Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Bookseller of Kabul

Tonight was the meeting of the Short Book Club, however, since I have suddenly come down with a severe cold, I took pity on my fellow members and decided to spare them the possibility of catching it from me.

So, instead of hearing about the interesting discussion, you will have to make do with my thoughts about the book.

├ůsne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who was in Kabul with the forces of the Northern Alliance as a war correspondent when the rule of the Taliban fell in late 2001. Not long after, in a bookshop, she met Sultan Khan, who had survived as a bookseller for almost thirty years, first under the Communist rule, the Mujahadeen and then the Taliban. He even spent some time in prison under the Taliban regime, as well as several periods in Pakistan, until he returned to Kabul after their fall.

The two became friends and she was invited to his home where she met his family, some of whom could speak English. Recognizing that here was an ordinary Afghani family whose story would make a good book, Seierstad arranged to move in with them for some months. She lived as they did, went where they went and slowly gathered her material for this book as they took her into their confidence. The family were a typical one of Afghanistan in the way that they had to live in the harsh months after the fall of the Taliban. On the other hand, they were literate in a country where three quarters of the people cannot read or write. The account, although factual, is written from their point of view in a fictionalized way and the names of Sultan and his family have been changed.

What emerges is the story of a family ruled totally by the oldest male, Sultan, in a way that seems to leave everyone very unhappy but unable to do anything about it. The whole family lives in a four room flat, a total of 11 people, consisting of Sultan, his second young wife (his first middle aged one lives in Pakistan at the beginning of the story, as a refugee, although she returns to increase the household during the time of the book) and their child in one room, his younger brother and eldest son by his first wife in another room and finally his mother and two sisters, two younger sons and a nephew in a third room.

The lives of the women in this book are portrayed as truly appalling. They are treated in the family as second class citizens, even by the younger male members and life is hard. Leila, Sultan's young 19 year old sister is merely a household slave who longs to escape this life by becoming an English teacher or even marrying, although her mother refuses to let her go.

A bookcase is the only furniture in the house with all activity taking place on the stone floor, covered by mats and cushions. The kitchen has a sink, a gas primus and hotplate on the floor but there is only intermittent electricity and running water. Everywhere the women go they are covered from head to toe by the burka and they are never unaccompanied. Did you know that Muslim women often suffer from Vitamin D deficiency since they are always totally covered outdoors? Towards the end of the book the women begin to leave off the very uncomfortable burka, as freedom from wearing it is obtained at last.

However life for the males in the family ruled by Sultan is no happier. The eldest son works reluctantly in the bookstore, resenting that his life is totally dominated by his father. A younger one works in a kiosk in a hotel, although he really wants to attend school. Sultan has quarreled with one brother and does not acknowledge him, however the rest of the family visit him and his family. The contrast between the bookseller who has striven all these years to keep literacy and free thinking alive and the despot on the home front is astounding.

The back story of Sultan's change from engineering student to bookseller is shown, along with his many tribulations as a bookseller under the different regimes. The casting aside of his first wife Sharifa for a young 16 year old Sonya is detailed with its heartache for all members of the family. But Sultan's word is law and it is done.

The book moves from one family member to another, telling the story from their point of view, showing their hopes, their dreams but mostly their frustrations with their lives under this strict tyrannical family system. We see negotiations for a bride, an engagement party, a wedding, a visit to the hammam or bathhouse, a religious pilgrimage, even the murder of a female relative by her brothers, all through the eyes of one family member or another.

Although I found this an extraordinarily depressing book, in part because of the situation of the women in this repressive society, I do think it is a worthwhile book to read. It gives a very real picture of life in Afghanistan for ordinary people who are trying to live their lives, according to their faith, in a land that has been mired in conflict for so many years and still continues that way. Indeed, it is a truly remarkable book and I can highly recommend it.

It's no surprise that Sultan Khan, Shah Mohammed Rais in real life, has published his own version of the story in Once upon a Time there was a Bookseller in Kabul, for he was very angry indeed about the family's portrayal in Seierstad's book. He has attempted to sue her for invasion and violation of his privacy, as well as damage to his reputation, in the Oslo courts. 'It is defamation of me, my family and my nation,' he raged. Since the book was issued in Afghanistan he believes his family is endangered and has tried to seek asylum in Norway. All in all, the aftermath of the publication of the original book is an interesting ongoing saga in itself.

I wonder what the thoughts of the other members of the Short Book Club were regarding this book and what they have chosen to read for next time.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I have read this book and, like you, was horrified at the lives of the women. I can understand how the Bookseller felt betrayed by its publication - after all, he did offer Seirstadt hospitality. I have also read her book on Iraq.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

PS: I meant to say get well soon, jmb!

Lord Jerk-Higham said...

Great compendium of feminist literature you present, JMB. Is there any male literature you like at all? concerned with non-female issues, I mean. :)

Janice Thomson said...

I think the man was a despot - you mention how badly the men were treated too. However it is a well-known fact that a lot of Arabic women are treated poorly. The average life-span of an Afghan woman is 44. How awfully sad.
Hope you are well soon Jmb.

Political Umpire said...

Superb post. And get well soon!

Political Umpire said...

BTW Janice Thomson - the average life expectancy for a male in Zimbabwe is 36 ...

Carver said...

I haven't read that book yet but it sounds interesting. I read the Kite Runner this summer which was depressing but an interesting look at a family from Afghanistan. Although the Kite Runner was fiction, the author was from Afghanistan. It would be interesting to me to read the Norwegian journalist's book about a family who stayed in Afghanistan as opposed to the fictional book about the family that left which was written by someone originally from the region. I need to start a list of books you write about because they look interesting but I forget. Then again, that's the good thing about a blog that discusses books, when I'm caught up on my to read pile of books which are currently stacked up, I can look for your posts about books I am intrigued by. I hope you feel better soon.

Ellee Seymour said...

You have reminded me that I need to update the books I am reading on my blogroll. I have just bought the letters of Ted Hughes which shows he was not such a villain.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

Families seem pretty much the same everywhere. :)

I think its harder though in those cultures- people can't get away so easy. Here, our culture makes it easy to fly the nest painlessly

jmb said...

Hi Welshcakes, it certainly was a dilemma for this book made this woman a fortune and the family was not treated kindly by the author. I should check out her book on Iraq.

Hi James,
Do you think all books written by women are feminist literature? Do you have recommendations for male lit? :)

Hi Janice
It was depressing all around how everyone seemed dissatisfied with their lives. Yes life is hard for women there and they are worn out by childbirth too.

Hi PU,
Thank you and I'm am getting better I think. Another country with low life expectancy, women no doubt even lower than men.

Hi Carver,
I liked the Kite Runner but if you recall there were no women in their household in Afghanistan so we did not see how their lives were. Thanks for the good wishes.

Hi Ellee,
Did you finish Anna Politkovskaya's book? You must tell us what you think of Ted after you have read the book.

Hi Crushed,
Well does that make you feel better about your family? Imagine 11 people in 4 rooms, under the thumb of one person, male and female all. Life sure was harsh.

Some fly the nest easily but in Italy the males tend to stay at home till they marry and are totally spoiled by their mothers. They even have a word for it, Mammismo.

Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Ellee said...

Yes, I did finish the book, it highlighted reports about people in Russia being badly treated. I'm sure it still happens if you don't toe the line.