Thoughts The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad, Back Bay Books 2002, 288 pages, tB
“The most intimate description of an Afghan household ever produced by a Western journalist… Seierstad is a sharp and often lyrical observer.” -New York Time Book Review
MOTIVATION for reading: This month’s selection for my local library fiction club – – which is wonderful! (not sure if the library just gives to us or we choose. AND, I’m not sure I will be able to attend the meeting if I find a sub job.)
What’s in a Name Challenge 8 – CITY category
FIRST Sentence: “When Sultan Khan thought the time had come to find himself a new wife, no one wanted to help him.”
What’s it ABOUT: The author is a Norwegian journalist who met Mr. Khan at his book store the month after Sept 11, 2001. She struck up a friendship, found him ‘interesting’ and pitched the idea of living with his family to write this book. He had no objections. She writes about the family dynamic and the goals and dreams of the ones she has most conversations with – the ones who can speak English but she also puts together the mosaic of all the family members; each chapter is presented as a vignette with an event or a person.
WHAT’s GOOD: Ms Seierstad is a talented journalist – an observer and reporter able to convey the emotions involved AND appropriate distance in what appears to be the daily lives of her subjects, because as she explains in the Foreword, she is “regarded as some sort of bi-gendered creature”. She traveled and ate with the men as well as took part in female-only activities. She was “able to circulate freely between the groups”. THIS was the most fascinating piece overlaying the entire book. I kept wondering how she accomplished it and why they accepted the arrangement.
What’s NOT so good: I have no complaints with the story-telling. Truly, the world these women inhabit is heart-breaking, unless they are lucky? Even the ‘lucky’ ones have zero to little freedom.
Sultan Khan is a business man and he manages to do well despite the politics of who is in power. He has sons. He has two wives. He is in control. We meet his sons – his oldest speaks English but his youngest is made to work in the shops and is NOT sent to school. We do manage to see slices of life that occupy people of any culture – cooking and feasting, weddings and babies, carving a living in an uncertain economy, hopes and dreams. We meet a variety of personalities; we wonder. I wonder. I wonder if people just suck. Why can’t we all just get along?
FINAL THOUGHTS: I felt for Leila. She is/was the capable and bright youngest sister of Sultan who waited hand and foot on the men of the family. Her mother was elderly and her other sister was just … well, we might assume she was of limited capacity, intellectually and physically. Leila was educated and knew English. She had dreams to be a teacher, to have something of her own, an outlet of expression and worth, an opportunity to have some kind of independence.
It is hard to imagine that in the 80s, Afghanistan women lived lives of ambition and movement and fashion. To look at photos then and now, is astonishing. And even as the Taliban was pushed out of power just before the time Seierstad wrote this book (~2002) and thus women were no longer restricted to live their public lives hidden under a burka, they don’t quite feel comfortable without it, for reasons understandable and better explained by this review at Rhapsody in Books. And I really have no idea what might have happened since then and even if it is possible to figure it out. My American privilege and ignorance is showing.
RATING: Four slices of pie-in-the-sky*.
Fascinating, heart-breaking, devastating.
* pie-in-the-sky was the only pie reference I ran across in this text.
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