I’ve just finished reading The Bookseller of Kabul and my head is exploding.
The Bookseller of Kabul falls into the category of non-fiction literature and it’s an account of life of a very unique Afghan family, whose main character is Sultan Khan. He is a man who devoted his life to books and ran a bookselling business in Kabul. Shortly after the Al-Qaida terrorists attacked WTC in September 2001, a lot of journalists from many countries went to Afghanistan on a hunt of uneasy stories.
Asne Seierstad was one of those journalists. She comes from Norway and had a lot of luck to be invited to live for four months with the family of Sultan and observe their daily habits. As she states at the beginning of her book, she merely described what she saw or what she heard from other family members. I was curious to find out more information about this book and I discovered that Asne was persecuted by the Sultan for defamation and negligent approach to journalism. Although she won this case, Sultan wrote his own, “true” account of events.
The Bookseller of Kabul is very black and white. If you don’t know any Muslims, if you think they are responsive for all the terrorist attacks in the world, if you consider Islam to be the worst religion ever that makes lives of women miserable and unbearable, don’t read this book. It will make you hate Muslims even more, it will make you detest Islam.
Why? The controversy about The Bookseller of Kabul
There are plenty of very vivid descriptions of violence exerted on women. One teenage girl meets a boy in a park and they just sit. She is so nervous, they barely talk. Still, this throws her into huge trouble, because she has been noticed by a family member. Her brothers and her father beat her up almost to death and then force into marriage.
There is another woman who “commits” a similar “crime” and, after heavy beating, several days of isolation and extreme humiliation, she is suffocated by her brothers, following the approval of her mother. The family’s honour is saved. Thank God.
Sultan, describing himself as a man of literature and a liberal, treats his wife like a “fuck-clean-cook” object. As soon as she becomes too unattractive for him, Sultan, a 50-year old man, gets himself a teenage wife. She is something between 12-15 years old. We call it paedophilia, they call it Allah’s will.
Cruelty induced by stupidity
The overwhelming majority of Afghan population can neither read nor write. The only field they know something of, is Islam. However, it is not knowledge and understanding you take from studying Quran, but from what other people say and do. Consequently, under the Taliban occupation, this was not a religion of love and respect, but of measuring beards, wearing the exact type of clothes, keeping ALL the women at homes and forbidding them from working. However, it wasn’t that bad at other times.
The worst is that all kinds of cruelty exerted on other people were justified for the sake of religion and being chosen by Allah. It also meant unwillingness and inability to communicate in a civilised way. There is a fragment in the book, where one of the Afghan soldiers says that they can’t read or write, but they can use all types of guns with their eyes closed.
There are also plenty of other interesting stories giving an insight into how life in Afghanistan at that time was.
To read or not to read The Bookseller of Kabul?
However, this book cannot be taken at face value and I’m glad that you have stayed with me until now. I think it’s good to read this book, but I think it would be disastrous not to be critical of it.
Because it is a subjective interpretation of events rather than a fact-based report.
This book does not give credit to any shades. It’s either black or white and the author takes liberty to speak through the mouths of her characters as if she knew what they felt and thought.
Moreover, The Bookseller of Kabul has been written from the perspective of a Norwegian educated woman who has no idea what happens in the heads of uneducated, Afghan woman who would probably go crazy in Norway. Just like Asne went crazy in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the author depicts many scenes and events as if she had witnessed them, which was technically not possible. She heard someone else’s stories and wrote them down. The hitch is that only three people in her company spoke very basic English. This leaves a large room for her free interpretation.
Apart from that, she also wrote what members of this family thought. In fact, she wrote what SHE thought herself and put it in the mouths and heads of her characters, which presented their reality as utterly unbearable. She couldn’t have known what Sultan’s wives were thinking, she could only make guesses based on her Norwegian perspective. Although I believe the lives of Afghan women are miserable, I also think they perceive this in a different way than we do.
My final thought on The Bookseller of Kabul is that it should not be treated as non-fiction, because it’s based partly on facts and partly on the author’s imagination and interpretation. Asne – a representative of one of the most developed countries with the highest gender-equality, described her perspective on the reality of 2001 Afghanistan. But yes, you should read it and come to your own conclusions.
Anyone of you has read it and has other opinions? I’m curious to read them.