Saturday, July 16, 2005

Book Review: The Book Seller of Kabul by Asne Seirestad

Asne Seirestad, a Norwegian journalist, makes friends with Sultan Khan (not his real name) who owns a bookshop in the Hotel Kabul Intercontinental. Sultan Khan is a brave man who hid 1000's of his old books and manuscripts that the Taleban had insisted on destroying. Now that the Taleban have left he is making great efforts to display them and have people read them. Asne Seirestad, sensing an opportunity to observe a real Afghan family up close (although she admits they weren't a typical Afghan family), asked Sultan if she could stay with his family for a season and write a book on the experience. Sultan agreed and that is how "Bookseller of Kabul" came to be.

After you read the book you come away with the feeling that life has been so unfair to the people of Afghanistan, but even more unfair to the poor women. Most of them slave for their families from dawn to dusk and have no voice. The men trample all over them and when they reach middle age,many are humiliated by their husband taking a younger wife (Sultan married a 16-year old when he and his wife were in their 50's). But even worse than being a wife in Afghanistan is to be a widow, but Asne doesn't explore that in her book.

Anyway, Asne is a Western woman and there has been criticism that she viewed the Afghan family through Western eyes and as a result, has painted their gender and social politics unfairly because of her limited understanding of the complexities of Afghan society. After all, does a Western woman, privileged, glamorous, have the right to hold a Third World family up to her own values and find it wanting?

For instance, this is what Asne had to say about wearing a burkha:

It was, she says, a dismal business. She quickly learned to loathe her burka. “How it pinches the head and causes headaches, how difficult it is to see anything through the grille. How enclosed it is, how little air gets in, how quickly you start to perspire, how all the time you have to be aware of where you are walking because you cannot see your feet, what a lot of dirt it picks up, how dirty it is, how much in the way. How liberated you feel when you get home and can take it off.”

But many women in Afghanistan appreciate the burkha for the privacy it provides them, especially in a culture where women don't like to make eye-contact with men they don't know. It also makes them feel safer.

Sultan Khan has since sued her, but because the lawsuit didn't amount to much,he has decided to write his own book with an unflattering chapter on Asne.

Summary/Review from "World and I"The Tenacity of Custom

All in all, there is clearly plenty of material with the capacity to inform and provoke, but the book is undermined by one massive, fundamental problem. It is not quite clear how much of it is true, nor how many of the events described were actually witnessed by the author seeing that she did not understand the Persian dialect that the Khan family spoke and that she lived there for only three months.

What I liked about the book, however, were her often detailed descriptions of the Taleban regime and her interesting commentary on Afghanistan's geo-politcal history.

Seierstad reminds us that when the Taliban rolled into Kabul in September 1996 they set about installing a regime based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. They banned everything that seemed vaguely unKoranic: exposed female flesh, all music, shaving, pigeon racing, drug taking, kite flying, gambling, long hair for men, washing clothes by the river, drum playing and manufacturing female garments.

All pictures and portraits had to be removed, money lenders were forbidden from charging interest, witchcraft and magic was forbidden. Women were ordered to stay at home and leave it only if they absolutely had to. No work, university or school for them. If they wore 'fashionable' clothes they were promised an afterlife in Hell. The Taliban even had it in for women’s shoes. White was banned because that was the colour of the Taliban flag; solid heels were banned because their sound might 'distract' men and inflame their lust.

To surmise, the book lies somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. I liked the parts that could be corroborated by historical facts, but when she talks about the family and what she 'presumes' are their thoughts and opinions about certain things, it makes me uncomfortable, because I have no way of knowing how much of a literary license she has taken with that kind of thing.