The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul is an outsider’s perspective on the inside world of an Afghan family. Asne Seierstad lived with a family in Kabul—a bookseller’s family—in the spring of 2002, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This book is not so much about her experiences as about the family she lived with.

The Bookseller offers uniquely intimate descriptions of real-life events and circumstances such as we are unlikely to find elsewhere. In the introduction, the author comments that the family seemed to regard her as a sort of androgynous entity and allowed her entrance into exclusive gatherings of men as well as those of women. Thus, in addition to such accounts as a women’s shopping trip for a new bride’s household necessities and a trip to the public baths, we also glimpse life from the teenage son’s point of view: his unsanctioned outing in a car, ending in lunch at a restaurant, with a female student who ventured into the bookshop; his trip to the shrine of Mazar-i-Sharif, intended to be a sort of pilgrimage to absolve his sins but ultimately anticlimactic in its spiritual quality. Of particular interest to the Western world where bigamy is illegal, is Seierstad’s description of the process by which the father of the family took a second (younger) wife and the ensuing household dynamics.

In the foreword Seierstad tells us she has written the book in “literary form.” That is, she narrates events as if she has witnessed them, or as if they are fictional accounts that she has composed. She acknowledges that: “I am not, of course, an omniscient author. Internal dialogue and feelings are based on what the family members described to me” (xii). Such an approach has its down side. Some of the narratives are based on Seierstad’s own observations, others on third-party description. By describing events with an authorial voice, however, she writes herself out of the narrative, leaving out the conversations in which she received these accounts, as well as the contexts in which these conversations occurred and any factors that might have influenced them. We sometimes forget that what we are reading is a reconstruction, mediated by a Norwegian author.

On the up side, this approach shifts the focus away from the author and onto the Afghans. It is not a travelogue dominated by Seierstad’s internal meditations and experiences but an attempt to introduce us to the daily life of a people most Westerners have seen only through the lens of the war correspondent’s camera.

In the foreword, the author acknowledges that: “I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women. The belief in male superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned” (p. xiii-xiv). Seierstad’s descriptions reveal this indignation, through the details she chooses to emphasize and in the unflinching bleakness with which she conveys the women’s lives: the rather useless and housebound grandmother, for example, or the daughter Leyla, on whom fall the brunt of the household chores. It is tempting to fault Seierstad for her Western bias, but it is widely accepted that true objectivity is a fiction. We can sympathize with many of the author’s reactions, following our own experiences living cross-culturally. We applaud her courage and determination to seek understanding through experience, but hope that readers will keep in mind the Western filter through which we receive her account.

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