been cleared of any wrongdoing.)