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The Bookseller of Kabul
All in the family
By Steven Martinovich
In many ways Sultan Khan could be considered a hero of Afghanistan. He is liberal and moderate in a nation where those labels are rarely used. For decades he has operated several bookstores in Kabul that offer books on every conceivable subject and from every political and religious perspective and has managed that feat during some very unfriendly times. As he states, "First the Communists burnt my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burnt them all over again." Khan is an urbane man who is in love with books and the knowledge they offer.
Yet as Åsne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul illustrates, Khan is also very much a man of his traditional culture with all that implies. In Afghanistan, the father of the family reigns supreme and the role of women is usually limited to maintaining a silent and servile presence in the home. The same man who secreted thousands of books across Kabul to protect them from the Taliban's morality police is the same who runs his family as a pool of workers for his shops and demands a subordinate role for women, fit only to be given away in marriage.
Seierstad, who earlier this year covered the war in Iraq in Baghdad, was with the Northern Alliance as it swept into Kabul as a unit in the American-led war in Afghanistan. After meeting Khan, whose real name is Mohammed Shah Rais, she convinced him to allow her to move in with his family and tell their story. What emerged was a real life account written in a literary format that leaves the reader despondent over the fact that the liberalization of Afghanistan is likely to leave untouched the lives of millions of women.
Khan's family is a large one with his decaying apartment home to his young second wife -- the first spends much of the book depressed in Pakistan where Khan has business interests -- children, mother, brothers and sisters. Thanks to Khan's success as a businessman he is able to support them in a style that passes for middle class in Afghanistan. That fact allows Khan to serve not only as the patriarch but also to dominate his family and essentially dictate the path of their lives. The men of the family work long hours in his shops and the women largely wait until a marriage can be arranged for them.
Seierstad uses the family as a framework to explore the tortured history of Afghanistan, today's chaotic political climate and the relationship between men and women in a Muslim nation. The reader is taken from Kabul into the dangerous countryside on a religious pilgrimage to life among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Seierstad relates the uncertainty of a nation recently freed from its religious overlords, unsure whether to enter modernity or embrace what it believes is its past. She paints an incredibly vivid picture of a nation that many of us have already forgotten about just a few years after the war against terrorism forced it back into our consciousness.
The real strength of The Bookseller of Kabul is, however, her exploration of the relationship between men and women. Perhaps the character that most embodies the sad story of many women is the 19-year old sister of Khan named Leila, a woman whose spirit is slowly being crushed and suffocated by family life. She is a woman who has never known what it was like to be alone and who wants to escape the slavery of her life. Her only path to freedom, she believes, is to become an English teacher in one of Kabul's recently re-opened schools but she is frustrated at every turn.
It's doubtless that some skeptics will question whether Seierstad had other motives than to simply tell the story of one family. Although she clearly admires Khan, he and most of the other men come across very poorly, something that many will likely blame on Seierstad's strong feminist beliefs. Others might question much of the dialogue that she reconstructs for her narrative, its accuracy and whether those conversations were massaged to make her point. Despite that, Seierstad's searing look at Afghan society will likely open the eyes of many who took the liberation of Afghanistan to mean that freedom was now available to every Afghan. The Bookseller of Kabul is an uncomfortably powerful portrait of a family and how the nation is defined by the institution.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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