Sultan Khan is the head of a prosperous Kabul family. A bookseller by trade, he has seen his books burnt by one regime, defaced by another, then burnt again. As the Taliban regime falls in 2001, he meets Norwegian war correspondent, Seierstad. They agree that Seierstad should live with his family for several months. This book is the stunning result.
It reads like fiction -- penetrating, prejudicial and convincing but, although names have been changed, it is an honest, warts and all, account of life in Kabul. Khan, seemingly urbane, educated and liberal, is the tyrannical head of large family – mother, siblings, two wives and five children. Khan’s subjugation of the women in his family is shocking from a Western point of view: As Seierstad moves into his home, Khan takes a second wife, a sexy, uneducated sixteen-year-old, dishonouring and cutting to the quick his loyal and educated first wife: his youngest sister is treated as little more than a slave. And it is this that is the meat of the book; the personal power struggles that exist within the family – struggles which Khan will always win.
The shocking portrait of women’s lives, even under the liberalising regime of Afghan leader Karzai, is frightening, repulsive even from a western perspective, but there is nothing here to suggest that Khan is anything other than a typical head of the family. His mother, sisters, wives and daughters, seem to lose identity under the burqa, which hides not only their femininity and personality, but also their imaginations. Not here will you find justification of the regime: these women resent, in different ways, their position. Nor do the other men of the family fair much better: Khan’s 19 year old, sexually frustrated, son learns from a friend how to exploit helpless, penniless war widows, safe in the knowledge that if he caught, it will be the women who are condemned: but he too resents Khan’s iron fist, particular when it falls on a wretched carpenter who steals postcards. Khan, driven by his sense of honour, insists on full punishment, despite the fact that this will make the carpenter’s family destitute. Khan’s youngest son is forced to work 12 hours a day selling sweets in a hotel foyer when he would rather be a school, something which Khan could easily afford.
Seierstad clearly feels for the women, but also for the country: the sense of what Afghanistan was – a prosperous, beautiful land– what it became through years of strife, conflict and war, and what it could be, pervade every chapter.
No doubt this book will nestle against numerous Afghanistan travelogues in the bookshops but don’t be fooled. Reading it is a unique experience. Some will see Seierstad’s expose as disrespectable to Khan, to women, to Afghanistan and to Islam. Perhaps it is. But it nonetheless provides a unique insight into a country that has so long been closed to western eyes.