Book Review: The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

Åsne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who has reported on events in Russia and China and written books on the things she witnessed like the American bombing of Baghdad. I find her personal life fascinating, there is a little 'about the author' blurb inside the book and she sounds like a very interesting person who has seen a lot. I am very interested in reading her other books. 

In 2002, after the Taliban left Kabul. Åsne Seierstad travelled to Kabul and spent four months with the bookseller and his family. She travelled around Afghanistan and even to Pakistan where one of the bookseller's wives (he has two) lived for a period of time with her daughter. 

The bookseller (named Sultan in the book) is quite a successful man, owning a few shops where he sells his books and employs his sons. He even sold books during the reign of the Taliban, illegally of course as books (except the Quran) were forbidden as most either contained pictures or contained subject matter the Taliban did not see as appropriate. It was a very difficult time to be a bookseller and Sultan was arrested many times. He hid books in is home both in Kabul and Pakistan and he ordered many books from Tehran (Iran) and other outside sources, before he 'smuggles' (at least during the Taliban) them into Afghanistan. You get a glimpse of what life was like under the Taliban for many people, as men too faced many restrictions. 

While Sultan seems like quite the liberal man, he runs a strict patriarchal household. Being the oldest child, his mother and sisters live with him, brothers who do not respect him move out and the other brothers along with his sons and nephews are expected to work in the bookshops. There is money to send some to school, but ultimately Sultan wants his sons to take over the business one day. The women, are the keepers of the house. While the burka is no longer enforced, most of them still continue to wear it when they leave the house, which is rare. The younger girls have never known anything but the burka and so they feel more comfortable wearing it. 

What I found interesting is that it is the women who consult with families and set up the marriages, which Seierstad shows in this book. The mother and a few sisters will talk with the mother of the other family and lay the ground work for a possible engagement, in the end the men talk money and prospects and decide. I really like how Seierstad was able to observe that as it taught me something new about the Afghan culture. 

I really enjoyed this book, I think it gave a really interesting portrayal of day to day life in Afghanistan and Seierstad was able to capture the life of both the men and women equally and in great detail. 

As I mentioned, it is quite a large family and so sometimes it was a bit difficult to remember who was who. I think I kept getting the mother and one of the sisters mixed up because they had quite similar names. I think Seierstad does her best with trying to keep it simplified but as this is a real family and families tend to be complicated and sometimes chaotic it wouldn't feel accurate if it wasn't written that way. 

Let me know your thoughts below! Have you read any of her other books?

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